The Rise of the Middle Kingdom – Lilly Bussman


Lilly Bussman sets out to challenge prevailing, distorted narratives about the rise of China.

We are told two very different stories about China. The first one is about China’s authoritarian regime. The second one is about China’s breathtaking economic development. But for some reason, these two stories never seem to go hand in hand. Western media either discusses China’s ‘oppressive government’ or otherwise its ‘marvelous economic growth’; they are treated as separate stories, not to be mentioned in the same breath. However, in this essay, I argue that these two stories are intimately related and that, if we are to understand China, we need to be honest about the trade-offs they entail. 

So, let’s consider the first story that we are being told. This is the story about China’s authoritarianism. Pieced together by current news headings, that story goes something like this: China does not hold national democratic elections. As a consequence, it is perpetually oppressing its people. For example, news reports link abortion and infanticide to China’s ‘inhumane’ one-child policy. Political dissidents are imprisoned. Liu Xiaobo, China’s only Nobel Peace Prize winner, is ‘rotting’ in a jail. Tibetan self-immolation, Chinese cyber-warfare and most recently, China’s ‘hegemonic’ aspirations in the South China Sea and… the list goes on. In short, through the lens of much of Western commentary, life in China seems ‘nasty, brutish and short’ with the all-powerful Leviathan state turning its weapons back on its own subjects.

But there is another story we are being told. This second story concerns China’s impressive economic development: Since the late 70s, China has lifted more than 680 million people out of extreme poverty, reducing the number of people living on less than $1.25/day from 85% to 13% in less than 30 years. Indeed, according to the World Bank, China accounts for three quarters of the world’s reduction in poverty in that same period. In 2011, the United Nations announced China to be the first developing country to have realised the U.N. Millennium Goal – eradicating extreme poverty and hunger. All children get a primary school education, child mortality rates are down by half and whilst gender equality is certainly not great, the percentage of female MPs in China is the same as in the UK.

In short, in terms of development, the numbers speak for themselves. Yet, it is striking that these two stories never seem to go hand in hand. The first story is the story of China as a human rights violating and therefore deeply morally objectionable regime. The second story, however, is undeniably the story of a country that has overseen the greatest and most successful poverty reduction program in world history.

What has motivated me to write this particular essay then is the tendency of Western commentators to view these two stories as entirely distinct. The underlying assumption of much Western commentary seems to be that whilst China’s economic success should be celebrated and welcomed, its authoritarianism stands to be judged in an entirely different realm: it is judged as categorically wrong, atrocious and under no circumstances justified. However, to take this view is to greatly oversimplify a much more complicated reality, because it fails to appreciate the intricate relationship that exists between China’s authoritarianism and its impressive development record.

In order to illuminate this intricate relationship, I will discuss two Chinese policies that – in the eyes of the West – have repeatedly been red-lighted as transgressions. I have chosen to focus this essay on the discussion of two particular policies – as opposed to an abstract general discussion – because I believe that picking apart two specific examples best serves the purpose of pointing towards a wider trend. First, China’s one-child policy. Second, China’s household registration system. I intend to demonstrate that, against the mainstream assessment of these policies, it is neither (a) obvious that they are unjustified nor (b) obvious that there is a superior democratic alternative.  

First, the one-child policy. In the late 70s, the Chinese government introduced the one-child policy in order to improve the standard of living through population control. Essentially, this means that the state does not allow more than one child per family. Whilst many exceptions to this rule are granted today, fines in the case of non-compliance remain harsh. Given the nature of the policy, it is quite obvious that no such policy could have ever passed through a democratic system. At the same time, it is not equally obvious that the Chinese people would have been better off without the one-child policy.

Here’s why. Overpopulation. In the decades prior to the policy, an average of six children were born to every Chinese woman. If you take huge overpopulation and combine it with low productivity levels and bad harvest you get permanent food shortage, high risk of famine and ubiquitous poor living standards. In response, the government introduced the one-child policy so that – simply put – China’s limited resources had to feed fewer people.

