Throughout history, every great transformation in Chinese society has been ushered in by ideological change.

Since the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) launched reform and opening-up in 1978, China has abandoned Mao Zedong’s revolutionary model of social development and adopted the so-called “Beijing consensus” or “China model” to serve its great transformation.

After three decades of change from an agrarian to an industrial society, China has now become the world’s second-largest and fastest-growing economy. It is 10 times bigger than it was in 1978 and the nation has experienced the same degree of industrialization and social transformation as Europe did over two centuries. [1]

China inevitably faces a challenge to undergo a new great transformation and move another rung up the ladder in terms of international status – from a world economic power to an internationally recognized and respected leader.

There are signs that recognition and respect of its higher place are growing. This year’s global public opinion survey by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project shows that 47% of respondents in 22 nations believe China has replaced or will replace the United States as the world’s leading superpower, while 36% think China will never push the US off that pedestal. By comparison, the respective percentages in the 2009 survey were 40% and 44%.

More interestingly, people in Western countries have stronger faith in China – as 72% in France, 67% in Spain, 65% in the United Kingdom and 61% in Germany believe the Middle Kingdom has replaced or will replace the US as world No 1. And even inside the US, the China story is taking hold. The proportion of American respondents with similar views to the Europeans jumped to 46% from 33% in 2009, and has nudged one point above the percentage who are of the opinion that China will never surpass the US. [2]

But what place does the “China model” have in helping the Middle Kingdom undergo this transition to pre-eminence? At such a turning point in history, the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will have to make a critical decision on whether it is willing to remake the foundation of the China model.

What is the China model?
The China model represents a complex set of developments over the past 30 years, describing the unique qualities of China’s culture, geography and governing philosophies. [3] It has received wide international media coverage, and anyone wishing to discuss the theme can choose from more than 30 books and hundreds articles.

While the Chinese official media describe China’s development in the post-Mao Zedong era as a “socialist market economy with Chinese characteristics”, scholars around the world characterize the “China model” as a mix of authoritarianism and a socialist market economy that contrasts with the alternative Washington consensus.

The government perspective crystallizes the China model as the practice of the official philosophy of the reform movement. The China System: Reading 60 Years of the People’s Republic of China, a book published by the Central Compilation and Translation Press in Beijing at the end of December 2009, is the official view on the model’s evolution.

The China Daily in April 2011 published three articles praising Deng Xiaoping’s interpreter, Zhang Weiwei, for his view on the China model in China Shock: The Rise of a Civilized Country, and the book’s central thesis is that China has shocked the world in three facets of its transition: the rise of peaceful development; the rise of the development model; and the rise of political values.

Wei Pan, director of Peking University’s Center for Chinese & Global Affairs, puts it this way: “The China model consists of four sub-systems: a unique way of social organization, a unique way of developing its economy, a unique way of government, and a unique outlook on the world.” [4]

In present-day China, all social organizations are under the CCP’s leadership; the market economy is managed by the government; government organizations are guided by the CCP; and China’s official outlook on the world is Marxism, as represented by the thoughts of Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao.

Thus it can be said that the core of the China model is fundamentally the current Chinese political system; and China model is a theorization of the path of China’s development directed by the CCP.

Chen Jinhua, former vice chairman of the national committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), published an article entitled “China Model and China’s System” in the People’s Daily on July 5, 2011, in which he criticizes that the media avoid the key issue about the China model in their discussions and points out that the key to the China model is the fundamental system now in place.

China model has worked
Under the China model, the country has successfully taken a different path from Western societies and will probably eventually reverse the one-way tendency for Westernization in its drive for modernization.

It was necessary for China to adopt its own model in the post-Mao era, since there were real shortcomings to the development models in Latin America and the Washington Consensus was not a suitable one on which China could base the transition from an agrarian to an industrial society.

