China: Guangdong Model Making a Comeback?

Back in July this year, the two ‘cake theories’ articulated by the Communist Party of China (CPC) chiefs of Guangdong province and the Chongqing municipality stirred a public debate about different social development models in China.

During the tenth Guangdong Provincial CPC Congress in July, Wang Yang said, ‘Building up the society now has an important place. We need to emphasize on people’s well being. But we need to focus on the economy if we are to make a bigger cake. In other words, our focus is on making a bigger cake, not how to divide the cake.’

This is exactly opposite to what Bo Xilai, CPC chief of Chongqing, said earlier when he emphasized the importance of achieving wealth distribution and common prosperity, ‘we need to divide the cake properly while making the cake bigger.’

Guangzhou's Canton Tower by Flickr user Colin Zhu (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Guangzhou's Canton Tower by Flickr user Colin Zhu (CC BY-SA 2.0)

As a promising contender in the 2012 leadership succession, and with his big push of socialist values and revolutionary culture earlier this year, Bo Xilai and his Chongqing model has attracted much attention in media and political circles for a while. But Wang Yang has spoken out more freely in recent months on the more liberal Guangdong model, with his speech above being one such example.

In fact, there are many differences between the Guangdong and Chongqing models. In an earlier post on Global Voices, Oiwan Lam has highlighted a detailed feature from China’s Public Consensus Net, which compares the two models in areas of politics, economics, culture and public policy. As one of the earliest provinces to reform since 1978, Guangdong has a relatively liberal and democratic tradition. The Guangdong model is seen as an ideological alternative to the state-centric Chongqing model.

As the Guangdong model is making a comeback, a number of commentators have criticized the Chongqing model for its authoritarian and non-democratic characteristics.

Hu Ping, a New York-based human rights advocate, thinks that without political liberalization, the Chongqing model’s claim to solve social inequality is an illusion. In an article [zh] written for the Human Rights in China Biweekly, he first provokes readers with two fables:

俄国大文豪托尔斯泰讲过一个小寓言:两只小熊得到一张饼,不知怎样才能分得公平。狐狸走过来说:让我帮你们分。狐狸把饼一撕两块,一块大一块小,分给两只 小熊。一只小熊叫起来:他那块大,不公平!狐狸看了看说:嗯,那块是大了点。狐狸于是把那块大的拿过来咬了一口。这下,另一只小熊又叫起来了:我这块小 啦,他那块大,不公平!于是,狐狸又把那一块拿过来咬一口。就这样,左一口,右一口,一张饼让狐狸吃去了一半;到头来,两只小熊都只分到了差不多大的一小 块。这则寓言告诉我们:千万别以为专制政府能替我们把饼分得公平,因为它首先会趁机把大块的饼吃到自己的肚子里。

The great Russian writer Tolstoy told us a fable: two cubs got a piece of biscuit, and didn’t know how to divide it. The fox came over and said: let me help you. The fox divided the biscuit into two parts, one bigger and one smaller, and gave them to each of the cub. One cub shouted, ‘it’s not fair, his share is bigger!’ The fox had a look and said, ‘yeah, that one is bigger,’ and then took a bite off the bigger piece. Afterwards, another cub shouted, ‘mine is smaller, and it’s not fair!’ Again, the fox took the bigger piece and enjoyed another bite. In this way, the fox consumed a big portion of the biscuit, leaving the cubs with equally small portions. This fable teaches us never to depend on an authoritarian government to share the biscuit fairly, because it will take the first opportunity to put a big chunk into its stomach.


British philosopher Harrington also left us a fable about division: two ladies got a piece of biscuit, and discussed how they could share it fairly. One lady suggested, ‘I divide, and you choose; or, you divide, and I choose.’ This fable teaches us that the secret of fairness lies in the sharing of power.

He then explains why political liberalization is necessary before the debate about efficiency and fairness can proceed in China.

按照那些学者专家的看法,做蛋糕与分蛋糕之争就是效率与公平之争。其实不然。我们知道,很多西方经济学家谈到经济公平时,他们主要关心的是收入差距。毛时 代的中国,收入差距不大,那是否意味着毛时代的中国做到了经济公平呢?答案当然是否定的。因为所谓经济公平,其不言而喻的前提是制度的公平,是权利的平 等。在毛时代,中共是用非法的手段剥夺富人的合法财产,因此当然是极不公平的。

According to the experts, the debate between making and dividing the cake is one between efficiency and fairness. But it’s not. We know that when Western economists talk about economic fairness, they are concerned about income disparity. In Mao Zedong’s China, income difference was not big. Can we say that economic fairness was achieved in Mao’s China? The answer is no. This is because the prerequisite for economic fairness is institutional fairness and equality of rights. Under Mao, the government deprived of the wealth of the rich through extra-legal means. This was extremely unfair.

必须看到,今日中国的贫富差距,不但在程度上很悬殊,而且在性质上尤其恶劣。中国的贫富悬殊问题与众不同,它既不是历史造成的,也不是市场造成的,而主要 是专制权力造成的。在中国,穷人之穷,在很大程度上是因为他们的财产被权势者所强占;富人之富,在很大程度上是因为他们利用权力抢走了别人创造的财富。重 庆政府主张通过强化税收建立社会保障系统来解决贫富悬殊问题,但这种做法的前提是承认富人拥有的财产基本上是合法的,来路是清白的。

We need to realize that income inequality in today’s China is not only huge, but is also a fundamental evil. It is neither created by history nor market. It exists because of authoritarian power. In China, people are poor because their wealth are stolen by those in power; people are rich because they use their power to steal other people’s wealth. Chongqing government proposes to ease social inequality through strengthening of tax collections and social security. But this proposal presumes that the assets of rich people are acquired through legal and proper means.

