Putting the Plan into Action How China's Leaders Steer a Massive Nation

There is no question that China is an authoritarian state. But Beijing's efforts to include experts and experiments in the way it governs also help to keep power in check. Once the government supports a project, it normally carries it out -- sometimes on a massive scale. Are there lessons to be taken from the Communist Party's method of governance?

By Sandra Schulz

Western democracies consider themselves to be efficient, farsighted and just -- in other words, prime examples of "good governance." But in recent years, the euro and debt crises, along with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan , have shattered faith in the reliability of Western institutions. Disconcerted Europeans are casting a worried eye at newly industrialized nations like China and Brazil . Can the West learn something from countries that for so long sought its advice? This is part IV in a four-part series looking at how the world is governed today. To read the introduction, click here. For part I, on Brazil , click here. For part II, on the United States , click here. For part III, on Denmark, click here.

When Duan Tingzhi dreams, he sees a future filled with fountains. He dreams of water shooting into the air throughout his new city, to the delight of its residents. According to the newspaper, one day there will be one thousand fountains in the Lanzhou New Area, a region north of the old city of Lanzhou.

For now, Duan sees only sheep, sheep with dirty coats, as gray as the skies above them. The sheep walk across Duan's wonderful, multi-lane, freshly asphalted street, and they're disruptive. They remind Duan, the man with the building authority, of just how far away the container terminals, the football stadiums, the sea and indeed the future still are from northwestern China, and how much work it will take to get there. Duan is so busy that he even sleeps in the New Area during the week, and he no longer has time for his family or for journalists.

And yet it isn't often that someone shows an interest in Gansu Province, a relatively poor province of mountains and deserts, and so Duan leans across the conference table and speaks as if he were trying to conjure up the future. The province has "great potential," he says, slicing through the air with the edge of his hand to punctuate his arguments. First, he says, everything is already there: airports, railways and highways. Second, there is "unlimited electricity." And third, the province has rich mineral resources, including coal, oil and nickel. Of course, he adds, it also has plenty of workers.

Duan's voice softens. He wants to attract international companies to the Lanzhou New Area. "Perhaps," he says, his voice becoming silky smooth, "you can help us convince Siemens to come here." The party official sitting next to him nods.

Then Duan has to go. It's a gloomy day, and the wind is howling through the shells of buildings. According to the plans, there will be 300,000 people living here in 2015, 600,000 by the year 2020 and eventually as many as a million.

But Duan is merely a local chief planner. The important chief planners are in Beijing and have one of the most difficult jobs in the world: governing a nation of 1.3 billion people. China's provinces are as populous as entire countries on other continents. Hunan has as many people as France, Hubei as many as Italy and Sichuan as many as Germany. China's powerful men have achieved much. While millions were still starving under Mao Zedong, China is now the world's second-largest economy.

Europe, immersed in both a debt crisis and a crisis of meaning, is not only mesmerized by Asia's rising powers, but is also asking itself how governing works in these countries. China's economic success also raises another, more outrageous question: Is it possible for an undemocratic government to be a good government?

Beijing's Development Strategy

In China, good governance is primarily defined as the government satisfying the material needs of its people. The people along China's east coast, in particular, have been able to enjoy rapidly growing prosperity. Deng Xiaoping, the reformer, deliberately chose to develop the coastal regions first. Under Deng's policies, the losers were primarily in rural areas and in western China.

Nowadays, when Shanghai residents take a taxi they can learn about the best temperatures for wine by watching advertising clips on a screen in front of their seat. Meanwhile, some farmers in western China live in caves because they can't afford brick houses. The government's response is a policy Beijing calls the "Great Western Development Strategy."

The central government attaches great importance to the strategy, as evidenced by the fact that it has appointed a special "leadership group" headed by Premier Wen Jiabao, as well as a separate agency, to manage the program. The new strategy was adopted in 1999, under then President Jiang Zemin. Even though Jiang may have also been thinking about his legacy, China's "Go West" policy reveals a strength of Beijing's approach: Once something has been recognized as a national problem and defined as a national effort, it is addressed in a consistent and enduring way. A government that is not voted into office has no need to take voting blocs and elections into account. This is the economic advantage of an authoritarian system.

