What can development learn from China’s approach to reform?

Man on a horse crossing a river

By Lewis Husain and Adrian Ely

At the launch of the STEPS China hub in Beijing this year, there was much talk of learning from China’s development experiences. A key question was how the Chinese government has been able to manage such massive change at a national level, whilst at the same time catering for differences across such a diverse country. A new STEPS working paper takes a fresh look at these issues, with a focus on local government innovation and reform.

Lessons from China
Reforms since the late 1970s have seen China transformed from a poor county, dominated by a state-controlled industrial sector and collective agriculture, to a ‘rising power’ at the centre of global affairs. China is now a major contributor to the global middle class. It has made substantial gains in human development, including raising hundreds of millions out of poverty.

China’s development has created great interest among development scholars, who have attempted to understand how China has managed such vast and rapid changes. In particular, China’s economic development and gains in human development raise the question of the relevance of Chinese lessons for other countries.

We know from experience that it is hard to replicate what works in a specific context, in another developing country. However, the way China has managed rapid reform under conditions of complexity may give us some lessons about how to approach change management itself.  At the same time that specific lessons from China’s domestic reform experience are starting to gain international traction, the global development community is increasingly questioning standard models of development programming, and asking how to carry out adaptive programming under the conditions of complexity that characterise so many development challenges.

One model, many pathways?
In identifying these lessons, scholars have often asked whether it is accurate to describe a ‘Chinese model’ of development, as distinct from that followed in other countries. Lewis Husain’s new working paper deals with a core aspect of this: how government manages institutional innovation under conditions of rapid and complex change in the service of reform and development.

Following a keynote at the hub launch given by Zhang Xiulan, one of the questions from the floor asked whether China’s ‘new normal’ involved one pathway or multiple pathways.  China has often been described as adopting an explicitly experimental approach to development, ‘crossing the river by feeling for stones’ (in Deng Xiaoping’s words) in an incrementalist approach.  Husain’s paper goes into more detail than previous literature by exploring in detail how this process of experimentation and innovation has been applied in recent years, especially in the area of health reform.

The paper points to the complex relationship between central government narratives and the different ways in which they are implemented at various levels in the country.  To outsiders unfamiliar with the country, ‘progress’ in China is often assumed to emerge as a result of top-down authoritarian mandates that are unquestioningly implemented by a vast  government and party infrastructure.

Husain’s paper draws these naïve assumptions into question, and points instead to the flexibility that different branches and levels of government have to interpret central policies in ways that serve their own (more local) needs and contexts, in the process exploring and in some cases pioneering multiple pathways of change. It draws on earlier literature that has tried to understand this, but also new data and analysis that have focused on innovation as a theme.  The insights that the paper generates give us clues about the Chinese model and the aspects that are vitally important to understand as China’s role in the world continues to change.

The extension of the Chinese model
Understanding China’s approach is becoming ever more important for the global community – both because development in China affects us all, and because of China is increasingly influencing patterns of development in other parts of the world.

Solving most major development problems of the 21st century, including health, environment, and other challenges, will require China to play an active and important role. How China reforms, whether it manages to ensure good access to health and other social services, whether it manages to institute systems to curb the development of anti-microbial resistance (PDF), as well as how it manages high-speed urbanisation and controls environmental impacts, will have a dramatic impact on global futures.

Beyond this, China is developing a new sense of its role as a development actor. In the last few years, Chinese government and researchers have been increasingly engaged internationally through a suite of programmes (in areas including agriculture technology transfer, improving population health, and disaster response), and through increasingly large-scale development initiatives, including the BRICS Bank, the AIIB, and investments along the Silk Road. Through understanding how China has managed reform at home, we are perhaps better equipped to follow the policy processes that are likely to unfold as China’s influence extends through these investments.

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