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Challenges China Still Faces After A 40-Year Rise To Economic Dominance

Alison Anzalone
U.S. Department of State Flickr Public Domain
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is greeted by Chinese President Xi Jinping upon entering the Fujian Room at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, on April 13, 2013.

After the power struggle to fill the power vacuum left by Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, right-wing reformers won control of the government and Deng Xiaoping helped China exceed the expectations and predictions of the international community.

David Lampton at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies has spent his career studying China’s evolution over the past 40 years. In the late 1970s, China lagged behind India in important economic indicators like per capita gross domestic product and educational levels for the population, but by 2010 had outstripped India and lifted 20 percent of the world’s population into the middle class. But that success comes with a price.

“China’s leaders have to deal with a change of administration that’s absolutely unimaginable, and then it’s structured in a bureaucracy,” Lampton says. “Every level of bureaucracy distorts central policy as it’s passed down. So by the time your central directives get to the bottom of this huge pinball machine, your policies are rather distorted.”

Lampton’s most recent book Following the Leader: Ruling China, from Deng Xiaoping to Xi Jinping humanizes the Chinese leaders through hundreds of interviews that paint an evolutionary picture specifying change and continuity in China to reveal the reality of a political system that’s often frustrating to the country’s leaders.


China was characterized as a peasant society for its entire history until roughly 2012, but now Lampton says a massive urban influx has created a highly educated developing middle class.

“There’s a debate what the middle class in China is, but it’s probably as big as the United States population, and that still leaves you with a billion poor people,” Lampton says.

When Deng Xiaoping took control of China after Mao’s death and started transforming the country into a market economy, Lampton says China had a relatively strong leaders and a relatively homogenous populace.

“[Society] didn’t have many resources to fight back against the system,” Lampton says. “Today, China has relatively weaker leaders, although the current leader is trying to remedy that situation. It has a very fragmented bureaucracy and society, and a lot more resources are down at the bottom of society, giving people the capacity to resist things that are no longer in their interest.”

Because of the urbanization, growth of the middle class, and the internet, Lampton says Chinese leaders aren’t taking their stability for granted, and could try to tighten domestic control, and open a strongman playbook to deal with the international community.

“If they do that, they’re going to alarm their neighbors,” Lampton says. “They’re probably going to have a foreign policy that’s less cooperative. And therefore they’re going to get pushback from the international system, as indeed they already are, in part from the United States, certainly from Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines.”


KGOU produces World Views through a collaborative partnership with the University of Oklahoma’s College of International Studies, with a goal of bringing internationally-focused conversations to an Oklahoma audience. Help support these efforts with a donation online.


SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: David Lampton, welcome to World Views.

DAVID LAMPTON: Good to be with you.

GRILLOT: Tell us about this evolutionary process, and how it is that China since 1977 and Deng Xiaoping's return to power, China has changed, and how it's stayed the same.

LAMPTON: Well I think the starting point is to realize, as your question did, where China was in 1977, July, when Deng Xiaoping came back after having been purged in the Cultural Revolution. And I date reform from that. Basically, China was behind India in many important indicators - per capita GDP, educational levels for the population, and so forth. It was almost indescribably poor. I fast-forward in the introductory chapter to then look at it in 2010. And basically China has outstripped India and many other places, and had really impressive growth, whether you look at it in terms of GDP, education, life expectancy, and so forth. So it's really a dramatic story that's lifted now 20 percent, but when reform started it was 25 percent, of the world's population. So it's a dramatic story. One of the things that comes out, I think, in the book, is that we often marvel at all the problems China has. And heaven knows some are not of leaders' making, and some, frankly are, of Chinese leaders' making. And maybe one of the surprises is that China's been as successful as it's been, given the problems its leaders face. So this gets to your continuities, and certainly one of the continuities is the absolute scale of what China's leaders are trying to manage. We consider Europe a collection of countries. China could be a Europe and a collection of countries. Instead it's one country with a tradition of centralization. So China's leaders have to deal with a change of administration that's absolutely unimaginable, and then it's structured in a bureaucracy. Every level of the bureaucracy distorts central policy as it's passed down. So by the time your central directives get to the bottom of this huge pinball machine, your policies are rather distorted. Also, China wasn't dealt a very good hand in terms of the piece of real estate it was put on. I spent a lot of the book talking about the role that hydrological disasters, seismological, earthquakes and so on, play in the daily, weekly, and yearly life of Chinese leaders. So these are great continuities. I think some of the discontinuities are: We just witnessed a couple years back, China is a now predominantly urban society. For all of its history up until about 2012, China was characterized and was a peasant society. So China's leaders are now trying to deal with the expectations of massive urban influx, a massive middle class that's developing. Highly educated people. There’s a debate what the middle class in China is, but it’s probably as big as the United States population, and that still leaves you with a billion poor people.  So I'm not trying to create a false sympathy for Chinese leaders. They do lots of things we don't like, and aren't in our interests, and maybe not even, in our view, in their own interests. But I think at the same time we need appreciation of what it is they're actually trying to govern.