Ms. Li Yingming meets with us in a nondescript, gray concrete building in Beijing. She is the deputy director of the Department of Western Region Development, which is part of the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC). Li is satisfied, at least to the extent that she can be today, in the second year of the 12th Chinese five-year plan.

'A Long Road'

Tens of thousands of kilometers of railways and highways have been developed, including the controversial rail line to Lhasa, built at a cost of about €3.3 billion ($4.06 billion), new hydroelectric power plants, airports, a gas pipeline and a fiber optic cable network. "The progress we have made in this area in the last 10 years is greater than the progress made in the last 50 years."

But when will the Chinese in the west and those in the east have the same standard of living?

"That's a long road," she says with a smile. It isn't the cities that she's concerned about. China also has the "Starbucks Index," which shows where the brand-conscious middle class can be found. In reality, there isn't a single Starbucks in remote Lanzhou, whereas Shanghai has almost 150. Li, however, is more interested in farmers and the illiteracy rate. In Gansu Province, for example, in 10 years, it has fallen from 14.3 percent to 8.7 percent in 2010. Nevertheless, it is still significantly higher than the 2-percent illiteracy rate in China's southern Guangdong Province.

"Talented people play the most important role in China's development," says Li. And then she talks about how schools and dormitories are being built, and how hundreds of cooperative efforts bring together the different parts of the country. Universities on the east coast support their counterparts in the west, and there are partnerships between eastern and western provinces. Besides, says Li, more than 10,000 university graduates voluntarily go to western China each year to teach subjects like English. Of course, she adds, this experience is useful to young people embarking on government careers, and some of the most sought-after positions are reserved for them. "But," says Li, "these graduates also have a very strong spirit of volunteerism. They want to make a contribution to society."

At the end of the meeting, as we are walking through the hallway, she says: "Our leaders have told us that this is a hundred-year project." And then she hurries past a tall floor vase to her next appointment. Her time is precious.

A New Quality of Life

Duan, the official in the west, is also in a hurry. Duan builds things, and he does so because he can. Lanzhou is not Stuttgart, where protests have held up a major rail development project. Chinese pragmatists don't have to worry about how their plans will affect endangered species like the hermit beetle.

The land already belongs to the state, and the migrant workers who are building this city are hardworking and happy to be earning about 2,500 Yuan, or roughly €300, a month. The people who are living there now can be relocated. A government brochure clearly outlines how they should feel about the whole thing. "The construction of the Lanzhou New Area is a splendid solution that was conceived by the city government and the party committee to implement the Great Western Development Strategy," the brochure reads. It also specifies, in tiny lettering, how much compensation the government will provide for specific items, such as 4,000 Yuan for a concrete well and 700 Yuan for a gravesite (per coffin).

There are indeed farmers in Lanzhou who support the New Area, even though they know that there will be a lake where their houses now stand. They hope that they will be able to work as drivers for business executives in the new city. And then there are people like the medical student who eventually wants to move to Beijing, because it's the best place to work. He says that his biggest dream in life is to own a Lamborghini.

They are the people for whom the government is doing all of this, so that it can offer them something, a new quality of life. It doesn't want the students to leave, because the brain drain is one of Lanzhou's biggest problems. It wants farmers to be motivated by hope instead of rage. And, of course, the mayor and the party secretary in Lanzhou are also thinking about their careers, given that economic growth is still the gauge of a local politician's success.

Meanwhile the city is growing rapidly, with a current population of 3.6 million. But Lanzhou, wedged between mountains, declared the world's most polluted city 14 years ago, has no room to expand. Officials even considered removing mountaintops, but then they opted for the flat, undeveloped land out near the airport instead.

There are also those in Lanzhou who would have preferred to invest in the old city instead. But they don't want to see their names in print. The Chinese efficiency praised by so many in the West comes at a price: the silence of critics. The government decides what is good for the people. And if something is deemed good for everyone, the individual must conform.


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