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Zhang Weiwei on Al Jazeera: pushing Westerners to despise China

In December 2014, Zhang Weiwei took part in the Head to Head program on Al Jazeera. He certainly did his best to explain the recent development of China. However, there is in particular one fundamental question on which he could not come up with any convincing answer. This underperformance is not the result of his personal incompetence; it shows the failure of the whole Chinese academic system to come up with solid and credible information in a field which is crucial for understanding the development of China and all other developing countries:

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The question asked by Mehdi Hasan, the presenter of Head to Head, to Zhang Weiwei is fundamental: How can we justify a policy promoting economic growth if it is obvious that this policy will come at the cost of human lives? Zhang Weiwei's answer is the perfect disaster for mutual understanding between the Western countries and China; he said "The cost is there, but still, it is manageable, as with the rise of other powers, but we can manage it, eventually we can overcome these problems, the cost is indeed reasonable."

Everybody who knows something about Western people knows that they will despise anybody who considers that economic development is worth sacrificing human lives. What would have been an adequate answer? How about: "In China, one percentage point growth per year less each year since 1978, all other things remaining equal, would have cost the lives of 2.3 million babies." Here is a chart which shows where this figure comes from:


The red dot shows the evolution of GDP (x-axis) and infant mortality (y-axis) in China from 1950 to 2015. Other countries are displayed for comparison. The dark red dot, which appears in 1978, shows a hypothetical scenario where China would have had one percentage point less GDP growth since that year. Economic growth would still be impressive, despite the decrease of the growth rate. The distance from the regression line (average infant mortality for a certain GDP level) has been kept identical. The chart shows the difference in infant deaths between the two scenarios, both for the current year and cumulated since 1978.

Statistics about socio-economic development across the world show that in the short term, one percent economic growth more or less does not result in a major change in mortality. In the long term, however, economic development is the only way to achieve sustained social progress, like reducing mortality, especially infant mortality, and increasing life expectancy.

For most of the Chinese people I know, the reality of poverty and the mortality which is associated with it is still fresh enough in their memory or in the collective memory of their family for them to understand this close relationship. In general, what they don't understand is how so many Westerners are totally unable to grasp it.

For Western academics, the reality in developing countries is too remote from their personal experience. Their training as researchers should of course enable them to grasp the human reality under different living conditions. Obviously, this training has totally failed. As a consequence, the huge majority of Westerners don't get the information which they would need to get at least an intellectual understanding of the different reality in developing countries.

There are of course some Westerners who get a direct experience of this reality in developing countries; however, this requires much more than what you get as a tourist or in professional contacts with colleagues. When the few Westerners who get beyond such superficial contacts return to their home country, they are generally considered to have been "brainwashed" and their insights are ignored.

In theory, Chinese academics would be in a perfect position to play the roles of mediators between cultures. The methodology of academic research is precisely designed to explore and describe phenomena and relationships in such a way that they can be understood by somebody who does not know this field from his or her own experience. On the other hand, personal experience is often a decisive advantage for the researchers themselves; this helps them to generate meaningful hypotheses and to develop adequate methods for data collection. Therefore, local researchers are in a good position to explain the reality in their country to the outside world.

Unfortunately, Chinese academics not only do not do this research; they do not even recognize its use when somebody else does it for them. In 2012, I presented the first results of my research into the relationship between economic growth and infant mortality at a highly official conference in Beijing attended by many Chinese government officials as well as foreign and Chinese academics. During the presentation, I insisted on the fact that the close relationship I had found between these two indicators means that economic development was the condition for lowering infant mortality, and that this information was important to explain the Chinese model of development, especially to foreigners. However, nobody deemed that this research was worth getting any support.

China spends millions each year for lots of research about "Chinese culture". The Confucius Institutes were created precisely with the objective to promote understanding for China across the world. However, the Head to Head program on Al Jazeera with Zhang Weiwei shows clearly that many people are neither interested in nor impressed by Chinese culture. They do care about the living conditions of the Chinese people, though.

Rigorous comparative research based on data provided by trusted international organizations clearly shows the impressive socio-economic progress achieved by the Communist Party of China (CPC) since 1949. In view of my research, I totally agree with what Zhang Weiwei said: "The greatest in human history." However, the way in which Zhang Weiwei justifies this evaluation is a total disaster. Always emphasizing the number of people lifted out of poverty without ever mentioning the achievements in terms of infant mortality and life expectancy gives the impression that the CPC and the Chinese people in general only care about money, even to the point of valuing it higher than human lives.

The Chinese people know that sustained long-term GDP growth saves human lives on a huge scale. They know it from their own experience and the narration of elderly and relatives. On the other hand, most Westerners have got no access to such direct experienced. The Western academic world, media and civil society have brainwashed us by decades of a perfectly uniform discourse claiming that economic development is unrelated to saving lives. Their (unconscious) purpose is to present the West and in particular the Western academic world, media and civil society as being those who care about human beings and human lives. In contrast, the CPC is portrayed as caring so much about money that they are even willing to sacrifice human lives if this allows them to have more economic growth.

