Demonstrators sport colonial Hong Kong flags during a protest against what they call Beijing's interference in local politics and the rule of law. Photo: Tyrone Siu, Reuters
Demonstrators sport colonial Hong Kong flags during a protest against what they call Beijing's interference in local politics and the rule of law. Photo: Tyrone Siu, Reuters

Some politicians in the West, Japan and India continue to fan anti-China rhetoric, labeling it “aggressive”, “deceitful”, “oppressive”, “uncivilized”, “mercantilist”, and other expletives. But an examination of China’s history and economic and geopolitical policies shows that the country has done far less harm than many of its accusers have.

Unlike the West, China did not colonize the countries in Southeast Asia, Africa and the Middle East to which its naval fleets traveled between the 12th and early 15th centuries. Unlike Japan, China did not invade its neighbors and force the conquered nations’ women to be sex slaves for its soldiers or commit barbaric atrocities against the general population. Unlike the United States, China did not surround itself with military bases in other countries.

China did not write the rules for the post-World War II economic and geopolitical orders that favored the West in general and the US in particular.

China’s mistakes allowed European colonization

Between the 12th and 15th centuries, China mastered the art of ocean-going navigation, making expeditions as far away as Africa and the Red Sea. Some historians even suggest that Chinese seafarers might have visited the Americas. Large numbers of soldiers or ex-servicemen were deployed in the expeditions, affording China the opportunity to colonize and enslave the lands and peoples its armadas visited had they wanted to. Instead, China turned isolationist, banning all seafaring expeditions and wanting nothing to do with the outside world.

China’s dynastic rule was the root cause of its decline into backwardness and poverty. The first and second emperors were benevolent, but the third and subsequent ones were mostly incompetent, corrupt and self-serving, spending lavishly on their decadent lifestyles and funerals and ruthlessly suppressing dissent. Not looking after the interests of the country and people culminated in the loss of community spirit and in regional division.

The “playboy” emperors also banned innovation and imposed isolation on the country, which culminated in centuries of backwardness, poverty, internal chaos, foreign invasion and humiliation.

The ban of seafaring expeditions in the early 15th century made European and Japanese colonization of Asia possible. Before the European maritime powers mastered shipbuilding and navigation, China had sent more than 100 ships to Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean, Africa and the Middle East. But then the third Ming Emperor burned ocean-going ships, banned maritime expeditions and disallowed innovation in order to keep his lineage in power.

Because the emperors disengaged themselves from running the country and involvement in state affairs, official corruption became rampant. For example, European and Japanese imperialists were able conquer China largely because of corrupt Qing officials.

The majority of Chinese did not care who governed them as long as their rulers provided them with a stable environment in which to earn a living and an opportunity to become rich. The British recognized and took advantage of China’s internal divisions and people’s lack of patriotism, which was why Britain was able to rule Hong Kong for more than 150 years without universal suffrage.

Many in Hong Kong today would prefer non-democratic British colonial rule to authoritarian governance by mainland China. But it could be argued that Hong Kong is freer now than when it was under British rule. Many people in Hong Kong believe the British would never have allowed Occupy Central or the Umbrella Movement to take root.

That said, the Chinese have sometimes rallied to defeat brutal and uncaring rulers. The Mongols, Manchus and Japanese were driven out of the country because of the atrocities they committed against the Chinese people.

Western-style democracy and China

Western-style democracy was never demanded or pursued by the vast majority of the Chinese people. One reason is that they have never experienced it or do not know what it is.

For example, someone once asked Martin Lee – whom some had labeled as a “traitor” or “running dog lackey” because he championed British colonial rule but traveled around the world to denounce Chinese dictatorship when Hong Kong returned to China – if democracy could give him a job. In another example, in a village election in southern China, people questioned the merit of universal suffrage, complaining that secret ballots might be rigged.

Another reason is that most Chinese see democracy as dysfunctional and protecting the interests of the well-organized and those connected to the political establishment.

What is demanded and desired by the Chinese is a stable environment in which people can improve their living standards and exercise their entrepreneurial spirit. To that end, the Communist government has succeeded, which explains why it has the support of more than 80% of the people, according to the US-based Pew International Opinion Poll.

China under Communist rule

To be sure, China’s Communist rulers have not been perfect. Indeed, they have made many mistakes and created huge problems.

Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward movement caused massive starvation and huge waste of resources because that policy was not well thought out. The Cultural Revolution almost turned into a civil war because Mao and his supporters were determined to hang on to power and carried a continuous class struggle.

Later on, over-investment and excessive dependency on exports resulted in unsustainable economic growth. Quantity-over-quality economic growth culminated in China being the most polluted nation on Earth, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and costing the nation more than 2% of its gross domestic product every year.

Transforming from central planning to a market economy has resulted in increasingly unequal income distribution. Lack of accountability has led to rampant corruption and abuse of official power.

However, the leaders from Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping appeared to recognize the problems they had created and were determined to address them. Mao was aware of the damage his Great Leap Forward had caused, stepping down and allowing Liu Shaoqi, the No 2 man in charge, to take over the government and stimulate recovery in 1960.

Deng Xiaoping recognized that to gain popular support, the government must improve people’s livelihoods, prompting him to reform China’s economic system from central planning to a market economy and governance from strong-leader rule to collective leadership. Their successors, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping, followed and expanded Deng’s economic and political reforms.

The pragmatism and resilience of successive generations of leaders probably made China what it is today, addressing its problems head-on. Jiang opened China’s doors wider, encouraging foreign investment. Hu rebalanced the economy from export-driven to domestic-demand-led and raised the minimum wage. Xi has spent hugely on green energy development (US$320 billion) and mounted an anti-corruption campaign. To sustain popular support, future leaders will likely follow their predecessors.

Foreign criticism

China critics would suggest that the Communists’ only legitimacy is economic growth. But isn’t that the key to the legitimacy of every government, whether democratic or autocratic? Donald Trump’s election platform was to “bring back jobs to America”. One of the main reasons George H W Bush lost the 1992 US presidential election to Bill Clinton was the latter’s declaration that “it’s the economy, stupid”.

Some in the West opine that the economic numbers coming out of China are “fake news” or exaggerated. While that accusation has been true for the numbers published by some local governments, the central government did revise them to reflect the real state of affairs. Had GDP  not grown at such high annual rates, China could not have become the second-largest economy in the world, consuming more than 40% of  global resources, and sending tens of millions of tourists overseas.

On China “bullying” its smaller and weaker neighbors, one should examine the history of the territorial disputes in its entirety before forming a conclusion. The Communist government did not draw the “Nine Dash Line” in the South China Sea, and the Cairo and Potsdam Declarations demanded that Japan returned the Senkaku or Diaoyu Islands to China after World War II. Moreover, China did not colonize other countries although it had the power to do so in the past. Finally, China always calls for dialogue and diplomacy to address differences.

On China being a currency manipulator, one should study its currency policies. From 1994 to 2005, the Chinese currency was pegged to the greenback at a fixed rate of US$1 to 8.28 yuan. Perhaps under US pressure, the yuan was then pegged against a basket of major currencies at a narrow range, culminating in an appreciation of 34% against the dollar from 2005 to 2013. During that period, the volume of trade and the US current-account deficit increased, which brings into question the validity of the claim that China was a currency manipulator. That charge has become even more invalid in the past two years because China burned more than $250 billion to shore up the value of the yuan.

There might be two reasons that the US trade deficit with China has increased. First, more than 60% of its “imports” from China are actually owned by US firms outsourcing production to China or re-exports of products made in other countries, including the United States itself. Chinese factories, some of them owned by foreign investors, are in fact contractors.

Second, the value of US “imports” from China is inflated. For example, the real value of China’s contribution to the production of Apple’s iPad is only $11, but US Customs lists the value as more than $172, the total cost.

The only reason anti-China US politicians and pundits accuse Beijing of being a currency manipulator is the value of trade and the size of the trade deficit, more than $50 billion and $20 billion respectively. Neither the World Trade Organization nor the US Treasury Department labels China a currency manipulator based on that.

As for the alleged abuses of human rights and suppression of religious freedom, seeing is believing. Visit China and determine for yourself whether the Chinese government is as repressive as its critics claim.

Ken Moak

Ken Moak taught economic theory, public policy and globalization at university level for 33 years. He co-authored a book titled China's Economic Rise and Its Global Impact in 2015. His second book, Developed Nations and the Economic Impact of Globalization, was published by Palgrave McMillan Springer.

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