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    US scholar calls for more objective and rational studies of China

    Author  :  WANG YOURAN     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2023-03-24

    Currently, some Western academics and media outlets misunderstand, smear, and attack China. However, an increasing number of scholars in Western countries view China from an objective and rational standpoint. Their perceptions of China’s development and its relations with the world are well-informed and fact-based.

    In a recent interview with CSST, James K. Galbraith, a professor of government and business relations from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin in the US, shared his insights into Chinese modernization and Western academic literature on China.

    Keys to Chinese modernization

    Speaking of China’s development, Galbraith told CSST that perhaps the most distinctive feature, not merely in modern times, when compared to the West, is the complete lack of an imperial or colonizing impulse.

    Chinese development has always been about building a secure and stable society within China, and not about external conquests, Galbraith said. The government of China is, and always has been, mainly concerned with managing the affairs of China and with warding off others who would interfere in those affairs. This is an extremely distinctive and important feature. In times of peace, it has permitted rapid development of Chinese infrastructure and society.

    Moreover, the legacy of 1949 left China in a very strong position with respect to land policy, Galbraith continued. The ability to direct land rents to the purposes of the state, especially at the municipal and provincial levels, was a key element in assuring successful financing of major infrastructure projects, which in turn generate an increase in rents, thus forming a virtuous circle. The pace of development of Chinese cities, unparalleled in human history, must owe something important to this institutional fact.

    Outside China in most countries, land rent is private, and it pays to speculate by keeping land idle, a phenomenon that is rare in China, Galbraith said, adding that Chinese cities are not blighted by parking lots.

    Looking back on the process of Chinese modernization, Galbraith noted that peace and social stability are paramount; “nothing good happens in conflict zones.” Second, internal control over finance is a key to long-term stability of the development process. This is a combination of maintaining domestic control over banks and other financial institutions, and also of maintaining a solid and competent regulatory apparatus. The latter is a challenge in China as it is in many countries, including the United States. Third, the development of a country requires a pool of well-trained tech talent. Nothing much can be achieved if the population is semi-literate, innumerate, or excessively sick. Fourth, institutional diversity is a strength, for this helps with fostering constructive competition. Fifth, there is a lot to be said for building infrastructure ahead of the need for it, so that a country is not always straining against the capacity of its water, transport, energy and other systems. This requires a solid mechanism for assuring that resources are available for infrastructure investment, according to reasonable and feasible plans.

    Biased studies of China in the West

    Galbraith does not self-identify as an admirer of the Western academic literature on China, with a few exceptions. He held that this literature is excessively preoccupied with squabbling over ideological issues.

    Is Chinese modernization a case of successful transition to capitalism? Or is it a case of successful modernization of socialism? Did China succeed by adopting Western rules? Or by breaking those rules (whatever they are)? In Galbraith’s opinion, these questions are not of very great interest and not very useful in understanding China.

    He said it is a sad fact that some Western academics these days are in the process of repeating the 18-19th century’s habit of “othering” China–reducing it to a caricature similar to the old trope of “oriental despotism.” This is done for political reasons, and it is not constructive.

    According to Galbraith, Western policies toward China are (and always have been) rooted in geopolitical considerations, which sometimes have recruited or attracted scholarly discussions that serve to justify policies decided upon for other reasons.

    Citing the incident that the US president signed a proclamation granting permanent normal trading relations (PNTR) status to China on Dec. 27, 2021, Galbraith said this move was driven by corporate and banking interests seeking access to China, both for markets and as a platform for production, but rationalized by a narrative of democratization and liberalization. The same rationalizations now are inverted, to support a return to a policy of hostility toward China.

    Generally, the thrust of policy tends to inform the tone of academic and public discourse, rather than the other way around, Galbraith observed. This explains in broader terms his skeptical view toward much of what he reads about China.

    Editor: Yu Hui

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