China has much to celebrate, but …

Today, October 1st, is the (official) 70th anniversary of the Chinese Communist victory in the great civil war (1927-1949).

Cary Huang is a veteran China watcher and a journalist with the South China Morning Post. In that journal, he says that “As China marks the 70th anniversary of the founding of the communist People’s Republic on Tuesday, Beijing will showcase its growing wealth, technological prowess, military might and diplomatic clout with a parade of goose-stepping troops, gaudy floats and nuclear-capable missiles … [and]

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… Certainly, Beijing’s communist rulers have much to celebrate. In the past few centuries the country has never looked as strong as it does today, a consequence of the four-decade economic boom ushered in by the late leader Deng Xiaoping’s free market reforms and opening-up policy … [because] … In those 40 years, China has witnessed something of an economic miracle. Growing annually at an average of 9.5 per cent, its GDP went from 367.9 billion yuan in 1978 to 90 trillion yuan (US$13.18 trillion) last year. Meanwhile, per capita GDP rose from just US$200 in 1979 – when 80 per cent of Chinese lived in absolute poverty in rural areas – to around US$10,000 last year, firmly in middle-income territory.” That’s all to the good, good for China and the world. Although the “Golden Arches Theory” is not believed any longer, as a general rule prosperous countries are also peaceful. 

At the end of 2010,‘ Mr Huang writes, “China overtook Japan as the world’s second-biggest economy and by 2017 had risen to 75th in the world in terms of per capita GDP, according to the United Nations. Life expectancy, too, has risen: from 66 years in 1979 to 76 in 2016 … [and] … In fact, in some economic areas – such as exports, foreign reserves, mobile phone and internet usage and car sales – China now tops the world. In the past decade, it has become the chief engine of global growth.

But, he says, “There’s no doubt; China’s economic influence is massive. Nevertheless, China is still neither an advanced nor a developed country. Nor can it properly be described as a rich nation. It is a developing giant on the world stage … [because] … Just look at per capita income, arguably the best measure of a country’s personal wealth and its people’s standard of living. At US$10,000, China still lags last year’s worldwide average of US$11,570. And it is far behind the US$62,641 of the United States and the US$48,610 average for advanced economies, to quote International Monetary Fund figures. Clearly, some of the world’s largest economies – China and India – have much to learn from some of its smaller ones, like Luxembourg and Switzerland.” In fact, except for the fact that some people are overly sensitive about non-existent threats to Chinas’ sovereignty, China could learn a lot more a lot closer to home: from Hong Kong and Singapore.

But Cary Huang says “This fact is part of a wider truth about China that is sometimes lost in all the hype about its rise. Yes, it has risen to new heights in many areas and become a globally influential power in the past 10 years. But it is still not a true superpower, even if it is emerging as a strong contender to become one. To be a true superpower, a country must wield global influence in many, varied spheres: in economics, in science and technology, in military matters and in soft power … [and] … China might score an A on its end-of-term report for economics, given that it is the world’s second-largest economy, its largest manufacturing hub and a leading exporter of mechanised goods … [further down the grading scale] … it probably even manages a B for its military might. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is, after all, the world’s largest serviced army. Even so, there’s room for improvement. Its uncontested and corruption-tarnished forces are still far inferior to those of the US, the world’s only truly global military power, according to the World Economic Forum … [and, of course] … The PLA can only look on enviably at the American

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navy’s near invincibility and ability to exert and project power anywhere in the world – a privilege it has enjoyed unrivalled since the end of World War II … [but] … in other subjects, including science and technology, China’s report card is less impressive. Despite its swift rise in telecommunications, new energy and artificial intelligence over the past decade, it still has much to learn from the developed West in the traditional sciences, academic research and education … [for example, he says] … Just take a look at the history of the Nobel Prize since it was first handed out in 1901. Since then, Europeans have won 481 Nobel Prizes; Americans, 375. Within Europe, Britain has won 133; Germany, 108; while even smaller Western nations like Switzerland, Sweden, Austria and the Netherlands have earned between 20 and 30 each. To date, China has just three Nobel Prizes; one for science, one for literature and one for peace (the last of which was awarded against Beijing’s will).

