Last week marked the 30th anniversary of Shenzhen, China’s first special economic zone. In that time a small fishing village across the water from Hong Kong has become a metropolis of high rise buildings and industry, largely by relaxing state control. It was in many ways the starting gun for China’s remarkable economic growth which has made it the world’s second largest economy after the USA. President Hu Jintao marked the occasion with a speech which, as well as celebrating Shenzhen’s economic achievement, dangled the prospect of political reform. No-one should get too excited. With two years left in office, President Hu is not about to unleash democracy as we would understand it.
Indeed as the latest figures from the World Bank show, there are signs the Chinese government is setting out to strengthen government control over the economy. They are certainly reinforcing state control of the media – and investing in huge expansion to take the message about China to the world.
In 2009 the Chinese Government announced that it will spend almost $7bn on the international expansion of key media outlets, of which $2.2bn will be spent each on CCTV and the Xinhua news agency: a stark contrast to the pressures on international resources felt by, even state funded, western media.
There was 16 per cent growth in domestic media last year – largely to fuel the internet and mobile boom.
China is online and mobile. There are nearly 550 million mobile phone users and 384 million internet users – most of them on broadband. But the government’s grip across the media is as tight as ever. (Anyone wishing to understand how modern China works should read Richard McGregor’s new book, The Party)
This combination of explosive growth, modernisation and state control is confusing for many in the West. We assume economic liberalisation must lead to political liberalisation. But that’s not how the Chinese see it. The “Asian Values’ of social harmony, partnership, concern for welfare over rights and respect for authority, with industry and the media as projects of the state, are inevitably at odds with Western ideas of pluralism, competition, human rights, accountability and governance.
These different world views are increasingly going to knock against each other in the years to come as China seeks to expand its influence through soft power and the West seeks to defend its liberal principles.