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Sudan is not China

von Hans Dembowski


“Tank man” in Beijing in 1989:  western media under-estimate the extent to which China opened up under authoritarian rule.

“Tank man” in Beijing in 1989: western media under-estimate the extent to which China opened up under authoritarian rule.

The reasons of China’s developmental success are largely misunderstood by western media. Yes, an authoritarian government made it happen, but it was different from most authoritarian governments. Leaders did not simply exploit the country, but focused on development. At first glance, the way Sudanese troops have been crushing protests last week looks a lot like what happened 30 years earlier in China – but it is very unlikely that the generals there will take a similar developmental approach.

On 3 June 2019, Sudan’s military and paramilitary militias clamped down on the country’s democracy movement. They killed several dozen people. It is too early to say what will become of the so far nonviolent uprising, but the outlook is bleak. The generals will surely try to tighten their grip on the country, so dictatorship looks likely at least in the short term.

Almost exactly 30 years earlier, on 4 June 1989, Chinese troops put an end to democracy protests on Tiananmen Square in Beijing. At first glance, the events looks similar. I think there are big differences, however. Let me elaborate.

It has become trendy in the past three years to argue that authoritarianism is stronger than previously believed, and that democracy is weaker. Evidence is seen in the fact that the one-party rule in China has prevailed and even seems to be becoming more rigid in recent years. A long, though slow trend of China opening up after the Tiananmen Square massacre has apparently gone into reverse. The hopes of western observers, myself included, for eventual democratisation have apparently failed.

This assessment, which is currently en vogue, is too simplistic. It misses what has driven Chinese development. To explain this crucial point, I must first discuss briefly what “development” means. No, is not simply economic growth, nor is it simply rising per-capita incomes, both of which have been impressive in China the past 4 decades, starting well before 1989.

What really matters is functional differentiation. This sociological term means that important subsystems of society gain autonomy and become self-managing. Those subsystems include the economy, science, law, religion, the political system, mass media and others. Niklas Luhmann, the prominent sociologist, called them “functional” systems. They operate according to their own logic, but they are not entirely independent because they all  rely on services provided by the other functional systems. For example, markets fail unless there is an independent judiciary that can settle conflicts. In a similar sense, technology companies depend on cutting-edge scientific research. Research, in turn, depends on a minimum level of free exchange among peers.

Luhmann’s systems theory is very complex and, were he still alive, he would probably cringe at the simplified way I am referring to him here. To understand China’s striking development and success since the early 1980s, however, it is important to see how much functional differentiation the regime allowed to happen and even actively brought about. It created special economic zones in which profit-driven companies flourished. It invested heavily in higher education, establishing universities that now have strong international reputations. Masses of students were allowed to study abroad, including at western universities, and later, millions of tourists to visit Europe and North America.

China’s Communist Party backed off from the totalitarian communist ideology which, under Mao, everyone had to pledge allegiance to. While people never had the freedom to directly challenge the authority of the regime, they were mostly free to develop and discuss all sorts of ideas that were not directly related to government legitimacy.

Even political power was decentralised, with different provinces having the liberty to adopt different policies. What worked in one place was copied in others, and eventually rolled out throughout the country. To a large extent, however, the central government was not micromanaging affairs. It was observing what was going on. It was not simply imposing its will, but showed an eagerness to learn from experience. Moreover, it kept focused on building physical and social infrastructures.

It is true that governance always stayed authoritarian. I find it depressing that political human rights were never fulfilled. We mustn’t overlook, however, that the Communist Party enjoys considerable legitimacy in the eyes of China’s people, nonetheless. The reason is not only that society as a whole has become more prosperous, but also that people have far more options than they did in the past. Their opportunities to take their fate into their own hands have multiplied.

It is noteworthy, development – according to a UNDP definition – means enabling people to do that. Political freedoms are a component, but other issues matter too, especially education. Functional differentiation was what facilitated increased opportunities in China, giving scope for people to thrive in different spheres, pursuing different kinds of careers and creating a multitude of new livelihoods.

Until about 10 years ago, the international development community largely expected further opening up in China. I plan to discuss what went wrong in another blog post next Sunday. Right now, I want to return to Sudan.

I do not think that the military, if it stays in control at all, will copy the Chinese model of modernising society by bringing about more functional differentiation. Sudan’s military has a brutal track record of war and repression. It has been in the country for decades without doing much to develop the country.

China’s developmental dictatorship is unusual. It is more typical for authoritarian rulers to exploit their nations than to enhance people’s welfare. Yes, I know, there is corruption in China and top leaders have certainly been enriching themselves. But that is not the only thing they did. The point is that they have managed to improve the lives of masses of Chinese people to an extent that makes their rule legitimate in those people’s eyes.

Not everyone is happy, of course, and repression in China is getting worse. Nonetheless, the overall track record of the communist regime is impressive, and for a long time its argument that it would introduce political human rights once social-economic human rights were fulfilled seemed credible. I’ll return to this issue next week.


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