Marlowe's Shade

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Will China Be a Superpower?

The Spectator's Martin Vander Weyer says no. is worth reminding ourselves why China is not necessarily destined for greatness, and certainly does not deserve our unmixed admiration. First, its present growth rate is very far from sustainable, dependent as it is on slave wage rates, corrupt bureaucracy, near total absence of environmental controls and a financial system which is at best rickety and at worst, by Western standards, insolvent. Second, as Bill Emmott wrote in 2003 in 20:21 Vision, China today is in fact only ‘a modest country at best’, whose gross domestic product per capita, even on a PPP basis, is still only a fraction of that of neighbours such as South Korea, and on a par with Ukraine.

And although China is obviously far from modest in population, at 1.3 billion, it could be overtaken on that front within a couple of decades by India, which also has claims to superpower status in terms of technology, weaponry and what China most glaringly lacks, a democratic government that the world respects.

According to him, undemocratic governments pose some practical problems:

Eventually, lack of democracy will itself become a brake on economic progress, holding back reforms and imposing too many costs — all those bribes for local officials, all those well-paid jobs for their cousins. At that same point, foreign investors will become disenchanted by the lack of an untainted judicial system which might help them enforce contract terms and get their money back.

At times the dismissive tone sounds almost personal.

As for progress for the benefit of mankind, the Chinese may be queuing round the block for MBA courses taught by professors flown over from Harvard, but their tally of Nobel prizes won on home ground is precisely zero (the roll includes two Chinese-born, American-based particle physicists, Chen and Lee, in 1957, and one Taiwanese American chemist, another Lee, in 1986). By comparison, the University of California alone has notched up 15 laureates since 1980. As for literature, the 2000 prize went to Gao Xingjian, born in Jiangxi province, who had to burn a suitcase full of manuscripts during the Cultural Revolution and find exile in France before he could write freely. Ancient China was a great and splendid civilisation; the China built by Mao and Deng is not.

He makes some good points about the environmental devastation that the runaway growth is creating and that certainly is a factor. But it is "the barrel of a gun", as Mao would say, that I think is the key for the projection of Chinese power.

Militarily, on the other hand, China is very big, at least in one sense — and it has unresolved territorial issues over Taiwan (which the US might feel obliged to defend) and the South China Sea that might one day lead to conflict. According to a helpful public website provided by the CIA, China has 208,143,352 men between the ages of 15 and 49 who are fit for conscript military service. But only 2.5 million of them are permanently in uniform, many of their senior officers are busy making fortunes in real estate, the defence budget is surprisingly small because Beijing is so bad at collecting taxes, and the national stock of long-range missiles of the sort which really make you a global player numbers only about 20, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies. That would make a pretty short fireworks display compared with what America has in its armoury.

I don't believe the Chinese always measure themselves by the standards of Western countries and I think it is a mistake for us to do it as well.

Underestimating China would be most unwise.

papijoe 8:18 AM