Richter Scale

How China’s Government Becomes Ever More Like America’s

Is China infringing on another U.S. copyright — the Byzantine ways and means of the U.S. federal government?

Takeaways


  • China becoming less monolithic is certainly a trend that should be welcomed by Americans and non-Americans alike.
  • The lifeblood of the entire city of Washington is to sort out the effects of multilayered, diffuse coalitions on real-life issues. It can be maddeningly frustrating.
  • What goes on in Beijing is a direct reflection of the games that are being played in Washington day in and day out.

For a long time, Americans worried about the Chinese being Communist. Now, there is a new complaint — that there are too many power centers emerging inside China.

Leave it to the forever self-contradictory Americans to express concern about this shift. One would have assumed they would welcome such a departure from the old, more unitary structures.

But no sooner has China diversified its internal structures than there is a yearning for the more predictable old world of fewer power centers. Horrified Americans say that it is almost as if every single one of China’s near-countless government ministries and agencies is in the process of developing its own foreign policy. As a result, it’s hard to figure out what’s going on — or with whom to deal.

What’s really happening? It is true that things become more complex when China’s 20 ministries all present differing positions on a given issue — whether it is the Chinese currency, environmental standards, intellectual property or what have you.

Throw in different parts of the Chinese military — such as the Air Force, Ground Force and Navy — and China quickly becomes too complex to follow. “Why can’t the Chinese Foreign Ministry sort out all these diverging interests and present us with a unified position for China?” goes the United States’ lament.

This is astounding for a number of reasons. First, it runs counter to the long-expressed American wishes for a less-monolithic China. And second, China’s Foreign Ministry, not least for historical reasons, actually ranks quite low on the bureaucratic totem pole internally. China, as large as it is, has always been very focused on the full panoply of its domestic affairs.

Regardless, we should welcome this emerging Chinese way of managing the country’s vast internal and external power by letting different interests come to the fore.

Yes, that makes matters more complicated. And yes, it can be confusing to discover that each ministry is a vehicle for the expression of the interests of a certain domestic industry, or segment of industry, on issues of international relevance.

But what, one must wonder, is so alien to Americans about that particular concept? Not only did they practically invent it, they still live it every day.

The lifeblood of the entire city of Washington is to sort out the effects of such multilayered, diffuse coalitions on real-life issues. And as anybody who has ever been proximate to this process knows, it can be maddeningly frustrating.

As a goes China

Truth be told, there are very real questions in the United States today as to whether this system has not become too complex and too indecipherable to get anything done.

In the end, what is so surprising about the new U.S. complaint about China — that it is becoming a much more multilayered political and economic enterprise — is that it entirely misses the underlying irony: What goes on in Beijing is a direct reflection of the games that are being played in Washington day in and day out.

China becoming less monolithic is certainly a trend that should be welcomed by Americans and non-Americans alike, even if it can be maddeningly complex. It is not as if China, throughout the ages, has not been maddeningly complex for foreigners to understand, beginning with the huge issue of the language barrier.

But rather than being mad, one should recognize the foresight and long-term orientation of China’s leadership. For the Chinese Communist Party leadership, this is very much an exercise in internal democracy management. The purpose is to make China more stable and rational by breaking up economic power centers — and having them learn to align their competing interests in a mutually acceptable, even though competitive (and at times confrontational), fashion.

More amazing still, that way of democracy management ought to be fully familiar to Americans. They are the ones who, unlike some more reserved continentals in Europe, have never had any hesitation about mixing the business of government with the business of business.

Now that the Chinese are doing the same, the Americans ought to feel right at home in that new world. They seem, after all, wholly familiar with the hustle and bustle of positioning oneself for business advantage — all under the rubric of living in an active, vibrant democracy.

Editor’s note: This essay was published on February 17, 2012 and was updated by the author on June 25, 2014.

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About Stephan Richter

Stephan Richter is the publisher and editor-in-chief of The Globalist. [Berlin/Germany]

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