Is China’s rise relevant to today’s poorest states?

November 5, 2015

     By Duncan Green     

Am I allowed to say that a meeting held under Chatham House Rules took place at Chatham House? Let’s risk it. I

UK Development Minister Justin Greening and China's Commerce Minister Gao Hucheng seal the deal while their bosses look on

UK Development Minister Justin Greening and China’s Commerce Minister Gao Hucheng seal the deal while their bosses look on

recently attended a fascinating conference on UK-China relations, which discussed the two governments’ burgeoning cooperation on development issues. This seems to be turning into a triangular relationship, in which the UK and China combine brains, money and experience to jointly support other countries’ development efforts in a few specific areas (jobs and growth, health, disasters and girls/women).

A key player in all this is China’s Development Research Center, a state thinktank (it reports to the State Council) that is rapidly evolving from an exclusive focus on development within China to take a more international role.

The DRC will host the new Center for International Knowledge on Development (CIKD) announced by President Xi at the New York summit in September, which will ‘facilitate studies and exchange regarding theories and practices of development suited to each country’s respective national conditions.’ DFID is backing the CIKD as part of a 5 year partnership programme that will ‘support high level policy research on China’s development models, China’s role in global governance, and improving policy coherence for international development and other areas of mutual interests.’

It was a fascinating chance to try and see development through the eyes of some of China’s leading minds on a range of issues. Some of the main impressions :

China-aid-Cambodian-flood-007An interesting tension between an understandable level of triumphalism (getting 600m people out of poverty in the last four decades is not something any other country can boast) and caution. As one speaker pointed out, China developed by finding its own path, not by following the advice of outsiders, so how could it possibly switch roles and start telling other countries what to do? And to be useful, any account of China’s successes will have to be honest on the ‘warts and all’, acknowledging the importance of mistakes, and China’s ability to learn from them (eg the retreat over the last 10 years from a disastrous health privatization process).

Real questions on the relevance of China’s experience to fragile states. A large amount of the discussion assumed the existence of a state committed to pursuing development – that allows everyone to relax and start discussing the evidence for this or that policy decision. But an increasing focus of aid over the coming decades will be on fragile states, where governments are either absent or largely predatory. As the whole ‘Doing Development Differently’ and ‘Thinking and Working Politically’ movement has shown after two decades of bitter experience, technocratic advice and training workshops don’t get very far in such settings. Could China look into its past and find examples of fragile state turnarounds at national or subnational level? Are China’s aid officials actually able to talk about politics, power, governance etc? I have some serious doubts here.

The gulf in language is fascinating: British aid officials talk of jobs, growth and governance; their Chinese counterparts
talk of harmony, cohesion, balance and inequality. Some of this difference may be superficial, euphemistic or misleading, but I think it goes deeper than that – caricaturing greatly, China’s vision of development is fundamentally collective, while the UK’s is individualist. Discuss. Other linguistic differences are equally revealing: I couldn’t work out why an official replying to a question about civil society started talking about the private sector, until my Chinese neighbour explained to me that such is the power of the state in China, that anything outside the state (civil society, private sector) is lumped together by officials.

And one brilliant conversation on the margins: a senior Chinese researcher trying to work out how to tackle petty corruption in the government. When are amnesties effective? How to gain public support for the wage increases that would help reduce the incentives for officials to demand bribes? I couldn’t resist comparing it to the public’s refusal to raise UK MPs’ wages, which led in part to the expenses scandal…..