Scale offers daunting challenges to China’s aspiring reformers

Source:Global Times Published: 2014-3-3 18:13:01

Editor's Note:

China's rise and the new leadership under President Xi Jinping have drawn global attention. With new challenges in terms of both internal and foreign issues, how can the top leadership tackle the problems? How do Western scholars evaluate the new team? Global Times (GT) reporter Feng Yu talked to Kenneth Lieberthal (Lieberthal), senior fellow of the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institute, on these issues.

Kenneth Lieberthal

GT: The Chinese government vows to comprehensively deepen reform. What's the biggest challenge that China is facing?

Lieberthal: China is in a period of potentially painful transition. The decision of the Third Plenary Session of the 18th CPC Central Committee reflects an appreciation among the new leadership that, although China has done well in recent decades, the model it followed in terms of economic strategy is now no longer sustainable.

This model can still produce growth for a while, but the growth is resource-intensive, depends on expanding exports, produces enormous pollution, and contributes to the inequality of distribution of wealth. So in many ways it creates great social instabilities domestically and tension abroad.

That is thus unsustainable in the long run. China needs to transform to a new development model, and the third plenum resolution highlights that very strongly.

I think the big question is the extent to which the policies to achieve the goals of the third plenum will be successfully implemented. I believe the new leadership recognizes the economic problems China confronts and has indicated a determination to address those problems. I hope they are effective.

GT: You were a senior director for Asia at the National Security Council during the Clinton administration. What's your view of China's establishment of the State Security Committee?

Lieberthal: The Chinese leadership has recognized that the mechanisms for coordination in foreign policy are not sufficient.

My impression is that the scope of the responsibility of that new committee is still being developed, but I think its establishment reflects the recognition among top level policymakers of a need to reduce policy implementation in which insufficient coordination and communication among relevant agencies sometimes have unfortunate consequences.

GT: What are the barriers to the implementation of the Third Plenum resolution?

Lieberthal: The problems identified in the resolution include economic problems, ecological problems, and problems in the political economy.

The interaction of the political system and the economy has been very successful in generating GDP growth for several decades, but now it needs to change. And the difficulty is, how you produce those changes when you have to do so through the political system that is so deeply shaped by the development model to date?

This is a very difficult issue, because China is so huge with five levels of political power and tens of thousands of territorial political units. It is difficult to get very disciplined implementation of policies that negatively affect the interests of the people who have power in those very localities. I think that's the most difficult issue.

GT: Generally how do you evaluate China's new leadership?

Lieberthal: The real task for the new leadership is not the ideas they articulate at the start, but how well they can manage the politics of implementing these ideas, making them a reality on the ground over the coming five to 10 years.

People will evaluate Xi not so much by what the Third Plenum resolution said, but how skillfully he and the other leaders with him prove able to manage a major transition. Doing this in a way where the system remains dynamic and doesn't experience large scale instability might be very difficult.

It's not merely a matter of "crossing the river by feeling for stones." You can use a very pragmatic methodology in every local experiment to see what works and then adopt that; that's one part of it, but the other part is managing the politics. How can you manage the tensions among different interests of the top of the system? That's something that we still have to see.

GT: How do you see China's rise and its current relations with other countries in this region?

Lieberthal: Scholars and foreign policy experts have noted the very substantial changes between the period leading up to 2008, during which China was very careful to encourage countries around the region to see China's rise as an opportunity to participate in Chinese economic growth and not as a threat to their interests, and the situation now.

I think now countries around the region all still see the economic opportunity, but many are concerned about the potential for Chinese actions to be against their interests.

These worries reflect their own experiences; I find that many in the region now say that the situation has changed and that China needs to be fully mindful of these concerns if it seeks to both rise and rise peacefully and have the kind of neighborhood that China's leaders say they seek.

GT: Currently the China-Japan dispute poses a major foreign relationship headache. What's your view of the relations among China, Japan and the US?

Lieberthal: Quite a number of experts regard the current Sino-Japanese situation as dangerous. Neither country is handling it well, and neither side as yet is prepared to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

That runs a high risk. It is up to the two countries to figure out ways to reduce the risk of an accident or incident that produces an escalating crisis.

The US has been very strongly encouraging both governments to seek ways to reduce the tensions. They need to find common understanding so that there is not an accident in the sea or an accident in the air near the disputed islands.

China has indicated that it believes the US has a potentially substantial ability to control what Japanese leaders say about issues about history. My own view is that the US can advise Japan of the very adverse reaction that articulating revisionist views create, but we have no power to make a democratically elected leader in a strong political position domestically change his views on issues he regards as very important.

We can indicate our concerns, but at the end of the day, there is nothing we can do to stop him from making the political comments and gestures that he is determined to make.

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