Learning from China

Updated 09 Jan 2019


The writer is an author and journalist.
The writer is an author and journalist.

PRIME Minister Imran Khan is fascinated by China’s miraculous feat of lifting 800 million ­people from poverty — and he seeks to emulate that achievement. Then again, who does not? Every speech of his, whether at home or abroad, is invariably laced with profuse praise of the ­emerging superpower. But it seems that he has ­little understanding of how it happened.

The rise of China is surely an amazing story, and its record in poverty reduction is without parallel in human history. It may not be possible for other countries to emulate the Chinese dream, yet there are lessons to learn from the country’s Great Leap Forward. The transformation of a country with around one fifth of the world’s population could not have come without the Communist Revolution in 1949 that destroyed the regressive social structure, thereby paving the way for a second revolution which led to phenomenal economic growth.

Since the initiation of China’s reform and opening-up in 1978, it has achieved an annual average 9.5 per cent growth rate, increasing almost 35 times in size within the last four decades. There is no precedent in history of such sustained economic growth. This could not have been possible without political stability, a visionary leadership and strong institutions of the state.

Our prime minister must realise that societal transformation requires clear vision.

It was the second stage of the revolution headed by Deng Xiaoping, who was also one the leaders of the 1949 revolution, that led to the building of modern China. The principles enunciated by Deng guided Chinese policy since the 1980s. According to him, there are three criteria to judge whether or not a political system or policy is suitable or correct for a country, namely; is it beneficial for political stability, economic development and living standards? If it is for all three, then it is a good system or policy.

With its phenomenal scale of economic growth, China also focused on improving the lives of ordinary Chinese people. The enormous improvement in living standards is, therefore, the most important achievement China has made since the reform and opening-up. For a country with huge numbers of poor people streaming into its cities, many ­living initially in conditions of abject misery, this has been an extraordinary success.

Other factors that contributed to China’s economic and social development are the massive investments it made on education and population control. For almost four decades, China strictly implemented a one-child policy that had helped the country achieve its anti-poverty drive. This policy has now been made more flexible to meet the demands of an expanding economy.

More importantly, successive Chinese leaders recognised that economic development and political stability were intertwined. While its entire focus had been on economic development, China has kept itself out of outside conflicts and avoided confrontation despite provocations. It has kept a relatively low profile, notwithstanding its position as a superpower.

When Imran Khan says that he wants to learn from China, he should understand that such ­societal transformation can only occur when one has a clear vision and the will to make tough decisions. It is indeed commendable that the PTI ­government places greater emphasis on human development, but the welfare of the people also depends on political stability and economic ­development. Catchy mantras alone will not take this country out of its current predicament.

Sure, Pakistan has a different system of government and there is no revolutionary party at the helm, but it is not difficult to implement some radical reforms to put the economy on the track of sustainable growth. There is also need for change in existing social and economic structures that are the biggest obstacles to the country’s transformation. But, notwithstanding Imran Khan’s grand idea of establishing ‘Naya Pakistan’, the PTI remains a party with no clear strategy for change. Almost five months into power, the government is still unable to set a clear direction.

There appears to be systemic failure in this country. While the PTI government is drifting without vision or purpose, growing political instability has rendered the system dysfunctional. One cannot hope getting the economy off the ground, let alone fighting poverty, in this environment of political confrontation. The country is not expected to move forward while depending on the financial support of friendly countries. It is ­disgraceful the way that bailout packages from Saudi Arabia and the UAE are being portrayed as diplomatic successes. In the absence of any clear agenda for reform, these kinds of temporary relief could become liabilities, further dragging the economy down.

There is as yet no indication that the government is prepared to change its confrontationist policy. More alarming is that it does not have any clear strategy to deal with the challenges it faces. Undoubtedly, corruption is a serious problem, but the government seems to only focus on this one issue. Imran Khan’s claim that it is the main cause of all economic and political ills is exaggerated. The senseless campaign has increased economic and political uncertainty, making it more difficult to carry out any reform. Imran Khan often cites China’s latest campaign against corruption. But what he has failed to understand is that China has been able to effectively counter the menace after it had consolidated its economy.

Instead of learning from China how it emerged as an economic superpower in such a short span of time, Imran Khan has superficially picked some aspects of its history to point to. A major factor that has caused Pakistan’s economic and political slide is the absence of a long-term vision for ­development and social change.

China’s model cannot be emulated, but one can, at least, learn some lessons from its success. Poverty eradication, which Imran Khan appears so fascinated with, did not come without economic development and social reform. The establishment of shelter homes for the homeless is indeed a ­positive step, but it cannot address the basic ­problem behind rampant poverty, unemployment and social backwardness.

The writer is an author and journalist.
Twitter: @hidhussain

Published in Dawn, January 9th, 2019