China’s Four Reform Futures

In 2012, the liberal sociologist Sun Liping argued that the social strains of China’s embrace of extreme capitalism were starting to show. For Sun, a reform advocate, China was in danger of falling into a “transition trap” in which institutional reform grinds to a halt and vested interests solidify their power.

This week, Sun reposted his article on his WeChat account. It was summarily removed by China’s censors (they weren’t too pleased with his ideas before, either). Fortunately, I forgot to close the tab once I had it open: my natural inability to keep my browser under 100 tabs at any moment is a natural loophole to China’s censorship apparatus.

Sun offers four possible directions in which China can go: return to the past, try to make the best of the current reforms, protect the status quo, or pursue a new reform path prioritizing equality rather than the overzealous pursuit of profit. And despite obvious political institutional difference, the four reform paths that Sun proposes for China are similar to those facing the United States as it faces the need to rebuild public trust in institutions and reduce vast inequalities.

One: At some level, return to the old system
The sentiment underlying the need to “Make America Great Again” would resonate with a growing number of today’s Chinese, who feel like they are falling behind while society leaps forward without moral stewardship. Every year, China is rocked by scandals in which companies insert something toxic into their products to save a few dollars; at the same time, while some people safely climb the ladder of the new economy into China’s emerging middle class, others work tirelessly, only to face wage arrears, lack of retirement benefits, and unaffordable health bills.

A couple of years ago, I attended an informal lecture that proposed an alternative history of the Cultural Revolution. The ruthless campaign that destroyed thousands of years of Chinese intellectual heritage—not to mention families, communities, and even individual lives—was, they argued, a time of unprecedented social coherence. The speakers were frustrated by China’s endless pursuit of profit at the expense of all else; at least during the Cultural Revolution there was an idea of public consensus, even if it was targeted at the wrong places. For those fed up with the moral perversity of today’s society, the past offers a refuge, no matter how wrong-headed it may seem to the outside observer.

“Although there was a short period of equalization, as reform deepened — especially after restructuring of state-owned enterprises in the 1990s—the disadvantageous position of those at the bottom rungs of society became even clearer…Therefore, some people look back for hope, and this is natural,” writes Sun. He cites Bo Xilai’s Chongqing model, in which a re-embrace of a strong, centralized Communist past was embraced due to public dissatisfaction about corruption and social polarization. Despite its obvious flaws, Sun writes, we should not overlook how “the Chongqing model positively responded to these very real problems.”

For most people, the horrors of China’s recent history are enough to dispel any further turn toward the past. But if nothing changes, Sun argues, and the struggles of the new wave of “little white collar” (xiao bai ling) service workers continue to grow, the appeal of the past may continue to strengthen.

Two: Continue with the reform path of the last 30 years
Nearly every Chinese policy document contains the words “deepening reform,” and there is a Deepening Reform Leadership Group mapping policy direction at the highest level of the government. But if deepening reform means not going back to the past, what does it say about going forward? The current reform path is “ambiguous and vague,” Sun argues:

To say this path is ambiguous and vague has two meanings. First, in the process of reform, except for an extremely short period, there has always been a lack of a clear and transport discussion of the reform environment. Many important questions can only be talked about in vague and indirect language, or even “don’t talk about it, just do it.” Second, the later stages of reform have become a process of only reforming what is able to be reformed. For things that cannot be reformed, you should just find a path around them; or, sometimes, it even becomes a situation in which you selectively reform only the things that benefit you personally. There is still consensus around the basic idea of market reform, which is consistent with the overall direction of human civilization. But we can also see that this idea is tilted toward an evil extreme of modern mainstream civilization: promoting an extreme Darwinist version of survival of the fittest. In mainstream ideology, this idea replaces socialism with the development of productivity, and avoids many very valuable factors of civilization. The result is that tossing aside a glorified ideology evolved into a single-minded pursuit of profits; the rejection of absolute equality has evolved into a justification for excessive inequality between rich and poor; an effective pursuit of efficiency evolved into a reason to harm justice and fairness; and the reform path to utilitarianism became a synonym for doing whatever it takes, fair or not, to achieve an ends. In the past 30 years, this reform method has successfully pushed China forward and separated it from the old system. Yet it has also brought huge amounts of abuses, and people’s support for reform continues to decline.

Simply deepening reform is insufficient, Sun says, because the current direction has already lost public support.

Three: Standardize the existing system and preserve the status quo
Reform can represent progress or regress. The beneficiaries of the current system in particular want to preserve the status quo: not only do they not want to tweak around the edges with “deepening reform,” they want to keep things as static as possible. For property developers, Sun writes, “whether reform moves us forward or backward, the best option is to stop right here.”

Sun introduces his idea of the “transitional trap,” in which vested interests ossify the system to protect their current position. Rather than continue to open up toward a more marketized economy and a more rule of law-oriented judicial system, the path to progress could stall at the hands of vested interests who want to stabilize and normalize the way things are now. “The real reason behind many of the problems in today’s society is this ‘transition trap’,” says Sun.

The problem is not just that vested interests want to protect their interests, but that the problems of the transitional trap can compound each other. Trying to push forward reforms that avoid existing institutional interests will create new problems, which will in turn lead to even greater problems. It is similar to the idea of the American kludgeocracy, in which small, indirect policies agglomerate into horribly complex mechanisms rather than simple, direct reforms; in China, as Sun notes, the accumulation of reforms beset by vested interests will make further reform more difficult. “One mistake requires ten mistakes to cover it up; and ten mistakes need 100 mistakes to cover them up. The end result is that the necessary path becomes narrower and narrower.”

Four: choosing a new reform path that brings together equality and universal values
The flaws of the existing reform path and the acceptance of pure profit-driven development are now corroding public “consensus” for the idea of reform itself, jeopardizing China’s path toward continued progress. What is needed, Sun says, is a new reform path predicated on equality and liberalism. Such a direction is the only one that will rebuild public consensus in the idea of reform and continue to push China toward what Sun sees as a better, fairer society.

China’s government often adds the prefix “people-centered” (yi ren wei ben or yi ren wei zhongxin) to all kinds of policy proposals, implying that the existing policy apparatus must actively work to put people in front of profits, political ideology, stability, or other goals. (In China, when a slogan needs to be endlessly flogged, it suggests the opposite is currently true.) The negative side effects of China’s state capitalism relate to the inability of the existing system to consider the needs or wants of people themselves. Only a move toward equality, Sun argues, would fit a true “people-centered” agenda. An equality-oriented agenda would also bridge the gap between Left and Right, he says: Chinese society has become more polarized, but reforms focused on equality can form a basic consensus between people on either side of the political spectrum.

Polarization, inequality, and distrust in the power of positive reform: in a different context, it could easily be a debate about contemporary American politics. China’s political system looks very different than that of the US, but the social problems Sun identifies are not far off from those in the United States. The U.S. has entered a period where reforms must move toward equality; leading Chinese liberals, too, feel that they should not be far behind.