The model has demonstrated its great strength, especially during the Asia financial crisis in 1997-98 and in the most recent world financial crisis that began in the United Stated in 2008. The economy grew at 7.9% in 2009 and 10% in 2010 while the global economy grew by 1.6% on average.

As a result, the theory of “China’s collapse” has itself crumbled and the China model has garnered increasing global attention. Although economic prosperity may not necessarily translate into democracy, China’s increased self-confidence allows it to project its political and cultural identity ever more widely as time marches on. [5]

The China model has worked because it embraces both universal norms and unique Chinese characteristics. Economic growth has benefited from the “reform and opening-up” policy, which essentially grants the Chinese people individual rights to develop the economy.

Such success demonstrates that universal norms, including globalization, marketization and privatization, are the right direction for China to take. The success of the Chinese economy lies in universal norms being put into practice in unique ways – with Chinese characteristics. In this sense, other countries may learn some good experiences from the China model, but they can never copy it, simply because “Chinese characteristics” are not universal.

Because of this, it is impossible to fully understand the true meanings of the China model out of the context of China. The essence of the China model is that the CCP continues to uphold “socialism with Chinese characteristics”, intervening in the market, implementing limited privatization, and maintaining social stability to ensure the continuance of its monopoly on political power and its rule out the separation of the three powers – the legislature, the administration and the judiciary.

As such, the Chinese “socialist” system is essential to the China model’s success. China could not have achieved its remarkable gains in the past 30 years without its support. Again, in this sense, the China model can hardly be copied by another country.

Politically, the core of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” is the “Four Cardinal Principles” laid down by Deng Xiaoping – adhering to the socialist road, the dictatorship of the proletariat, Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought, and CCP leadership, which enabled Deng to launch his reform and the country’s subsequent social and economic transition.

The party leadership is the cornerstone of the four principles. Although in the post-Deng era, the CCP has emphasized the theories of the (Jiang Zemin’s) “three represents” and (Hu Jintao’s) “harmonious society”, in practice it continues to uphold the four principles. The China model in fact embodies the four cardinal principles.

The China model includes two components: copying of successful elements of economic liberalization in other countries and the CCP’s monopoly of power.

Rowan Callick characterizes the China model as economic freedom plus political repression. [6] This implies that China has developed its economy without the coordination of political democratizing for 30 years. Similar development models have also proved to have worked in other places, such as Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea, although they have seen democratization either take place or become inevitable.

Will the China model sustain China’s future?
The China model has worked so far, but that does not necessarily mean it will sustain the country’s economic growth. True, the CCP has remained surprisingly resilient. [7] And since the reform and opening-up, the developing economy has heavily relied on trade, foreign investment, domestic savings and now the property market.

While there is no doubt that the Chinese economy will continue to grow, the question is how long economic freedoms and political repression can continue to coexist in China. [8] Most literature on the subject adopts a micro-analytical approach by emphasizing domestic problems that hinder China further development.

This approach suggests that China will not be able to sustain dynamic economic growth if the government cannot handle all the problems appropriately. However, this approach gives little attention to the deficiency of the official philosophy behind the China model.

There are several doctrines of Chinese official philosophy as pillars to shore up the China model: The slogan of four modernizations, partial reform, partial door-opening, and pragmatic theory, such as “let some people be rich first”, “cross the river by groping the stones on the riverbed” and “a cat that catches mice is a good one, be it is black or white”.

All such doctrines are economy-centered approaches. While they have helped China turn a command economy into a booming, free-wheeling one, it is time for the CCP to turn to the question of how to maintain the China model as the main driving force in becoming an internationally recognized world power or leader.

Accomplishment of this transition requires the foundation of the China model to be remodeled as a four-wheel drive: a real combination of industrialization, urbanization, marketization and globalization, so that China’s development will become well-balanced between economy, politics, culture, society and the environment.

