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China’s People-Centred Approach

Published May 19, 2022


Paul Tembe

In the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the citizens are regarded as “masters of the country”. What does this mean and how can this bold statement possibly be relevant for South Africa as it still battles a living apartheid legacy, the epidemic of maladministration, inhuman inequality and climate change consequences?

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The PRC has built a moderately prosperous society not least by eliminating absolute poverty as set out in Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development and demonstrating what can be achieved with decisive leadership strengths to arrest the Covid-19 health and economic pandemics. China’s socialist modernisation and record-high human development index (HDI) in various sectors of society, is premised on five interlinked factors that are relatively distinctive to the PRC. President Xi Jinping has enumerated these as:

1) pursuit of modernisation to cover a massive population of 1.4 billion people

2) not compromising on common prosperity

3) delivering material public goods in an ethical fashion

4) promoting harmony between nature and humanity

5) prioritising in international relations peaceful development.

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These five factors are driven by a singular policy and political orientation and singular objective. At a seminar on January 11, 2021, President Xi specified the orientation and objective of people-centred approach as “development for the people, reliant on the people, and that its fruits should be shared by the people”. This mantra is meant to ensure there is arrest of the economic gap between people rich and poor people, narrow gulf between regions and ultimately promote “all-round social progress and well-rounded personal development”.

In some respects, this collective progress and individual development has resonance with Maslow’s hierarchy of importance in government being focused on both physiological needs and self-actualisation aspirations.

This emphasis on people-centred approach is made relevant and pronounced when considering that Covid-19 has exposed and exarcebated what Oxfam International terms global extreme inequality that is, in many western countries, an inequality not by chance but by choice whereby the “wealth of the world’s 10 richest men has doubled since the pandemic began”. In its January 2022 report, Oxfam calls this inequality as tantamount to “economic violence” that, without doubt, results in “direct harm to us all, and to the poorest people, women and girls, and racialised groups”.

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Quite simply, a people-centred approach is about increasing inhabitants’ living standards, growing their income, and ensuring their socio-economic needs – in education, health, housing and safety – are addressed. It is a reason why the PRC has put in place the world’s largest social security system that covers these socio-economic needs since this relatively can guarantee societal stability plus political durability. As we have learnt in South Africa, without government achieving the former needs, then this poses a recurring threat to attaining the latter ideals.

This people-centred approach is also a reason China has adopted a zero-tolerance for Covid-19 even as most countries, in 2022, begin to relax their anti-coronavirus strategies. This zero-tolerance is premised on the humanitarian understanding that each person’s health and safety is paramount and should inform all governance decisions and actions. It is another factor the PRC prioritised, during the heyday of Covid-19, the largest global humanitarian campaign by showing solidarity with all countries from both the Global South and North in making sizeable anti-pandemic donations in honour of their “commitment to building a global community of health for all”.

As the PRC aims in the 2022 financial year to grow their GPD by more than 5.5%, in their planning this target is non-functional if it does not translate to giving people a better material life. After all, in the words of President Xi in 2017 this is informed by this ever-present consideration: “what we now face is the contradiction between unbalanced and inadequate development and the people’s ever-growing needs for a better life”. This is most pertinent in South Africa for several reasons especially when there was, and is, much celebration about the commodity boom and economic growth.

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First, jobless economic growth that doesn’t deliver public goods does not make for a stable society. We saw this in South Africa coming with legitimate criticism of government at the time that growth is only of benefit to the haves and not have-nots who seek, above, economic emancipation on top of political freedom.

Second, decisive leadership has to lead front and centre in promoting people-centred development by being intolerant of – and always willing to punish publicly deeds of – maladministration, corruption and wasteful expenditure. After all, this wastage of public resources amounts to denial of public goods for the most vulnerable in society.

Third, a people-centred approach should be the basis not only for anti-coronavirus campaigns as was reasonably effectively achieved in South Africa. Moreover, an HDI composite should serve as a barometer to any government in how far they are attaining high life expectancy, health and education as the PRC’s socialist system of investing in people and expanding their substantive freedoms.

Fourth, the PRC’s achievements are about the state not being shy and reticent in remaining consistent in its policies, focusing on their implementation, and entering the economy to correct market imbalances where necessary.

Tembe is a Sinologist and founder of SELE Encounters.

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