GRILLOT: Well, you've touched on a number of changes, and clearly economic change is one of the main things that we've seen in China, and having been to China a couple of times myself, and six years apart, I too can see how significantly things have changed there economically. The economic growth that's taken place. The reform that Deng Xiaoping began in the 70s, but what about the political change? And political reform? Your book indicates that at least those that you interviewed indicated that these things were going on. Political reform is happening, but that it's less visible. It's hidden and out of view. From my own experience it was hard to see, as an outsider, that there was any kind of political reform and change going on. But how is it that China has changed politically in terms of not just life expectancy, education and GDP, but freedom of association? Freedom of speech? Voting? What are we to expect for these 1.3 billion people?

LAMPTON: Well I think it's a complicated story, but there's probably a big difference between, when you say political reform, and I tend to use the phrase "political change." You'll often hear people say there's been economic change in China of a massive character, but not much political change. Or political reform. I think that is a generalization that actually hides more than it reveals. If you mean political reform, and have in mind something like the first 10 amendments of the U.S. Constitution, which is certainly what I think most Americans would have, and indeed I think a fair meaning of the word, there hasn't been as much political reform. I think that's stripped down to its essentials. But if you ask a different question, "Has there been political change?" Is the system different in important ways than when Mao died in 1976? I think the answer is yes. The way in which it's different is very important. First of all, ask yourself the question, "What did Mao Zedong try to control?" Answer? Everything. Now in fact, he couldn't, but there was no zone of human activity - to residence, to occupation, to your inner thoughts, to where your children would go to school - that was all controlled. There was zone that was not the proper concern of government. Government couldn't always intervene because it didn't have enough capacity, but there was no forbidden zones. Now if you ask, "What does the Chinese government try to control?" The answer is pretty much that it gets revenue, like all governments, and secondly, that it not face organized contestation for power. That's what the Chinese government cares about now. And they need economic growth to keep power among other things, and meet the demands of the people. So I would say what the Chinese government is trying to control now is so much smaller than what it was trying to control before. We're kind of missing the biggest part of the picture, and that's a positive, humane outcome. Now we all still don't have the 10 amendments here, but another way to think about it is when Deng Xiaoping came back after Mao's death, China had strong leaders, a relatively homogenous society, and society didn't have many resources to fight back against the system. And if you ask today, what does China have? It has relatively weaker leaders, although the current leader is trying to remedy that situation. It has a very fragmented bureaucracy and society, and a lot more resources are down at the bottom of society, giving people the capacity to resist things that are no in their interest. Now it's not democracy, it's not voting, but basically the very structure of the polity in many important respects has changed. Of course, you have a party - the Communist Party - with 83 million people, and the organizational chart looks quite similar in many respects to what it looked like 40 years ago. So I'm not trying to exaggerate, but basically I think China's leaders have almost Lilliputian - ambitions for control - compared to Mao Zedong. And they face a much more...a society that can fight back.
GRILLOT: Well, we've been focusing on internal changes and perceptions among Chinese leaders and the Chinese society. But they also have certain perceptions about the outside world. You refer in your book about Chinese leaders and their thoughts about their relations with others. Certainly you are an expert on U.S.-China relations, and the very important relationship that has developed there, not only economically but politically, so tell us a little bit about what Chinese leaders think about everyone else that they're having to deal with. Because again, as someone who's been to China, it is somewhat insular in many ways. They don't seem to think much about what's going on around the world. But they really are. These leaders are thinking about the rest of the world.

