It doesn't matter if a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice. Cross the river by feeling for stones. Followers of China's economic development are familiar with these aphorisms, both attributed to Deng Xiaoping, who set the country on the path of steady and rapid economic growth after Mao Zedong's turbulent era. Those ideas were timely three decades ago. Now they too often serve as excuses for bad habits and delayed reform.
Deng first articulated his revolutionary pragmatism during debates in the 1960s debates over whether peasants could rent land from the state. Deng's idea was to focus on the goal – unleashing productivity – and to take China's unique history into account. He suggested experiments such as stock markets could be ended if they didn't work.
As Deng's opponents feared, pragmatism led the country away from traditional communism, including stock markets and foreign-owned corporations. As Deng hoped, it led to steady rapid growth, a welcome change from the ideologically driven famine of the Great Leap Forward and the chaos of the Cultural Revolution.
But the triumph of pragmatism over principle has also made it too easy to cut corners. The mice of growth have been caught, but less welcome creatures are running wild. A 2007 World Bank report estimated that air and water pollution caused up to 760,000 premature deaths each year in China. The "get rich fast" mentality has allowed many entrepreneurs to cross the river of fortune, but has contributed to numerous corporate scandals. Food safety has become a top concern.
When China's path was uncertain, tentative moves made sense. Now, though, the country needs firm commitments to strong institutions. A gradualist approach leads to counterproductive delays. For example, the hesitant liberalizing of exchange rates probably slowed economic rebalancing.
New slogans are necessary. Outgoing leader Hu Jintao suggests "scientific development" and "harmonious society." But gentle pushes won't shake off the blind obsession with growth. It's time to focus clearly on building strong institutions and the rule of law.