The China model faces great challenges from globalization, the integration of the world’s economies, social norms, cultures and political systems that has become an irresistible trend since the 1970s. As China inevitably becomes more globalized, there are two main consequences,

First, China’s rise has a profound impact on the international community. Historically, China has its glorious history and advanced culture. The US has only been dominant in the past 50 years, but China was dominant in 1,800 of the past 2,000 years. [9] It is very important to begin with an appreciation of China’s history to reach any understanding of China’s future world role. [10]

Such an understanding would encompass the China model and bring the world closer to China. The Western media observe that “From Vietnam to Syria, from Burma to Venezuela, and all across Africa, leaders of developing countries are admiring and emulating what might be called the China Model”. [11] The China model will possibly dominate the 21st century. [12]

Secondly, China’s development is inevitably affected by globalization. Chinese economic development relies heavily on trade, foreign investment and science and technology, so China’s future development needs international support. China could not become an internationally recognized world leader without accepting universal norms and values.

However, the current mainstream of the global order is Western-oriented. The market economy, the private system, rights of the individual, and democracy have become universal beliefs. Modern democracy is the best social and political system in the world and it will continue to spread to more and more countries. [13]

Unavoidably, the interaction between China’s development and globalization will lead the China model to change. As time goes by, the China model will gradually lose unique Chinese characteristics as it takes on universal values. When that happens, the China model might still work for China, but that does not necessarily mean it will work elsewhere in the world. [14]

The China model needs to change
The significance of China’s economic success lies far beyond the economy itself. Not only has growth improved the living standards of the Chinese people, it also has generated public satisfaction and national patriotism, and justified the legitimacy of the CCP’s ruling position during the transition. It is also true that the conflict between government and society is increasing as one of the by-products of practicing the China model.

Because the China model is economy-centered, the government has become both the largest corporation and decision-maker, regulator and price-setter. The consequence of the system is that whoever has political power can use their power for money, and therefore corruption has become systematic.

Political corruption creates great distrust between the government and society. A recent survey shows that only 6% of Chinese people see themselves as happy. [15] That distrust, along with dissatisfaction from the three major groups of disadvantaged people (farmers, rural migrant workers and laid-off workers), could spark social violence at any time. This explains why China’s internal security spending exceeded the defense budget in 2011. [16]

Although social unrest in China has reached a critical point, it is still small, localized and manageable. There have been no national social protests since the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989. The intention of major dissenting voices for now is to reform politics within the one-party system instead of overthrowing the current regime. The CCP should take this opportunity to improve the relationship between the government and society by relaying the foundations of the China model. If it remains hesitant, the CCP could miss a golden opportunity.

Neither neo-Maoism nor neo-Confucianism can guarantee that an economically strong China turns into an internationally recognized world leader. In the first 30 years of CCP governance in China, Maoism created an equally poor socialist society and inhuman relationship between the government and people.

The attempt to revive Confucianism will not narrow the gap between China and the mainstream of the global order. If China only relies on Confucianism, it will never rule the world. [17] In addition, a Confucianism-based harmonious society without democracy can achieve high-speed economic growth up to a certain point, but it can hardly sustain China’s long-term development.

A new China model must include modern democracy. Theoretically, the process of truly globalizing China should be the same process of China’s democratization; in practice, if China resists remaking the foundations of the China model, it will increasingly come into conflict with globalization.

As time goes by, globalization will inevitably force the China model to respond to this challenge. Consequently, China will have to choose between the two: resist globalization or introduce democracy. If China fails to take a crucial step toward democratization, it may remain a self-confined and self-centered country despite its strong economic muscle.

Will the China model as it is now prevail? Or will the Beijing consensus overcome the Washington Consensus? How will the China model become an integrated part of globalization? There is only one way out: injecting modern democracy into the China model.

To be sure, the best way for China to reform the Chinese political system is from within. The CCP remains powerful and there is no other opposition party to compete. [18]

Historically, the CCP has been able to renew itself, and this is why the party has survived into the 21st century and still comes up with strong impetus to develop.

