Slowing economy won’t alter Xi’s ‘China Dream’

By Reuters

Apr 19, 2015 02:43 AM EDT

China's gross domestic product growth has slowed to 7 percent, it was announced this week. That's somewhat anaemic when compared to what the world has come to expect from the second-largest economy.

Its exports have dipped even more sharply. That's partly because the genuinely anaemic economies of Europe are importing less, and partly because China's domestic consumption has risen, now accounting for more of GDP than exports.

That's part of the plan: Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli told the China Development Forum last month that the old growth model "featuring high input, high energy consumption and over-dependence on external demand is no longer sustainable."

Zhang speaks from a position of great authority, he is a Politburo member, after all. Though China's huge growth is largely because, for the past three decades, it's gone capitalist - read "socialism with Chinese characteristics" - its Communist Party, and the Politburo, still remain in charge. President Xi Jinping, whose power is formally - and likely in practice - greater than any Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, is proof of the institution's strength.

But no one, including Xi, knows if China can manage the economic problems ahead of it - a slowing economy, possible housing bubble, overhanging debt - without prompting a bad old capitalist slump. What Xi does know, and what is an increasing feature of his rule, is that China will do it his way, which is not, read NOT, the Western way.

He's been pushing a new phrase - the Chinese Dream - which he thinks his people should believe in because it's based on "three confidences": in socialism with Chinese characteristics; in the current political system and in the road China is now following. All three seem to mean, in differing ways, the Chinese Communist Party.

The road the party followed for most of Mao's leadership, from the establishment of the Peoples' Republic in 1949, to his death in 1976, put the Great Helmsman high, if not on top, of the league of 20th century bloody dictators. His great leaps, Cultural Revolutions, party purges and encouragement of youthful murderous thuggery producing tens of millions of victims. Xi's own father, Xi Zhongxun, high in the Communist leadership, was purged and imprisoned in the 1960s, during the Cultural Revolution. Xi was sent to perform rural labor, saw his father broken - yet joined the party, got an education and rose quickly.

A modern Western mindset would see such a history, with repression visited on both father and son, as causing lifelong bitterness, a turning away from the institution responsible for such treatment. But that's the Western mindset. It's Xi's great task to make clear to his people that such judgments have no place in China.

Xi's example plays well to the very large constituency in the country who wish to see China as great - even the greatest nation - in the world, and were taught to resent its humiliations in the 19th and early 20th centuries at the hands of the British, the French and the Japanese. That resentment was used ruthlessly by Mao and his early comrades to rally the nation, then largely discarded by the great reformer Deng Xiaoping, who put China on the capitalist road. It's back, in a less bloody form, under Xi.

He can proclaim China's dream with confidence (or with three confidences) because the country's growth has been so startlingly impressive. Pro-Xi commentators (that is, nearly all commentators) love to quote part of a 2008 column by the New York Times'  Thomas Freidman, that mused "the rich parts of China, the modern parts of Beijing or Shanghai or Dalian, are now more state-of-the art than rich America. The buildings are architecturally more interesting, the wireless networks more sophisticated, the roads and trains more efficient and nicer. And ... they did not get all this by discovering oil. They got it by digging inside themselves."

The sheer scale of the modernization, and its speed, hasn't just awed and frightened Westerners (will the 21st be China's century? What will that mean?). It's got some thinking that Western democracy, challenged by gridlock, public apathy or hostility almost everywhere, is no longer fit for purpose. While China's authoritarian bullet train to the future is.

One commentator who most clearly expresses the new China's self-confidence, Eric X. Li,wrote that Xi's coming to power in 2012 "might one day be seen as marking the end of the idea that electoral democracy is the only legitimate and effective system of political governance ... China's political model will never supplant electoral democracy because, unlike the latter, it does not pretend to be universal. It cannot be exported. But its success does show that many systems of political governance can work when they are congruent with a country's culture and history."

The Western mindset (again) says that choice of government, personal freedoms, rule of law and a strong civil society are universal values, desired by all once grinding poverty is overcome and horizons can be lifted. That is, democracy is not just Western, but universal - human.

China is the test bed for this view, which has long been backed by the most powerful nations and alliances in the world. Now, as the prominent commentator Weiwei Zhang puts it, "the world is... witnessing a wave of change from a vertical world order, in which the West is above the rest in both wealth and ideas, to a more horizontal order, in which the rest, notably China, will be on a par with the West in both wealth and ideas."

A more horizontal order is a more level playing field, and the competition there is as serious a contest as the West can imagine.

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