It goes without saying that the one-child policy sits awkwardly with our basic intuitions about the kinds of rights and freedoms people ought to enjoy: the freedom of choice and specifically, the freedom to choose to have more than one child. It must further be said that there are many undesirable side effects to this policy: high rates of abortion, gender imbalance, under-funded pension schemes and, in many cases, harsh fines in the case of non-compliance.

As lamentable as these consequences are, however, it is not clear that the alternative is any more attractive. Consider India: similar to China, India has undergone impressive growth rates and is comparable in size. Whilst China implemented the one-child policy, India’s population grew from roughly 360 million in 1951 to just over 1.2 billion in 2011 – that’s a 235% increase in 60 years. This, in turn, has significantly contributed to India’s natural resource depletion, deficient water supplies and the fact that nearly half of India’s children today are malnourished. Thus, as much suffering as the one-child policy causes in the fates of individual families, it cannot simply be declared unjustified on the basis that it frustrates our liberal intuitions.

Let us now turn to the second policy, the household registration system – also commonly referred to as the ‘hukou system’. Essentially, the hukou system divides the Chinese population into two classes of citizenship – rural citizenship and urban citizenship. Usually, whether a person is assigned a rural or urban citizenship depends on her parents’ birthplace. Based on this mechanism, citizens are limited to access government services from the specific region that they have been assigned to. In other words, it is a system in which rural citizen are forced to access education, healthcare and welfare benefits from rural areas only. Since the countryside is economically less developed, government services in these areas are meagre and opportunities limited. Being born to parents that are from Beijing or Shanghai, on the other hand, is like winning the jackpot, because both cities have by far the best healthcare, education and welfare system.

For these reasons, the hukou system has been criticised as inhumane, forcing millions of rural Chinese into what is effectively a second-class citizenship. Most certainly, if China did have democratic elections, the hukou system would have never been implemented: that’s because the rural population then greatly outnumbered its urban counterparts. Based on this reasoning, Western media has repeatedly compared the hukou system to South Africa under apartheid and criticised it as yet another expression of China’s oppressive government; and yes, there is a lot of truth to these claims. It is unfair that people should have access to vastly different advantages and opportunities based on a morally arbitrary criterion such as birthplace. It is also unfair that millions of peasants dream about ‘making it in the city’ when their ambitions will ultimately be frustrated by an unfeeling bureaucracy. And it is heart-breaking that the children of migrant workers are either denied an education or otherwise separated from their parents to receive schooling in the countryside.

At the same time, it would be wrong to dismiss the hukou system as nothing more than the sinister ambitions of the Communist Party in an effort to control the masses. A fair assessment can only be made if we are fully aware of what might happen without the hukou system. Of course, as with all hypothetical statements, it is hard to know how exactly that counterfactual would play out. Nevertheless, in the following section, I will discuss three issues that are worth considering; issues which might prompt some of us to re-evaluate whether something much like the hukou system must always be deemed unjustified.

The first issue is that of social instability. The Chinese government – alongside many well-respected academics, both Western and Chinese – argues that migration control is vital to maintaining social stability. Some estimates show that, if the hukou system was to be dismantled over night, more than 300 million people would migrate to China’s cities in the search of better employment. 300 million people taking flight to China’s cities – the numerical equivalent of this is the whole population of the United Kingdom, times five. Social unrest, infrastructural breakdown and an endless list of health hazards – these are all likely consequences of the above scenario. In short, conditions similar to those we would expect in a civil war zone. 

The second issue is that of shantytowns. Let us, for a moment, assume that the scenario just mentioned is not going to play out and instead, let us imagine that 300 million migrants will peacefully settle in China’s urban centres. In that case, however, China would face a different problem: namely, the problem of essentially entrenching shantytowns much like those outside of Mumbai, Jakarta and Rio de Janeiro. In other words, if China’s rural population were free to move wherever they wanted to, huge shantytowns would spring up outside of Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and the like.  That this would be an undesirable consequence is rather obvious: shantytowns display high rates of crime, suicide, drug use and disease whilst generation after generation of shantytown dwellers are stuck in cycles of poverty with no education or prospect of upward mobility whatsoever.