For various reasons, the size of the party continues to grow. Nevertheless, recent reality has given the CCP a wake-up call. The CCP is facing a legitimacy crisis. It’s time for the party to respond to this. Remaking the foundation of the China model is the best way to justify and boost the CCP’s legitimacy and enhance its governance capability.

Political reform is the most difficult task for the CCP. China is a massive country with a huge land area and the largest population in the world, most are relatively poorly educated and lack democratic experiences.

Since the international situation is very complicated at the present time, the fear at the top is that any mistake during political reform could result in social chaos. China has suffered from bloody wars and social chaos in its modern history, including the Opium Wars, three civil wars, World War II and the Cultural Revolution. The country simply cannot afford another chaotic revolution. To avoid revolt, the CCP has no other choice but to bring on another great transformation.

To be sure, Chinese political reform will be a slow process. An unrealistic leap in democracy would sacrifice the interests of the Chinese people. [19] The demand for radical democratization is fraught. [20] Every patriotic Chinese citizen must understand social stability is a top priority for China’s development, and this should be included in the new China model.

Aaron Friedberg, an eminent American international relations scholar, has acknowledged that the long-term aim of US policy towards China is to encourage “regime change” from the authoritarian regime to democratic one, albeit gradually and by peaceful means. [21] There is nothing to fear “regime change”.

In fact, any regime changes from time to time. “Regime change” is not the same as “overthrow the government”. Regime change essentially refers to ideological change. If the CCP could change its value system and ideological system, China would lose nothing and would win regard on the international environment and eliminate any accusation from Western tendencies to demonize China as a threat.

Chinese leaders may be at the crossroads: the decision is either to retain their monopoly on power or move forward to another great transformation from an authoritarian regime to a democratic one. It is a misconception that the two goals maintaining one-party rule while introducing democracy are incompatible.

If the CCP properly manages the process of democratization, it is possible for the party to introduce democracy and maintain its rule. Should the CCP reject political reform, however, it could possibly lose both. And if that happened, and revolution-style transformation were to make a comeback, then the hopes of China becoming an internationally recognized world leader would be dashed.

1. The Rise of a Fierce Yet Fragile Superpower, Newsweek, Dec 22, 2007.
2. China Seen Overtaking U.S. as Global Superpower, Pew Research Center, Jul 13, 2011.
3. The Proposer’s Opening Remarks, The Economist, Aug 4, 2010.
4. The Chinese Model of Development, Oct 11, 2007.
5. Martin Jacques, When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order (Penguin Press HC, 2009).
6. The China Model, The American, November/December 2007 Issue.
7. China’s Authoritarianism: Still Resilient?, University of Hong Kong, Jun 4, 2011.
8. The China Model, The American, November/December 2007 Issue.
9. Kissinger: China poses ‘big challenge’ for U.S, CNN, Jun 12, 2011.
10. Henry Kissinger, On China, The Penguin Press, 2011.
11. The China Model, The American, November/December 2007 Issue.
12. Stefan Halper, The Beijing Consensus: How China’s Authoritarian Model Will Dominate the Twenty-First Century, Basic Books, 2010.
13. Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, New York: Maxwell Macmillan International, 1992.
14. The Future of the Liberal World Order, Foreign Affairs, May/June, 2011.
15. Only 6 Percent Happy, Survey Finds, China Daily, Mar 3, 2011.
16. The truncheon budget, The Economist, Mar 10, 2011.
17. Troy Parfitt, Why China Will Never Rule the World, Western Hemisphere Press, 2011.
18. Richard McGregor, The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers, Harper Press, 2010.
19. Robert Lawrence Kuhn, How China’s Leaders Think: The Inside Story of China’s Reform and What ThisMeans for the Future, Wiley, 2009.
20. Democratization and Economic Reform in China, Australian Journal of Chinese affairs, Jan 1994. 21. In US-China Relations, Ideology Matters, Foreign Policy, Jul 1, 2011.

– Dr Jinghao Zhou is Associate Professor with Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Geneva, NY, USA. He can be reached at