A power rising on its own terms

China Modernizes
February 16, 2007

The West tends to regard China with "love-it-or-fear-it" simplicities. Ever since its first contact with the West centuries ago, China seems to have evoked in many Westerners an irresistible desire to serve as its teachers in the ways of the modern world. Because of this, writers seem to veer between delighted praise when China seems to accept Western values and despairing grief when it and the West become estranged. This is reflected in the debate between the so-called panda huggers and China hawks.

Such black-and-white positions do not help people understand China; they mislead and even confuse someone like me who was born and grew up there. Those who love China find its actions explicable; those who fear it see it as the source of every evil. Thanks to China's ascendancy on the world stage, people have begun to make serious efforts to transcend simplistic dichotomies. Randall Peerenboom strives to go beyond the two views of China popular in the West: one that regards it as a rising superpower that will have the world's largest economy by mid-century, and another that sees it as a brutal, anachronistic and authoritarian regime that threatens international political stability and the economies of the developed world.

As a legal scholar, Peerenboom places much emphasis on China's record on civil, political and human rights. He compares its development not with First World countries such as the US and the UK but with other middle-income ones. He cites the East Asian model of development as the most successful one in the contemporary era - it has brought high economic growth, implemented the rule of law and, eventually, democracy, thus securing the full range of human rights through some form of constitutionalism. He believes that China is following this path in its economic, legal and political development.

In tackling China's Western critics, Peerenboom argues that their arguments frequently reveal more about their biases and intellectual assumptions than about China. He vigorously deploys data to demonstrate the achievements China has made since the reform and open-door policy of the late 1970s. On the other hand, Peerenboom also highlights some key challenges China faces in sustaining its rise to political and economic power.

Moreover, departing from the often hypocritical lecturing that many Western writers would deliver, Peerenboom offers a discussion of what other countries, especially those in the Third World, can learn from China and the East Asian model.

The book's big weakness is its methodology. Peerenboom provides an empirically and statistically rich analysis to support his case. But no amount of number-crunching and comparative data will lead the West to understand China.

This book will not please those who take at face value the constant stream of negative reports about the country. But Peerenboom's appraisal deserves to be heard; it will help the general public who are interested in China and encourage policymakers to reassess their views. If the West wants an effective policy, it must treat China as it is. Assessments based on values or ideology will be of no use. One must make sense of the domestic dynamics of China's development to understand the country. China is still understudied, and any normative judgments will prove to be immature.

Yongnian Zheng is professor of Chinese politics at the China Policy Institute, Nottingham University.

China Modernizes: Threat to the West or Model for the Rest?

Author - Randall Peerenboom
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 406
Price - £18.99
ISBN - 0 19 920834 4

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