China’s Defiant Development: how long can it last?

Modernisation theory predicts that economic development will increase with access to financial capital and advanced technological education and gradually lead to greater political development along more democratic and pluralistic lines of governance. (Im, 1987)

Such a process has been particularly evident in the East Asian states of South Korea and Taiwan, and to a lesser extent in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. China, however, remains a glaring exception.

One visits any major Chinese city today and it is clear that Western capitalism has triumphed. Branded stores line the main streets, there is a Starbucks on every corner, youngsters eyes’ remain glued to smartphones and provocative fashion statements merge into a crowd of designer labels.

Starbucks is just one of thousands of Western brands to become pervasive in China. There are few Chinese equivalents in the West
Starbucks is just one of thousands of Western brands to become pervasive in China. There are few Chinese equivalents in the West

After Deng Xiaoping opened up the Chinese economy to foreign investment and technological expertise in the 1980s, the slumbering Red Dragon has risen. Now the world’s second largest economy, China fits the bill for the first part of Modernisation theory.

Yet the idea that an “economically independent middle class [which China now undoubtedly has] whose threshold for autocratic rule would diminish” (Gomez, 2004) has not come to fruition. China remains a firmly autocratic country with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) retaining a strong grip on the reigns of power.

It is true that government protests are on the rise, yet these are predominantly restricted to isolated pockets of the country, far from the seats of political and economic power. More significantly, they are generally the work of the poorer classes who have been marginalised in the rural areas.

There is no argument that poverty remains in parts of China’s most prestigious cities. One need only cross a vast modern shopping mall from the trendy Xintiandi district in Shanghai to arrive at a series of derelict backstreets, where a person can buy a hot meal for 2 Yuan and residents sell their meagre wares from rickety stalls on the filthy sidewalks. Similarly, within shouting distance of the popular pavilions at Yu’uan Garden are the remnants of the area’s former inhabitants, poor workers whose families have been exiled to high-rises on the edge of the city.


Within a few hundred metres of the picturesque and popular pavilions of Yu'uan Garden are impoverished backstreets
Within a few hundred metres of the picturesque and popular pavilions of Yu’uan Garden are impoverished backstreets

That said, what major city doesn’t have its poorer districts? The fact that cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou have rid their centres of the poorest people and created a pseudo-Western capitalist dreamworld has helped to stifle dissent.

The middle-class, meanwhile, remains content. Whilst growth rates have slipped from the hallowed 8%, at 7.7% they are still vastly superior to most other nations’. As long as economic empowerment continues, and the new generation of Chinese are given the opportunity to live the consumerist lifestyle that has become paramount to them, then they can tolerate their political restrictions.

China certainly faces challenges in the future. How long can the growing income inequality in the country be ignored? What of the complaints of ethnic minorities? The Uighur Muslims of Xinjiang province have become increasingly volatile. Will the Chinese government use this terrorist threat as a rallying point for the majority Han, a nationalistic aside to cover-up the inherent unfairness of their political system? Certainly China has proved far more effective in controlling the Islamic threat than the West but in such a vast country, terrorism will become increasingly difficult to control.

Perhaps such is the rate of Chinese growth, that the predictions of Modernisation theory have yet to take effect. Taiwan and South Korea have far smaller populations, who benefited from a more even and sustained economic development, encouraging a more concerted agitation for political reform later on.

Despite the Han majority, there is no real homogenisation in China. People are out for themselves, taking advantage of the favourable economic conditions to create a future that would have looked impossible less than thirty years ago.

The Pudong skyline is emblematic of China's development
The Pudong skyline is emblematic of China’s development

As the Shanghai Tower reaches imperiously into the Pudong skyline, surrounded by the other brazen structures of capitalist success, one can imagine Mao turning in his grave. Yet with China now a great power, and the political authority of the CCP still secure, it is hard to believe that the barbaric Chairman does not at least have a wry smile spread across his countenance.


Gomez, E.T. (ed.) (2004), The state of Malaysia: ethnicity, equity, and reform (RoutledgeCurzon: London)

Im, H.B. (1987), ‘The Rise of Bureaucratic Authoritarianism in South Korea’, World Politics, Volume 39(2), pp. 231-257


Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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