Academic Papers

Is Chinese authoritarianism a good model for other non-western developing countries?

           After the second world war and the slow transition from colonialism, many newly independent countries faced the tall development task. The results varied from country to country, but only a few states could match the success story of the People’s Republic of China (China). But is applying the “Chinese model” of authoritarianism at all societal levels beneficial for other non-western developing countries? This essay attempts to answer this question by researching what made China so successful in developing its state whilst also looking at the development of Botswana. This African country was also very successful in modernizing its state from decades of colonial rule; after researching these two case studies, this essay analyses and compares the two states to see whether or not Chinese authoritarianism would have been a good or even better model than the one Botswana had used.

           When discussing Chinese development, it is important to factor in three significant parts that create this success story: culture, workforce, and infrastructure. During the 19th century, Karl Marx summarized what became known as the Asiatic Mode of Production. A theory according to which Asian societies developed economically and politically around cliques of wealthy city rulers exploiting the peasantry. This was an attempt by Marx to force his theory of historical materialism onto Asian history by defining a replica of European feudalism (Shiozawa, 1966; Marx, 1853). I would contest this concept, especially when considering the uniqueness of these states where, in the case of China, the governmental model of its many states started to form long before the creation of the first European concepts of a state (Loewe & Shaughnessy, 2007). The Chinese governmental model of an autocratic monarchy, which promoted officials on merit and dutifulness rather than noble birth, persisted through centuries and has become a significant part of Chinese culture, even persisting in the governing models of the later Chinese communist government. The other important part when discussing Chinese culture is its status as a majorly ethnically homogeneous society, where, excluding Xinjiang and Tibet, the state has not experienced any major ethnical divide in recent history. Both of these characteristics of culture are important evidence of the Chinese state’s uniqueness, which allows them to more efficiently utilize their workforce, which has been one of the main strengths the state has had throughout its history. For instance, during the construction of the Three Gorges dam, one of the most ambitious infrastructure projects in recent history, more than 1.3 million people were displaced and resettled from the area needed for the project (Carney, 2021; Wilmsen, 2018). China has had a long record of large-scale projects, and its ability to utilize its authoritarian power to manage its abundance of human resources has been a great boon in its rapid development. Another example of how abundant human resources helped China’s development can be observed during the mid to late 20th-century industrialisation. The state’s ability to resettle vast amounts of rural people to cities for work in factories gave way to China achieving impressively rapid development. Lastly, one of the most important factors for China’s successful development is bolstered by the two aforementioned factors: infrastructure. China’s ability to achieve these large projects through a large workforce and an authoritarian homogenous culture allowed them to pursue very ambitious infrastructure projects such as the Danyang Kunshan bridge or the Shanghai urban rail, which allow very high levels of human and resource mobility, which has practically fully negated China’s issue of insufficient natural resources and thus becoming the industrial powerhouse we know today (Naughton, 2007).

           While researching different case studies of development in other non-western developing countries, no country stood out as much as Botswana. The state gained its independence from the United Kingdom in 1966 and, during this period, was considered one of the poorest countries in the world. Against this background of post-colonial hardship, Botswana not only performed well but was better than any other country in the world for at least 35 years. Botswana had a PPP-adjusted income per capita of 5,796 USD in 1998, almost four times the African average (Acemoglu et al., 2001). But how did this country become so successful? At the beginning of this long development journey, Botswana had many hurdles to go through poor infrastructure, a largely uneducated populace, rampant disease and a heavy reliance on Britain to maintain the economy stable. But unlike many other African states at the time, Botswana remained staunchly democratic. This essay argues that Botswana’s success also relied on three key factors, experienced administration, good economic investment, and a strong democratic system. In the early years of the country’s independence, Botswana kept its old colonial administration in place until there was time to replace it with a new generation of local administrators. This decision allowed Botswana to avoid many governmental and corruption issues other African countries faced, where more radical governments completely dismantled the state system. Economically, Botswana looked at its strengths: its abundance of natural resources, which, combined with strategic loans from the I.M.F., allowed them to rapidly develop particular industries and, thus, rapidly expand its G.D.P. and connection to the global market (Colclough & McCarthy, 1982). Lastly, because of their democratic system, Botswana gained an efficient central state. It avoided any internal conflicts other African countries experienced at that time, which allowed them to focus on the development of their state and not securitization mainly (Good, 1994). Altogether, Botswana is a strong example of a prosperous non-western developing state which did not need an authoritarian system of government to develop and prosper.

           In conclusion, although impressive, China’s economic success is heavily tied to its unique state features and history, proving that it is challenging to rapidly apply different government models to foreign states with no shared background. A Chinese homogenous authoritarian system could cause more problems than solutions if applied to other countries. For example,

 because of the colonial redrawing of borders, African countries have many different ethnic groups in other parts. If they attempt to resettle a population in these regions in the same authoritarian way China did in their mega project construction, it would have a high chance of sparking ethnic conflicts. At the same time, countries like Botswana can develop if a country focuses on their internal strengths and specifications. Overall, authoritarianism usually breeds more conflict and antagonism for minority groups in states. While it can work for China, it does not necessarily work for other non-western states.


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Karlis Starks

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