The rise of Japan’s new Prime Minister Naoto Kan, and lessons for China
Unless China shifts its policies toward more democracy and tends to the interests of the rising urban middle class, it risks ending up in the same cul-de-sac as Japan.
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With more than a billion inhabitants, yet lacking less arable land than India and short on energy, China has embarked on a colossal effort to organize its immense population into megacities with tens of millions of people. The McKinsey Global Institute projects at least 15 such megacities with 25 million residents – each the population size of a major country.Skip to next paragraph
Since the revolution concentrated land ownership in the hands of the state, the Chinese authorities have vast leeway in shaping these cities that must accommodate so many people, planning the urban infrastructure with high-speed connecting trains, state of the art airports, deep subways, industrial parks, universities, and seas of skyscrapers.
“Although politics in China will change radically as the country urbanizes, “ said Singapore’s foreign minister George Yeo, “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 means chaos.”
Because of its lack of a center of political accountability, Japan was unable to prevent its formidable momentum from morphing into inertia as Japanese society and the world around it evolved. That is what has made change so difficult. “Even if we want change, where is the lever?” Kan asked a decade before the Democratic Party of Japan finally pushed the Liberal Democratic Party from power last September.
Will China be different?
“When working properly, the mandarinate is meritocratic and imbued with a deep sense of responsibility for the whole country,” Yeo said hopefully. And, certainly, there is a kind of systemic accountability of the Communist Party since its legitimacy is anchored solely in keeping economic growth going.
But without the civic software that complements the infrastructure hardware, will the Chinese bureaucratic elite be responsive enough to the needs, expectations, and aspirations of its burgeoning, ever more prosperous urban masses?
The mandarinate is already being tested on many fronts, from the need to raise domestic consumption as American demand for Chinese exports weakens, to endemic environmental crises, to the striking workers at Honda, to the suicides at Foxxconn Technology Group this year.
For the first time in its postwar history, Japan has a vigorous system in which two major parties alternate power. Kan now possesses a tenuous lever to hold the bureaucratic elite accountable so Japan can change course.
China’s authorities are unlikely to adopt Western-style parliamentary democracy as a means of greater accountability. But they nonetheless need some meaningful feedback mechanisms to effectively negotiate China’s transition from the world’s shop floor to a society with a large, globally integrated, urban middle class. Administrative guidance from the top alone cannot work as such a society grows more complex. At the lowest levels of government China is experimenting with democracy as a useful check against abuse by local officials. How far up the ladder democracy will climb is the big question now.
Economists used to liken the export-driven development model in East Asia to the V-shaped formation of a flock of geese, with Japan showing the way and others following. Japan is demonstrating to the rest of East Asia today just how hard it is to change once the course has been set by an unchallenged bureaucratic elite. China should be paying close attention once again to the lead goose.
Nathan Gardels is editor in chief of the Global Viewpoint Network of Tribune Media Services. His most recent book, with Mike Medavoy, is “American Idol After Iraq: Competing for Hearts and Minds in the Global Media Age.”
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