Today's date:
Summer 2010

China’s Megacity Mandarinate

In response to the “Google vs. Confucius” commentary in the last NPQ, George Yeo, foreign minister of Singapore, offered these thoughts:

The Chinese have said repeatedly that they will have to find their own path to the future according to their own history and tradition. The big change for them is urbanization, which will fundamentally alter the nature of Chinese society.

To the extent the “Google age” expresses the complexity of urban relationships, it is in contrast to the settled hierarchies of rural life. But it is not as if China is not embracing information technology. What they don’t want is US-imposed Internet governance.

For the Chinese, democracy is a means, not an end in itself. They believe that one-man-one-vote applied western style will mean the breakup of China.

Indeed, the Chinese now have a developed critique of Western democracy—that it leads to an over-emphasis on the short term and on organized special interests.

Because China now posits an alternative development pole, a growing number of people in the developing world no longer accept the Western model as the ideal for themselves.

In a world where technology makes possible disintermediation in all fields, including governmental structures, many individuals have the option to choose the system they live under. If we go back to the original meaning of citizenship, perhaps all of us should be allowed to choose which cities we belong to, and let every city be an experiment in good governance.

In a recent lecture at Cambridge, Yeo further laid out his thinking on the future of China, which is many ways mirrors the ideas in NPQ. Those remarks are excerpted below:

Charles Darwin, whose 200th birth anniversary was marked last year, understood that life is a struggle with old forms giving way to new forms. And human society is part of this struggle.

What is the new reality that is struggling to emerge from the old? History is not predetermined. There is, at any point in time, a number of possible futures, each, as it were, a state of partial equilibrium. And every crisis is a discontinuity from one partial equilibrium state to another within what scenario analysts call a “cone of possibilities.”

Considering the “cone of possibilities” that will unfold in the coming decades, the key relationship in the world to watch will be that between the United States and China. Putting it starkly, the US is China’s most important export market while China is the most important buyer of US Treasuries. The core challenge is the peaceful incorporation of China into the global system of governance, which in turn will change the global system itself.

The transformation of China itself is the most important development in this context. Much has been written about the re-emergence of China, but I would like to focus on three points.

CHINA’S SENSE OF SELF | The first point is China’s sense of itself, which was written about by Joseph Needham many years ago. Over the centuries, it has been the historical duty of every Chinese dynasty to write the history of the previous one. Twenty-four have been written, the first a hundred years before Christ by Sima Qian in the famous book, Shi Ji. And since then the later Han wrote about the Han and then the Jin, the Three Kingdoms and so on. So twenty-four dynasties in all. The last dynasty, the Qing Dynasty, lasted from 1644 to the Republican revolution of 1911. Its official history is only now being written after almost a century.

No other country or civilization has this sense of its own continuity. For the official history of the People’s Republic, I suppose we would have to wait a couple of hundred years.

It was Needham’s profound insight into China’s sense of itself that led to his remarkable study “Science and Civilization in China.” Ironically, China’s sense of itself was mostly about its social and moral achievements within the classical realm. It was Needham who informed the Chinese of their own amazing scientific and technological contributions to the world.

However, China’s sense of itself is both a strength and a weakness. It is a strength because it gives Chinese civilization its self-confidence and its tenacity. Chinese leaders often say that while China should learn from the rest of the world, China would have to find its own way to the future. But it is also a conceit, and this conceit makes it difficult for Chinese ideas and institutions to become global in a diverse world.

To be sure, the Chinese have no wish to convert non-Chinese into Chinese-ness. In contrast, the US, as a young country, believing its own conception to be novel and exceptional, wants everyone to be American. And, indeed, the software of globalization today, including standards and pop culture, is basically American. And therein lies a profound difference between China and the US.