LAMPTON: Well, first of all, I think it's very perceptive to observe that China's leaders, in a sense, like leaders in many other societies, whether they stay in power or not is dependent on how their societies perceive them to be performing, and actually that's true in China. That linkage isn't created by elections. It's created by the possibility people will get out in the streets and cause disorder. But there is a linkage between performance and popular sentiment in some sense. So in any case, the Chinese spend most of the time thinking about their domestic problems. And that includes the leaders. They're not sitting in Zhongnanhai, the leadership compound, wondering how they can confuse the lives of American leaders and frustrate our global ambitions. Occasionally they do think about international affairs, and probably more than occasionally, and they have specialized bureaucracies that spend all their time thinking about that. But I would say if you look at most leaders, most of the time they're worried about staying in the saddle of a very tumultuous domestic circumstance. So that's the first thing. I've often had people from India ask me, 'What does China think about India?" And I don't mean to be flip, but they don't spend much time thinking about India, is the honest answer. The second thing you need to say is China pays particular attention - to the degree that it's paying attention to foreign affairs - to its periphery. And right now relations with Japan and Vietnam and the Philippines, Korea, and of course the United States is in an entirely different category. But China spends a lot of time thinking about its neighbors, although its policies aren't as skillful now as they used to be. Another theme is that when China looks at the big powers, particularly the United States, the word you hear time and time again is "bullying." This is not delicately put, but they can't get past the 150 years from 1840 on when China was pushed around in the international system. The vocabulary, whether it's the president, or the people at much more modest system levels, all talk about the history of bullying China. And part of the legitimacy of the Communist Party is they're building up China's economic and military strength so China will never be bullied again. The "never again" club is very strong in China. So I think that's another. Now this leads to the reaction to American policy, and that is they generally conceive of our policy now as trying to contain and limit China's resurgence to a place of equality and power in the world.

GRILLOT: Well, in the last couple minutes we have David, let's focus on China's future. What are we to expect in terms of China managing all of these domestic issues? The growing middle class, issues of corruption, which we haven't even touched on, military-civilian relationships, how are they to manage all of that and this complicated relationship with their neighbors, what appears to be a desire to at least be a major player in its region. How are they going to bring all this together? What are we to expect from China?

LAMPTON: Well, I think one of the first things to say is for the last 40 years, China has exceeded the expectations and predictions of almost everybody who has ventured to make any. China is in a place none of us imagined 40 years ago. So the first part is sort-of humility. We're not very good at predicting. And my book doesn't really seeks to predict. It tends to paint a few scenarios. I think the most optimistic is urbanization and globalization. Give China an interest in the rest of the world, and in cooperation, interdependence, cooperating on climate change, keeping the global economy...the cooperative China is possible. I think there's a reasonable chance that, broadly speaking, that's the future that lies ahead. But I wouldn't put more than 50/50 on that. China's leaders could think that internal stability cannot be taken for granted. You see its current leaders now trying to tighten up because of the massive urbanization, growth of the middle class, demands, and internet, all of these things. China could go back to its old playbook, or it could try. I don't think they can go back to anything remotely like Mao, but on the other hand they could try the strongman playbook. And if they do that, they're going to alarm their neighbors. They're probably going to have a foreign policy that's less cooperative. And therefore they're going to get pushback from the international system, as indeed they already are, in part from the United States, certainly from Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines. So I think it’s uncertain, and I try to tell my students our job is to try to push toward the positive scenario, recognizing we're operating in the margins of a very big society with very big internal dynamics.

GRILLOT: Well David Lampton, thank you so much.

LAMPTON: Thank you. I enjoyed being here.

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