Under China’s hukou system, on the other hand, migrant workers often return back to their villages, because they know that it is only there that the government pays for their children’s education, healthcare and other welfare benefits. That’s why they are called China’s ‘floating population’. Thus, whilst there is a significant number of Chinese migrant workers that, in virtue of living in the city, have to endure substandard living conditions, the problem is not nearly as bad as in other developing countries such as Brazil or India.

Third and finally, tax burdens. The economic reality of China today simply makes it impossible to guarantee all Chinese the same welfare provisions that city dwellers enjoy. Consider that a migrant worker earns about 300 pounds a month. The income tax on these 300 pounds is minimal such that migrant labour only provides for a tiny amount in tax revenues. At the same time, equal welfare provisions for all would require the same standard of healthcare, education and welfare services for urban as well as rural citizens. The tax revenues that such a welfare system would necessitate, however, cannot be covered by China’s middle classes which – though it is growing rapidly – still only makes up about 20% of the entire population.

This is not a moral argument, but a basic numbers game: a group of 300 million middle class Chinese simply cannot cover the welfare, healthcare and education costs of a group that is more than three times its own size. Taxing the super rich more heavily is not going to help either: with an income tax rate of 50%, higher taxation is likely to lead to capital flight, more corruption and fewer hours spent working. In other words, taxing the super rich more heavily is risking the decrease, not increase of overall tax revenue. In short, the two-class system that is China’s reality today is an ugly one, but it is one that, to a large degree, is borne out of economic necessity.   

So, what have I argued thus far? I have argued that (1) China’s one-child policy and household registration system are the result of well-considered public policy choices (2) media representations that outright dismiss these policies as unjustified do a disservice to the people they are meant to inform and educate.

However, I want to stress that (3) I am not advocating (and do not wish to advocate) the complete vindication of the Chinese Communist Party and that (4) I am not trying to imply that China will necessarily remain authoritarian in the future. Before concluding then, let’s look at the last two of these points. 


The Chinese government is not vindicated, because it has committed a great number of horrific crimes that do not stand to be excused in the same way: torture, abduction, murder, racial oppression and, at times, overly nationalistic foreign policy all belong on that list. The limits that are put on the freedom of speech might belong on that list too. What I have argued, however, is that there are a great number of authoritarian policies – such as the one-child policy, the hukou system and perhaps also the limits that are put on freedom of assembly and property ownership, that can forcefully be defended against standard liberal objections.

It is, of course, entirely understandable that our liberal political sensibilities revolt against any such admission: both policies fundamentally contradict the freedoms we hold most dearly: freedom of movement, freedom of choice and the freedom to privacy. It is a difficult admission, because we are asked to accept that there might be a point at which the priority of these freedoms must be conceded; and it is a particularly difficult admission against the background of our own Western experience of democratisation: a historically specific experience in which industrialisation and democratisation seemed to be if not always an easy, certainly a more natural fit than is the case in China. 

Now, whether or not China is likely to democratise in the future is, as far as I can see, an entirely open question. There are good arguments on both sides of the debate. The above discussion, however, has been concerned with China’s past trade-offs between democracy and development. Whether these trade-offs will remain salient in the future, has to be seen. China’s future is open-ended. It will be shaped by China’s aspiring migrant workers, its rising middle classes, innovative entrepreneurs, hard-working peasants and political leaders.

In conclusion then, why does all of this matter? It matters because by 2030, 65% of the world’s middle classes will be Asian; and it is these people that will be driving global consumption, media, development and trade. Given that the West entertains very different normative and cultural values, this posits great challenges in the realm of international cooperation and our own self-conception in the international community. How exactly the West should cope with these changing power shifts, I do not know. In this essay, however, I have put to you that it starts with rejecting simple narratives about China.


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