If you look at cultures as human operating systems, it is US culture which has hyper-linked all these different cultures together, in a kind of higher HTML or XML language. And even though that software needs some fixing today, it will remain essentially American. I doubt that the Chinese software will ever be able to unify the world the way it has been because it has a very different characteristic all of its own—even when China becomes the biggest economy in the world, as it almost certainly will within a few decades.

URBANIZATION | The second point I wish to highlight about China is the astonishing urban experimentation taking place today. China is urbanizing at a speed and on a scale never seen before in human history. Chinese planners know that they do not have the land to build sprawling suburbia like America’s. China has less arable land than India.

Although China already has a greater length of highways than the whole of the US, the Chinese are keenly aware that if they were to drive cars on a per capita basis like Americans, the whole world would boil. Recognizing the need to conserve land and energy, the Chinese are now embarked on a stupendous effort to build mega-cities, each accommodating tens of millions of people, each with the population size of a major country. And these will not be urban conurbations like Mexico City or Lagos growing higgledy-piggledy, but cities designed to accommodate such enormous populations. This means planned urban infrastructure with high-speed intra-city and inter-city rail, huge airports like Beijing’s, forests of skyscrapers, and high-tech parks containing universities, research institutes, start-ups and ancillary facilities.

The McKinsey Global Institute has recommended 15 “super cities” for China, with average populations of 25 million, or 11 “city-clusters,” each with combined populations of more than 60 million.

Unlike most countries, China is able to mount massive redevelopment projects because of the Communist re-concentration of land in the hands of the state. The great Chinese revolution was fundamentally about the ownership of land. This is the biggest difference between China and India. In India and most other parts of the world, land acquisition for large-scale projects is a very difficult and laborious process.

As the world looked to the US for new patterns of urban development in the 20th century with its very rational grid patterns, we will have to look to China for the cities of the 21st century.

Urbanization on such a colossal scale is reshaping Chinese culture, politics and institutions. The Chinese Communist Party, which had its origins in Mao’s countryside, faces a huge challenge in the management of urban politics. From an urban population of 20 percent in Mao’s day, China is 40 percent urban today and, like all developed countries, will become 80-90 percent urban in a few decades’ time. Already, China has more mobile phones than any other country and more Internet users than the US.

A MERITOCRATIC MANDARINATE | My third point is about China’s political culture. Over the centuries, China has evolved a political culture that enables a continental-size nation to be governed through a bureaucratic elite. In the People’s Republic, the bureaucratic elite is the Communist Party. When working properly, the mandarinate is meritocratic and imbued with a deep sense of responsibility for the whole country.

Interestingly, during the Ming and Qing Dynasties, there was a rule that no high official could serve within 400 miles of his birthplace so that he did not come under pressure to favor local interests. This would mean that for a place like Singapore, it would never be governed by Singaporeans. A few years ago, that rule was re-introduced to the People’s Republic.

In almost all cases today, the leader of a Chinese province—neither a party secretary nor governor—is from that province unless it is an autonomous region, in which case the number two job goes to a local, but never the number one job.

Although politics in China will change radically as the country urbanizes in the coming decades, the core principle of a bureaucratic elite holding the entire country together is not likely to change. Too many state functions affecting the well-being of the country as a whole require central coordination. In its historical memory, a China divided always meant chaos, and chaos could last a long time.

China is experimenting with democracy at the lower levels of government because it acts as a useful check against abuse of power. However, at the level of cities and provinces, leaders are chosen from above after carefully canvassing the views of peers and subordinates. As with socialism, China will evolve a form of “democracy with Chinese characteristics” quite different from Western liberal democracy. And, certainly, the current world crisis will convince the Chinese even more that they are right not to give up state control of the commanding heights of the economy.

With the world in turmoil, many developing countries are studying the Chinese system, wondering whether it might not offer them lessons on good governance. For the first time in a long time, the Western model has a serious competitor.

Like biological species, human ideas and systems are also subject to selection through wars, revolutions, elections, economic crises, academic debates and market competition. Those which survive and flourish should, we hope, raise civilization to a higher level.