He lists many other challenges before he gets to his main point: “While China has made great strides in the past four decades, its leaders are more nervous now than ever about their grip on power and international standing. The country’s most daunting challenges, internally and externally, lie ahead … [because] … The economy has lost momentum over the past decade as its growth rate has steadily dropped. It was 14.23 per cent in 2007; 9.5 per cent in 2011; 7.3 per cent in 2014; and 6.6 per cent last year. That downward trend has accelerated quarter by quarter since last year and the latest figures suggest this will continue. The 6.2 per cent growth of the April-June period was the lowest quarterly figure since records began in March 1992 …[and] … China’s economic woes are not exclusively about growth figures, but also about the future of its model of state-led capitalism. Despite its claims to be a socialist nation, China has yawning social contradictions and one of the world’s biggest wealth gaps. In 1980, the richest 1 per cent of people owned 6.4 per cent of the country’s wealth; in 2015, that figure was 13.9 per cent. In 1980, the poorest half of the population held 26.7 per cent of the wealth; now they hold just 14.8 per cent … [and, further] … In politics, the country has become more divided than at any time in recent memory. Not since the death of Mao has China seemed this ideologically driven. Orthodox Marxism and Maoist policies have been revived and many Chinese feel the country is moving inexorably towards greater authoritarianism … [it seems to Mr Huang that] … Within the establishment and among intellectuals, 195202-5x3-topteaser940x564there is widespread disapproval of the Mao-style personality cult surrounding President Xi Jinping, his excessive accumulation of power and the controversial constitutional amendment entitling him to lifelong rule. Since that amendment, China’s political future has become more uncertain. At issue is not only how long Xi will stay in office, but also what happens after Xi and his era of strongman politics. What sort of power succession will there be, and what direction is China going in the longer term?

He concludes, and I agree that: “China’s rise comes amid an increasingly hostile international environment – one that has been stirred up by Beijing’s high-profile displays of its rising might and power abroad … [and] … Mass protests in Hong Kong; rising pro-independence sentiment in Taiwan; the escalating rivalry and trade war between China and the US: each of these issues threatens to derail China’s development … [he suggests that] … Xi, keen to revive China’s national greatness, has swapped Deng’s low-key diplomacy for an increasingly high-profile posture that many analysts believe has contributed to the growing US-China competition for leadership on the regional and global levels … [and] … Many analysts even warn that the world’s two largest economies and chief political adversaries are in fact in the early stages of a new cold war … [and, further] … Beijing’s increasing hawkish rhetoric and assertive defence policy have rekindled distrust not only in the West, but also among China’s neighbours, including in Japan, South Korea, India and many smaller Asian nations … [thus, he says] … after 70 years of communist rule, the picture that confronts us today is one of China at the best of times, and the worst of times … [because] … While the economic successes of the past 40 years cannot be ignored, political theory and history suggest it is only constitutionally free democracies that can make that final step to becoming advanced and developed economies … [and] … To date, every single nation to have joined the 36-member Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has been not only a market economy, but also a free democracy … [Cary Huang says, and again I agree that] … This fact alone should be enough for Beijing to pause for thought. While significant anniversaries mark the passage of time, offering an opportunity to recall past triumphs and honour past losses, such occasions also allow nations to reassess their past and rethink their future … [but] … Just as China’s rapid development over the past four decades proved the success of Deng’s free market reforms, its continued economic success will depend on its willingness to embrace modernity in governance – democracy, freedom and the rule of law … [because] … Doing so would not only accomplish what China calls its “national rejuvenation”, but it would also achieve exactly what the rest of the world is hoping for: a peaceful rise for the Chinese nation.

China has made enormous strides in the past 70 years. It is one of the world’s great civilizations; home to a rich and vibrant culture and to some amazing people. It is ready for greatness, again, but the Chinese Communist Party’s insistence that only it must be allowed to govern may derail everything.

 

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