Is China’s Government Overrated?

As part of a special report on “the future of the state”, The Economist responds to the increasingly widespread view that “Beijing really gets things done”, pointing out areas like education and local government financing and accountability in which serious deficiencies remain.

All this points to the sheer unresponsiveness of much of China’s government. It may be fairly easy for the boss of a large Western multinational to see a senior state official, but for a Chinese citizen merely getting a few minutes with a lowly bureaucrat is an ordeal: he needs to fight his way past several offices, guards and indifferent assistants intended to keep him out.

And the local satraps are not that much more responsive to Beijing either. The central government has the clout to compel bureaucrats to act quickly on issues of national importance such as foreign investment or responding to emergencies like the SARS epidemic; but on plenty of other issues the local government ignores them.

For the clever young technocrats at the top, the medium-term prospects for the Chinese state must be quite frightening. The country needs to find a more secure way of financing local government. It must improve its current rudimentary health-care coverage, not least to cope with the ageing population that is the legacy of its one-child policy. Above all there are the demands of its increasingly affluent citizens. Most of them are well over half-way towards the income level of around $12,000 a year (at purchasing-power parity) which elsewhere in emerging Asia, notably Taiwan and South Korea, resulted in demands for greater political freedom and proper government services.

The issue of local authorities’ variable obedience arose in another Economist article, on the government’s new prioritisation of happiness over raw economic growth:

The idea of promoting happiness spread over the country like a huge grin early this year when provincial governments began laying out their own five-year plans. Guangdong province declared it would become “happy Guangdong”. Beijing (which is a province-level administration) said it wanted its citizens to lead “happy and glorious lives”. Chongqing municipality, another province-level area, said it wanted its people to be among the happiest in the country. Officials now often talk of setting up “happiness indices” by which government performance should be judged.

The word’s popularity among bureaucrats is more an attempt to please leaders in Beijing and show sympathy for the less well-off than a sign of any real determination to change their ways. Many lower-level governments have continued to set investment-driven GDP-growth targets that are far higher than Mr Wen’s. Some of his goals, such as building another 36m subsidised homes by 2015, will require the co-operation of local governments. They are adept at evading such tasks.

The special report also looks at Singapore which, it says, “is important to any study of government just now, both in the West and in Asia.”

The Chinese are fascinated by it. “There is good social order in Singapore,” Deng Xiaoping observed in 1992. “We should draw from their experience, and do even better than them.” It sends streams of bureaucrats to visit Singapore. One of the first things that Xi Jinping did after being anointed in 2010 as China’s next leader was to drop in (again) on Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s minister-mentor, who ran the island from 1959 to 1990, and his son, Lee Hsien Loong, who has been prime minister since 2004. The Chinese are looking at other places, too—most obviously Hong Kong, another small-government haven. But it is hard to think of any rich-country leader whom China treats with as much respect as the older Mr Lee.

So what lessons are the Chinese learning? There is an odd imbalance between the things that Singapore and others make so much noise about and the reasons why the place works. In particular, the “Asian values” bits of Singapore—its authoritarianism and its industrial policy—that the Chinese seem to find especially congenial are less vital to its success than two more humdrum virtues: a good civil service and a competitively small state.

March 17, 2011 10:12 PM
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