July 1, 2021 marks the centenary of the Communist Party of China (CPC). Under its leadership, China has achieved remarkable progress. What makes China different from other socialist countries? And how should China respond to its current challenges from the U.S. and the West? On June 30, Beijing Review reporter Wen Qing had an exclusive interview with Kishore Mahbubani, a senior Singaporean diplomat and author of Has China Won?, to share his insights on the CPC and China. This is an edited version of the interview:
Beijing Review: In many of your interviews, you spoke highly of China's development in recent years. Which aspects in your opinion are most impressive when it comes to China's development?
Kishore Mahbubani: I think the most impressive thing achieved by the Chinese Government is that it lifted 800 million people out of poverty. That's the largest poverty reduction exercise ever in human history. And I speak about that with some conviction because I myself experienced poverty when I was a child. I know how damaging poverty can be. Your life is miserable. If you can rescue people from poverty, that's the noblest thing you can do. And clearly, rescuing 800 million people is an enormous achievement on the part of the Chinese Government.
What makes it even more remarkable is that China has the fastest growing middle class in the world. China's middle class is about 200-300 million people, larger than that of the United States. It's clearly a tremendous achievement to have accomplished, especially in 40 years.
What role do you think the CPC has played in achieving this progress?
Since 1949 when the People's Republic of China was founded, the CPC, the ruling party of China, has led China to achieve tangible progress. If China didn't have a very strong central government, these achievements wouldn't have happened.
But what is interesting is how the CPC has changed and adapted to different times and different challenges in its history. Clearly, in the first phase its focus was making sure there was political unity in the country. And then after Deng Xiaoping took over, the focus was on modernization and reform to ensure that the economy grew and developed.
It was very unusual for a communist party to introduce so many market reforms, and to let the market decide how resources should be allocated. The Soviet Union collapsed because they couldn't achieve that. It wasn't possible for the Soviet Union to grow its economy in the way that China has been able to. The flexibility and adaptability of the Party is the real strength.
There had been many movements practicing socialism/Marxism in many countries around the world, but few had been successful. What makes China different?
It's a great mystery why China has been so much more successful than other countries in economic and social development. There's no question that in terms of economic and social development, China has been the most successful country in the last 40 years.
So why did China succeed? When I was dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, I explained the secret formula of Singapore's success which can be captured in three letters: MPH. M stands for meritocracy, P stands for pragmatism, H stands for honesty. In many ways, I think the CPC has also been successful, because it has implemented the MPH formula.
Meritocracy is shown in the fact that you have to have exceptional abilities before you can be invited to join the CPC. In my book, I described how my research assistant in New York, who came from China, was disappointed that she ranked number two in a high school, because only the number one can join the CPC. That's an indication of meritocracy.
The definition of pragmatism has been given by Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping when he said it doesn't matter whether the cat is black or the cat is white if it catches mice. I think the pragmatism that China has shown is unlike the Soviet Union which tried to transform the economy with one great leap and failed.
Deng Xiaoping advocated that you cross the river by feeling the stones. In the same way, China reformed itself by making very careful, slow, pragmatic adjustments and it has succeeded.
Honesty is also very important. Even though in China there is some corruption, China has been fighting very hard to reduce corruption. It is the least corrupt societies that succeed in the end.
Even though there are many other factors that explain the exceptional success of China in economic and social development, I think the formula, meritocracy, pragmatism and honesty, is a large part of the explanation.
Most Chinese people are confident in their country's development and are very supportive of their government. Why does the West keep accusing China of violating human rights citing Hong Kong, Xinjiang and other issues?
The United States is deeply troubled over the fact that within the next 10 years, the United States will become the number two economic power in the world. I think it's more or less inevitable. So no great power likes to drop to number two.
Professor Graham Allison has documented that in the past when the number one felt threatened by number two, the number one would start a war to stop it from happening.
But in a nuclear war between the U.S. and China, you won't have a winner and a loser, you will have two losers. The United States may lose 15 to 20 cities for example in a nuclear war. Nuclear war is crazy.
Since the United States cannot launch a military contest against China, I guess it is launching an ideological contest against China. Therefore, the criticisms of China's human rights records are part of the effort to try to lower China's standing in the world.
But it's a mistake for the West to use human rights as a political weapon. Taking Xinjiang as an example, the West tries to "defend" the human rights of Muslims in Xinjiang. But it's very telling that not a single Islamic country from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) supports the West. Why?
Because they see that the Western governments are not really concerned about the condition of the Muslims in Xinjiang. They are just looking for a political weapon to use against China.
If you look at the last chapter of my book, Has China Won?, I say that in some ways, the United States and China have common interest, because the U.S. has suffered from radical Islamic attacks, like in 9/11. China has suffered from radical Islamic attacks also in different cities. Actually, in this area, the U.S. and China should be working together to try to eradicate radical Islam. And the best way to do that is to support growth and development in the Islamic world.
You once said today's world faces three major challenges and one of the most important ones is the competition between China and the U.S. How do you see the future of Sino-U.S. ties? What should China do in response to the U.S.'s containment measures?
In my book Has China Won?, I predicted that even after President Donald Trump goes, the U.S.-China contest will continue. Clearly, in Joe Biden's administration, the United States is still carrying out policies of contest against China.
I think it's very important for China to continue to do what it is doing and respond rationally. China should continue trading with the U.S. and the world. And the best way to ensure that the U.S. doesn't succeed in its containment policy in the way that it succeeded against the Soviet Union, is whether China shares its prosperity with its neighbors. This is what China has been doing, for example with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
China was very brave in proposing an ASEAN-China free trade agreement in 1999. Since then, trade between China and ASEAN has exploded.
The best thing China can do is to continue its policy of opening up, and continue to increase trade with all countries, including the allies of the U.S., like the EU, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Thailand, the Philippines, and so on.
Copyedited by Ryan Perkins
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