“Among the many foreigners who focus on China, who understands China the most, who knows it best?” This question was raised by an entrepreneur at a salon. My brain had a temporary short-circuit, because a long list of foreigners’ names came up, and it was difficult to choose.
However, this is a really good question. Because people are now very concerned about the country’s future direction, but the clouds and mists makes everyone feel anxious and confused. “We do not know the true colours of the mountain because we stand on it”, so with the help of a ‘third eye’ from overseas, we might better understand our own country.
However, this is also a problem. In the new century, as the Chinese economy continued to grow, more and more foreigners have started to look at China, and visitors to China are like carps in the river. When expressing their views of China, ‘every person holds to the snake pearl, and every family the mountain jade’, and it is not easy to assess them.
International economists who study China, and do not understand the Chinese systems, make many general remarks, but many of their ideas feel like looking at a flower through the mist. Many of the ‘scholars’ who focus on Chinese culture tend to look at Chinese culture or history from one main point of view, and though there are many others, nothing is said of those. As for cunning politicians, their views can even less be taken seriously. The former US secretary of State Henry Kissinger seems to be an exception. He’s gone to China every year, maintained high level exchanges with China, and authored the book ‘On China’. However, the vision of this ‘Chinese expert’ is limited to high level politics. China is like a large river, and the political situation is like the waves coming on its surface one after the other, yet what really determines the direction of the flow is the ‘river bed’. Furthermore, Kissinger is a strategist, and his words are often elusive, so that his real meaning is hard to grasp.
In my opinion, three foreigners have most understood China: former Singapore president Lee Kuan Yew, Hungarian economist Janos Kornai, and American Political expert Francis Fukuyama.
Lee Kuan Yew grew up in a British cultural environment, but his origins are in Guangdong province, and he has deep understanding of Chinese culture. Furthermore, in the last forty years, Singapore has been deeply involved in China’s reform and opening. Lee Kuan Yew hesitates to praise China’s economic development, and has the courage to put forward his own opinions. He considers, “The weaknesses and obstacles to overcome on China’s road ahead are more numerous than most observers think. Among governance issues in China, the greatest is the lack of a rule of law.”
In 2004, Lee Kuan Yew said to a 70 year old Chinese leader: “You’ve inculcated young Chinese people with too much belief in Chinese rejuvenation, pride and patriotism… this could lead to instability.” “You want the young generation of Chinese people to understand that the former closed-door policy and excessive importance given to ideology were mistakes, this is the most important point. You need to instil in them the right values and attitudes, make them humble and responsible in front of challenges ahead.” For China, this was certainly sobering advice.
Kornai is turning 87 this year, he’s a world-renowned economist, and his works on the planning economy have already become classics. Like Hungary, China has a long history of planned economy, thus his analysis are very relevant to China, and deserve careful attention. For instance, Kornai encouraged China to ignore the ‘growth rate superstition’. The country shouldn’t, in order to promote the growth of GDP, ignore other important development tasks. The income gap in China has expanded significantly, which is not only economically disadvantageous, but also goes directly contrary to the people’s sense of fairness, and sooner or later, will lead to serious social tensions. To protect the operations of a modern market economy, the rule of law is an essential part of government, etc. etc.
In Decembre 2013, in a dialogue with his old friend Wu Jinglai, Kornai said: “China must defend the market, protect it from the harm of excessive government expansion”, “China is facing a lot of challenges, there is widespread social dissatisfaction, public discontent is rather large…. The correct answer is not suppression, but resolving the problems that cause discontent among the masses. Do not block speech, and cut off feedback channels for people to express their problems. Blocking speech may lead to serious social problems.” These views summed up the historical lessons of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and for those facing China’s reality, they were thought-provoking.
About twenty years ago, Francis Fukuyama became famous for ‘The End of History’, and in recent years, China was included in his political vision. However, the domestic media often distort the views of Fukuyama, intentionally or not. In fact, Fukuyama does not propose a reversal of values, he has just understood more clearly that the creation of a modern liberal order is full of difficulties. Over the past decade, Fukuyama has focused on the original of humanity’s political order. In this grand historical vision, his understanding of China goes beyond that of Chinese scholars.
For instance, Fukuyama explained how China, under the imperial system, was unable to solve the ‘bad emperor’ problem: “An authoritarian regime under wise leadership may, from time to time, go beyond liberal democracy, because decisions can be made quickly, and the law is unchallenged. On the other hand, such a system depends on there being consistently wise leaders. If there is a bad emperor, government power without checks and balances can lead to disaster.” Fukuyama further pointed out that “Since 1978, China has had very good leaders, but there is no system in place to guarantee that this will continue.” Here and now, we can describe Fukuyama’s insights as enlightening.
For an ambitious country that is committed to progress, praise is meaningless, and can even be harmful. As the saying goes, ‘the king’s horses died from the children on the side of the road’. The spectators on the side of the road are constantly exhorting the horse to run faster, and the owner kept pushing it, but at the end, the horse died from exhaustion. China is now in a critical period of transformation and modernisation, what it needs is not cheap praise and pretty songs, but for the real problems to be bluntly pointed at, and the resources of good thinking. As Lu Xun said, ‘revealing the agony helped find out the cure’. In this sense, Lee Kuan Yew, Fukuyama and Kornai are not only the three foreigners who best understood China, but also the most worthy of respect. Their advice deserves careful attention, and deep reflection.