HomeAU PressBook ReviewsDisplay Review

Air University Press

Towards a New Development Paradigm in Twenty-First Century China: Economy, Society, and Politics Book Review

Towards a New Development Paradigm in Twenty-First Century China: Economy, Society, and Politics. Edited by Eric Florence and Pierre Defraigne. Routledge, 2013, 217 pp.

Towards a New Development Paradigm in Twenty-First Century China: Economy, Society, and Politics is an anthology of essays on the challenges facing Chinese growth and social reform. The editors, Eric Florence and Pierre Defraigne, make an interesting pair for compiling the anthology. Florence is currently the lead researcher at the Centre for Ethnic and Migration Studies at the University of Liege in Belgium. Defraigne is a visiting professor at Zhejiang University in China; he was an economist and European civil servant from 1970 to 2005. The rest of the book’s contributors, of which there are 14, range from specialists in economics, finance, public policy, and social studies.

The anthology reflects three distinct areas of development challenges: adapting the Chinese economic growth model; adapting its labor and social policy, and re-orienting the Chinese state. The ordering assumes, or at least implies, a causal linkage among each area. A modernizing economy will presage a demand in society for increased services and recognition from the party state. The party state, seeing an interest in continuing to modernize the Chinese economy, has so far accommodated these societal demands. To what extent it will continue to do so is a theme throughout the book.

China’s arrival as a key player in the world economy is so well established as to hardly merit mention. The debate now is on the shape of the Chinese economy, not just its size; will it remain an export-oriented country or a consumer economy in its own right? The book’s contributors argue that China has reached the limits of its growth capacity as a hub of global manufacturing. If it wishes to continue to grow, it will need to build a creative economy of autonomous innovators.

The psychological and political differences between an export-driven, manufacturing economy and a consumer-driven, innovative economy will lead China further down the road to reform. For the past three decades, the economic interests of society were best served by deferring to the leadership of the party state; the central government could mobilize the resources inherent in capital-intensive manufacturing. As the Chinese economy progresses to a consumer-driven economy, however, the reverse will be true. Consumers will drive growth. The last two parts of the book are devoted to exploring the consequences of this re-ordering among labor, society, and the party state.

For the time being, the prospect of unrest, and the economic disruption that would follow, leads the authors to argue that the party state has no choice but to increase the minimum wage, define migrant workers’ rights, and provide minimum levels of social welfare. At the higher end of economic performance, the authors argue that a more profound change is happening: the definition of an ideal Chinese worker is no longer the industrial worker of the 1950s but the entrepreneur. This change—seemingly rife with the possibility of political instability—is being promoted by China’s political leadership as a means to keep moving the economy forward. The party state is in the process of discovering whether it can encourage free thought in the economy while limiting the same in the political sphere.

The book sets up this tantalizing question but does little to address it. Their focus is mostly on the periphery of civil society and its efforts to fill in gaps where central government cannot reach. Rural administration and education receive two chapters, while the rise of nongovernmental organizations is treated in a third. These chapters describe a civil society that is increasingly competent, yet it is unclear whether this civil society will come to drive the decisions of the central government or merely fill in where the government cannot reach. A final chapter, on the spread of information and growth of media in China, points to a means by which civil society could increase its influence. Again, though, whether the state will tolerate this remains an open question.

The usefulness of the book could be considered from two perspectives: Would it benefit readers in China trying to understand their own future? Would it benefit readers in the West trying to understand what will come of China?

From the first perspective, the book leaves much to be desired. The book’s weakness is that it takes a Western paradigm of development as its raison d’etre. A new Chinese development paradigm is needed because the current paradigm does not conform to a Western understanding. It introduces the following as reasons for concern: “increasing labour unrest, mounting calls for social justice, worsening urban-rural disparity, the urgent need to implement social welfare programmes, the rise of civil society, and the impact of new media.” Much of this list could be borrowed by a critic of American political society. What they package as “new” is really just “new to China.” A useful development paradigm will have to be embraced by the Chinese state as it is, and the anthology offers no evidence the party state is ready to embrace a Western development paradigm.

From the second perspective—that of a reader in the West—the starting paradigm is again problematic, though this time for a different reason. The book’s conclusions may be too easily embraced. By evaluating Chinese development on Western terms, Western readers risk confirming their own biases that Chinese development is fundamentally flawed. The thesis that the Chinese “must” reform human rights can only be taken for granted in the West; by applying this as a truism to Chinese development, the book implies a consensus that does not exist. To be sure, the global economy is a realm in which the Chinese have made apparent that they are willing to play by Western rules, for now. But the economic global order and the political global order are distinct. If such a thing as the latter even exists, it is certainly not presaged on the tenets of the Western political order or what former secretary of state Henry Kissinger has called the “nostrums” of the West.

This should not diminish from the overall value of the book, only serve as a caution before making judgments on the future of China. Throughout its expositions the reader is reminded of a recurring fact: the problems of China are not just China's problems—this rising superpower affects the rest of the world through its policy decisions and symbolic example.

Capt Brad DeWees
US Air Force Academy

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

Strategic Studies Quarterly (SSQ) and the Air & Space Power Journal (ASPJ) publish book reviews to inform readers and enhance the content of articles in the journals.