It is very sad to see how easily Zhang Weiwei could be manipulated to fit exactly into the discourse they want him to have. When Mehdi Hasan asked him about the human cost, which he described as "millions [who] die in a famine or in the Great Leap forward or in Tiananmen Square", Zhang Weiwei qualified this human cost of economic growth as "manageable" and "reasonable", simply expressing the hope that it could be "overcome in the future". Hearing such words spoken by somebody who is a member of the CPC and who is known for defending its achievements is the perfect proof that the CPC values money much higher than human lives, and that if we care about human lives, we must do everything we can to oppose it.

Al Jazeera is of course not considered to be part of the mainstream Western media. On the other hand, Mehdi Hasan has been trained in Great Britain, and the human rights concept he uses is perfectly British, i.e. it totally excludes most of the economic and social rights, even though they are explicitely part of the UN human rights concept. Another article will provide further analysis of this topic. Al Jazeera is also certainly a news channel which attracts an audience which is somewhat critical towards the Western media. The fact that such an audience gets a perfect confirmation of Western anti-Chinese propaganda is all the more terrible.

It only required a handful of Chinese researchers in human science with some competence in quantitative methods, economy and health to investigate the relationship between economic development and infant mortality. Of course, bringing up the figure of 2.3 million babies saved by the last percent of economic growth each year since 1978 in the program Head to Head that day would not have been very convincing. Such a program is not the place where you can show complex charts and explain statistical methods like polynomial multiple regression. On the other hand, the Chinese governments has the means to get a message out to many people and to force them to react.

Over the past decades, Western academics have (unconsciously) done their best to prevent information about this very strong relationship from getting out to the public. However, once they are faced with a rigorous analysis of the relationship and of the technical errors in past research which have led to the opposite conclusion, most of them will react in a professional way. It would be perfectly possible for the Chinese government to inform the world not only about this topic, but also about many other topics which are essential to understand the mechanisms of socio-economic development as a whole. However, they don't get the information they need for this in the first place. Even Chinese diplomats with whom I talked about this topic were very much surprised when I told them that the achievements of the CPC are exceptional not only in terms of economic development, but also in terms of saving lives.

So why does nobody do this research? Zhang Weiwei's attempt to explain China's recent development by it being a "civilizational state" with a continuous history of 5000 years can give us some clues. This theory explains nothing at all. In particular, it does not help us to understand why in the first half of the 20th century, when virtually all countries in Asia had initiated an impressive process of socio-economic development, nothing similar happened in China on the scale of the whole nation (see China's Mao-Deng development model). This is probably one of the reasons why Chinese academics don't like to work with a comparative approach based on international data. Such a methodology only shows too well that development set in when the highly educated scholars were sidelined by the CPC in 1949.

Instead, most Chinese researchers in human science want to do "culture". They prefer reading refined books rather than doing field research to investigate the fundamental needs of human people and the best way to cover them. Modern scientific research can do a lot to help governments to find the best way to prosperity and social progress. So why does the CPC have to "cross the river by feeling the stones"? Because in China, most scholars are sitting on a nearby hilltop on the terrace of a comfortable mansion and, instead of using their skills to provide useful information for crossing the river, spend their time writing poems about the sunset. Of course, they will never admit that they care more about culture than about human lives. This is a good reason to describe the CPC as a regime which only cares about money and GDP.

Some other Chinese scholars and artists stand on the shore and throw stones at the CPC, hoping to replace them at the helm of China. They try to profile themselves as those who care about human rights and the lives of the people. Have at least some of them tried to understand the most basic mechanisms of development, like the relationship between GDP and infant mortality or life expectancy, based on the most reliable data we have got? Of course not.

It is terribly sad to see that not only the Western academic system and media, but also the Chinese scholars consider that they have got an interest in silencing all possible sources of information about the achievements of the CPC in terms of reduction of infant mortality and social progress in other fields.

It took me many years to understand all this. I started to do research about China in 2008, when I realized that many aspects of China were systematically misrepresented in the Western media. When I realized that within the Western academic system, nobody wanted to hear about my research results, it was quite shock, because I was part of this system and had believed in it. It took me many more years to understand that even the Chinese academic system does everything to prevent a proper understanding of the Chinese development process.

With every new aspect of the Chinese development I investigate, I am again amazed with what efficiency and creativity the CPC tuned the whole Chinese state towards the objective of saving human lives while at the same time building up the potential for saving more lives in the future. Only a methodology comparing all development processes across the globe based both on solid socio-economic statistics provided by international organizations and field trips for specific data collection can allow us to evaluate the achievements of each regime. Unfortunately, this kind of methodology is rejected by most Chinese scholars as being "un-Chinese". The few among them who are interested in such an approach tend to get silenced by the majority.

In my experience, many people in China, Western countries and all over the world are highly interested in getting an analysis of the Chinese development model based on solid data and a comparison with other developing and developed countries across the world. Providing such an analysis would certainly have a hugely beneficial impact on the general understanding for China across the world. It could also provide inspiration for other countries which are still looking for their own paths to prosperity. However, as long as researchers who work on such an analysis get systematically excluded from all kind of support by both Western and Chinese scholars and constantly slighted and insulted by them, this is not going to happen soon.