Last month was an interesting time to be a kiwi living in China.
Back in New Zealand, there was an election in which no party had a clear majority. New Zealand First (or was it Winston Peters?) held the balance of power, to decide whether New Zealand would have a centre left or centre right government for the next three years. He/they leaned left and now there are going to be all sorts of policy changes after nine years of centre right government. My heart and mind is more left than right and has a greenish hue, so I support many of the new directions planned by this three party coalition.
But I am left wondering if there isn’t a better way to choose leaders and run a country.
At much the same time, China held its 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China – a five yearly event. More than 2,200 representatives met in Beijing to approve the Party plan for the next five years. These representatives were selected throughout the year before the Congress. Apparently, for this Congress, they worked to increase the number of ethnic minorities, women and peasants attending – laudable, but it suggests under representation of these groups previously.
I am not sure how much the delegates can influence the outcomes. I think their role is more to take it back home and extol its virtues. But, I am impressed by how each plan is developed. A drafting committee works with investigative research teams to develop a ‘report’. The draft report is then reviewed by party groups, government institutions, the Army, various large organisations, retired party elders, various forums, leading specialists and other political parties. (Yes, China actually has nine parties, not just one as I thought. The Communist Party is by far the largest, with 85 million members. The next biggest party has half a million and the smallest has only about 30,000.)
President Xi Jinping’s more than three hours long opening speech for the Congress was titled “Secure a decisive victory in building a moderately prosperous society in all respects and strive for the great success of socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era”. TV commentators on our Chinese English-language TV channel unpicked the speech and discussed terms such as ‘moderate prosperity’ and ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’. I don’t know exactly what is in it, but the descriptions on our English news channel, and related discussion with Western and Chinese commentators, suggested policies that support what matters to me, and seemed both forward thinking and common sense.
As we watched the news, we were struck by the ability of the Chinese government to plan long term and make things happen. In the last thirty years, they have lifted 800 million people out of poverty – yes, 800 million! Okay, things were pretty dire, and definitions of poverty vary. But it is still 70% of the world’s poverty reduction over that period of time. And they know there are 70 million still to be lifted out – part of the next plan.
Living here, one cannot help but be struck by how rapidly China is moving from being a developing to developed country – in some ways already more developed than New Zealand. China’s long term plans for poverty alleviation, education, health, environment, economic growth, infrastructure building etc are transforming China so quickly. They do not rely on market forces, or individuals making wise choices, and don’t need to convince everyone what a great idea it is, so they can make rapid progress on many fronts. For example, on environmental issues, they are mandating electric vehicles, rapidly moving to use solar and wind power, and reducing deserts at the rate at which they used to be increasing. Similarly, the government can act quickly to hinder property speculation to ensure affordable housing, and prioritise investment in agricultural innovation to be able to feed its people – 21% of the world’s population, with only 9% of the world’s land. Even in the 15 months, we have lived here, we have seen mind-blowing infrastructure development in our ‘tier 2’ city.
In his speech, the President also positioned China, as a strong, rich nation (now with the world’s second largest economy, on track to become the number one economy) as a responsible global power committed to tackling shared dangers such as climate change.
It is easy, as a westerner to feel nervous of China seeking growing international influence. But our TV commentators – two Westerners and one Chinese – commented that we are nervous of China being like the US or the European countries when they were the most powerful countries in the world. In my lifetime, the US has dominated using a bully model, and insisted on countries being like them. As the ex-Australian ambassador interviewed said, that works well for countries like Australia that already think like the US, but it hasn’t worked so well for others. The Chinese guy interviewed quoted a Malaysian leader saying that Malaysia is not nervous of China. Six hundred years ago, when China was powerful, they forged a relationship with Malaysia ‘based on mutual respect and trust’, unlike Great Britain. They trust them to do the same this time.
Of course, I know we do not have the whole story. The news in China is controlled, and tends to catch people being good. So we see examples of policies working, innovation and success. It has made me realise how much New Zealand’s news is trivial or focuses on negative and sensational things – catching people being bad. Neither approach is ideal, whether needing to be ‘interesting’ to sell news and increase ratings, or limiting news to a sanitised selection of things that are going well.
Living here has really challenged my assumption that democracy is best. Democracy now seems so inefficient. Every time a new government comes to power it has to undo some of what the last regime put in place, and return to priorities from the last time it was in power. And, so much time and energy is devoted to convincing the country that one’s ideas are best. I wouldn’t mind if I felt we were all voting based on a solid evidence base, a deep understanding of each party’s policies and selfless consideration for what is best for New Zealand. But, none of us do. Living outside New Zealand for the recent election, I wanted to understand what each party’s policy was. I found a good site that pulled together what each party said about its own policies. But, I confess I found it too much to digest. And I have a relatively high capacity for reading lots of text, and had more time than usual to research because I was not busy looking after children, or parents, or working full time. Instead, most of what people think politically, comes from preconceived ideas and sound bites shared through various media.
During New Zealand’s hiatus waiting to see who would lead the country for the next three years, one commentator suggested that National, the centre right party, and Labour, the centre left party, could consider forming a coalition. I thought, wouldn’t that be amazing? Imagine if they could work together to research what works well and then negotiate solutions that New Zealand could follow for decades and implement really well.
But, they can’t because they have a brand to maintain – what I now think of as the biggest weakness of democracy.
Brand development and maintenance, and the associated marketing, determines the outcomes of elections. Parties cannot afford to agree with other parties even if it makes sense. Next election they will lose support. The Maori Party in New Zealand seems to have been a victim of brand erosion. They opted to work with the centre right party to achieve something, and, in the recent election, lost the support of their traditional voters who saw them as giving up on their ‘brand’.
I have never really understood how the Westminster system, in which an opposition party’s main job seems to be to find fault with everything the other party does, can be a good thing. If we worked like that in families, organisations or business, nothing would ever be agreed or get done. Negotiating until we find win-win solutions makes it possible to work with others. I think select committees are supposed to help achieve this, but I don’t know enough of what really goes on in them to know if this ends up happening. If it does, it is certainly not obvious to the average person voting by brand.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the openness and transparency of New Zealand, and the freedom to say what you think. Those adjectives do not describe China, even with anti-corruption initiatives underway. And China is particularly vulnerable to ‘problems with leaders’.
It seems to me that everyone wants similar things, whether in New Zealand or China, left or right leaning. We want respect and valuing of all human beings, the ability to work and provide for ourselves and those we love, a safety net for whoever who is in need, a healthy economy, an environment that we would want our grandchildren to live in, education that empowers people and prepares us all for the future, a health system that means we are all looked after, affordable housing etc. Our differences are more about how we believe it is possible to achieve them.
In a brand free world, it seems more possible to take the time to work out solutions together that could last. I wonder if, as the pace of change accelerates, it is more or less important to think long term. In one sense, it seems less important because things will change in ways we can’t predict anyway. But in another sense, I suspect we lack the luxury of having time to take cheap shots at others to score political points, and the inefficiency of changing back and forth may matter more.
Now that I am challenging my assumptions, I dream that New Zealand could apply global (or is it western?) social science research about what works well in businesses, organisations and families and replace its 1800s designed Westminster system with a 21st century political environment focused on win-win, evidence-based solutions.
‘Chinese characteristics’ – mutual respect, being fair and balanced, and win-win co-operation – combined with the innovation, pragmatism, openness and transparency on which we New Zealanders pride ourselves, might help us get there – but, alas, probably not in my lifetime.