Ten years after entering the WTO, has China aligned itself with the standards of international business? Has it softened the harshness of a development model based on top-down control? Has it rewarded those who showed trust towards it? Unfortunately, there’s no unambiguous answer to these questions, as the analysis is complex. What is clear is that some ancient flaws have not disappeared: the eccentricity of the country vis-à-vis some internationally recognized values persists.
It is even reinforced by increased self-awareness of China’s economic and political weight and by the contemporary international crisis. The questions move away from the current contingency and successes to embrace the domain of socio-economic development. The question to ask becomes: can a nation keep enriching itself and producing income without conforming to the rules of transparency, integrity, and competition? Is ethics a burden or a necessity for growth? China gave a pragmatic answer to these conjectures: moral principles can be sacrificed in the name of GDP.
Economic media often report about violations of intellectual property, breaches of contract and partiality of the courts of justice. The international community has judged these mistakes with indulgence, identifying them with an inevitable but temporary growth-related pathology that should not have affected the hope for a China more integrated with internationally recognized values.
Today, however, evidence is quite pessimistic. From an economic perspective, growth seems to have made China impervious to criticism and rigid in its behaviours. Foreign companies are still perceived as alien by Chinese eyes; they are, still too often, opportunistically seen as pure technology and profit sources, rather than as genuine business partners. Complaints and alarms increase, because the system is erecting a more and more formidable self-protection. The tension is towards isolation and protection of privileged positions, and not towards the respect of recognized rules.
When discrete interests overlap, it is difficult to overthrow traditional behaviours and to introduce new ethical principles. In Italy, we have experience of the Mafia, a set of criminal behaviours that converge, a structure that follows its own rules, antagonistic to those of the State. We are well aware of its power, its ramifications, and its collusions. Who, like me, has worked in close contact with Ministers and Heads of Government, knows the how tough it is to fight against the core of illegality that pervades some Italian regions. A mixture of criminal conspiracies, settlements in the territory and intimidations, has made it difficult, sometimes impossible, governmental action geared to merit and legality. The sad experience with the Italian mafia allows us to recognize an analogy in some aspects of the Chinese society, with the aggravating circumstance of their uncontrolled spread. A wire of illegally obtained profits often connects private and state-owned companies, industrial lobbyists, local governments, and careerists. Their strength is impressive, eluding controls and punishments. The efforts of honest police officials and judges converge to a dead end. The CCP, which has begun a righteous moralization campaign, sometimes seems powerless against a phenomenon which has become uncontrollable. Exemplary punishments abound, but fail in eradicating lawlessness. The good faith of Chinese political leadership is not in question, but its effectiveness is.
There is actually something that could be done to start improving the situation: the efforts of those who put themselves at odds with this state of affairs should be praised. Those who protest should not be punished as dangerous dissidents.
Anyone who denounces the opacity and the crime should not pursued as if he acted to undermine the foundations of society: the voices of opposition must not be a concern of the media only when they are silenced. If the way of repression were chosen, China would lose a powerful weapon: the awareness that comes from the action of a few brave men and women. This is the difference with Italy, a country that, despite knowing Mafia, also celebrates the heroes who died fighting it.
The emblem of this pattern is the judge Giovanni Falcone, murdered because of his efforts against crime. The conscience of our country honors him, as if his memory could ease the bitterness of his sacrifice. His death did not eliminate the Mafia, but has given some hope. China should draw an example from this. Choosing to suppress the civil society that could provide significant help in the fight against the evils that the central government declared as enemies would be counterproductive.
China needs heroes, so as to avoid to waste the titanic efforts made to achieve the current level of prosperity. The growing prestigious personalities should be leveraged as the source for the best ideas, otherwise China will be increasingly seen as a hostile country, with which to maintain relationships only out of necessity and opportunism. Leveraging the moral, intellectual and productive quality of its people is the optimal means to legitimate the country’s admirable growth path in history.