然而尽人皆知,在中国,那些先富起来的人,尤其是那些权力集团中先富起来的人,其财产基本上是不合法的,来路是不清白的。中共先是以革命的名义抢劫,然后 又以改革的名义分赃。这分明是对人民的两次大掠夺。所以,要在今日中国实行经济公平,主要还不是通过强化税收建立社会保障系统,而是把权势集团掠夺的财产 归还给被掠夺的人民。重庆模式的分蛋糕理论,恰恰是对两次掠夺的肆意否认,充其量是略有节制的榨取而已,哪里谈得上公平呢!

Of course, everyone knows that the assets of those who first got rich, especially the power interest groups, are of dubious or illegal origins. Historically, the Chinese Communist Party first robbed the people in the name of revolution; it then legalizes the booty in the name of reform. The people have been robbed twice. Therefore, to achieve economic fairness in China today, there is no use strengthening tax collections and social security. The way is to return the assets of power interest groups to the people. The Chongqing model is a blunt refusal to admit that the people have been robbed twice. At best, it is a slight moderation of the stealing. How can it be treated as fair!

Suisheng Zhao, China specialist at the University of Denver, writes at the public policy blog East Asia Forum that the Chongqing model finds support among the Chinese leadership because it is an affirmation of the China model of state capitalism, in contrast to the Western model of liberal democratic capitalism. However, it is not a solution to China’s intensifying social problems because it neglects the building up of democratic and legal institutions based on liberal values:

For all its glitter and shimmer, the China model has some clear faultlines that are responsible for China’s many social and political problems. For example, without accountability, the authoritarian state’s ability to make quick decisions has often come with high economic and environmental costs, leading to irrational and distorted investment, waste of resources and environmental deterioration. In addition, without an opposition party to keep watch on privileged state officials, a combination of authoritarian politics and the market economy has produced corrupt crony capitalism (权贵资本主义) in which power and money are closely connected. Acting to protect and enrich specific interests, the state has come to infringe upon ordinary people’s rights. Arbitrary land acquisitions are prevalent and workers have to endure long hours and unsafe conditions, causing discontent within society.

This is not to say that the Guangdong model is a significant departure from the China model. Nevertheless, with more emphasis on market and civil society, Juntao He thinks that it should be more open-minded and rational than its rival model. Recalling his commentary back in June on China Elections and Governance, run by the US human rights group Carter Center:

Rapid economic growth and relative social stability under an authoritarian regime constitute the “China model”, for several years a hot topic in academia and media circles. Ding Xueliang, a sociology professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, explicates six pillars supporting China’s pathway: Leninist party, party-led military forces, authoritarian regime, Chinese-style social control system, state-manipulated ideology, and a regulated market economy.

The Guangdong and Chongqing models do not differ significantly from this definition. They share the same  structure but weight each component differently. In Guangdong, the market and civil society often manage social issues. But in Chongqing, even the smallest matters are government matters.

In the China model, market norms and authoritarianism are closely intertwined, at some times supporting and at other times undercutting each other. The market requires equality, rule of law and democracy. But authoritarianism centralizes all power into the government. The contradiction between the two mechanisms is the origin of Chinese social tension. The Guangdong model unites both sides of the coin. It makes innovations to the current system against existing tensions, with the goal of eventually reducing government involvement and enhancing the role of the market in social progress. Under the current political atmosphere, the Chongqing model will prevail for a while. But in the long run, the Guangdong model helps China adapt better to a global market economy.


  • John

    This article does not even make a pretence of logical argumentation. The author says that inequality is evil but favors a “model” that emphasizes production over fair distribution. (It’s not as if China has been slacking on the production front in recent decades) He asserts that inequality in China is not the result of either market forces or history – but then goes on to say the Communist Party robbed the people twice – which presumably is a reference to history. He says that the Chongqing government’s plan to increase taxes and improve social security is somehow invalid because the assets of the rich were often obtained by illegal or dubious means. This does not follow at all. Wealth can be redistributed no matter how was originally acquired. He says that Guangdong has a relatively liberal and democratic tradition. Does he mean under the Communist Party. In fact, as he must know, Guangdong is not in the slightest degree more democratic than Guangdong. All that we can tak from this article is that the Chinese “liberal” opposition is irredeemably wedded to a Hayekian, extreme laissez faire ideology and is determined to resist even the mild social-democratic reforms – e.g. provision of social housing being proposed and to some degree carried out in Chongqing. A really depressing and rather foolish contribution to the debate on China’s future.

  • John

    Sorry, around halfway through I meant to say

    Does he mean under the Communist Party? As he must know Guangdong is not in the slightest degree more democratic than Chongqing

  • […] China: Guangdong Model Making a Comeback? · Global Voices Share this:ShareEmailPrintFacebookRedditStumbleUponDiggTwitterLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

  • […] monolith.  The Economist article draws out the two camps within China’s Communist Party, one the Guangdong model which is more liberal and economically reform minded while the other, the Chongqing model, is […]

  • Andy Yee, very observant in your writings, expanding on the framework on the 12th China’s development plan would be nice to hear your opinion on, thank you.

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