Fears real and imagined

2010-01-09Asia Times

PART 1: The peace imperative (

BEIJING - China's problems are not all internal. On the outside, China's rise has created plenty of fears, some small, some large.

Among the small fears are those commonly found among Americans who see China as a second wave of the Yellow Peril that scared the US in the 1980s, when it was thought that Japan would soon take over North America. In this new scenario, American workers see jobs migrating to China because of investment going there; at the same time, China has become America's largest creditor, one of the countries that, by buying US bonds, keeps the US afloat.

Thus China is seen as a modern version of Ebenezer Scrooge, Charles Dickens' caricature of early industrial development in England. It is a tale of one country stealing jobs and leaving common people unemployed while at the same time being the stingy financier bankrolling America's profligate debts, and possibly awaiting the occasion to call everything in and send the US into bankruptcy.

However, these are only small fears, no matter how acutely they are felt. These perceptions could easily be addressed and modified. After all, even Scrooge had a soft side, as all kids are reminded when reading A Christmas Carol.

Furthermore, clear minds know that present-day China is not 1980s Japan; job migration is not confined to China, it is a global and complex process: jobs also go to Mexico, Bangladesh, Africa et cetera. As for credit, China bankrolls the US, but it is the US that spends too much and saves too little. Besides, with so much credit in China's hands, the trouble is not with the US, the debtor, but with China, which cannot call in such an enormous debt without endangering Beijing's own financial and economic balance.

But there are four larger issues at play that make the shadow of Scrooge more substantive.

The size of China and its population

China is one of the largest countries geographically and has the largest population. India's population is nearly as large and growing faster - it will overtake China in a few decades. Already the Indian subcontinent as a whole has more than 1.5 billion inhabitants, more than China, which is still below the 1.4 billion mark.

However, India's population is divided along many lines. There are religious divides (Hindu or Muslim, to reckon only the two largest religions of the subcontinent), ethnic-linguistic divides (Indo-European in the north and Dravidian in the south), and "national" divides (the Bengalis, although Indo-European, stand out as a distinct nation). Dozens of official languages split the country. The result is a maze of many differences in India, whereas China looks quite unitary. About 95% of its population calls itself ethnic Han. Of China's other 55 ethnicities, only two create real problems to the largely Han state, the Tibetans and the Uighurs, who together make up only about 1% of the total population of China.

Chinese, linked by language and culture, are by far the single largest concentration of people in a limited area who share common roots and thus a common destiny. And they make up more than 20% of the world population - a mass that is both vast and compact enough to control the world.

Speed of change and development

This mass is also developing very quickly. In the past 30 years, it maintained an average economic growth rate of almost 10% a year. At this pace, the economy doubles every eight years, and thus in 32 years it will have grown to 16 times the size it was in 1978, at the beginning of the reforms. At this rate, in some 20 years, when it will be eight to 16 times as big as it is now, it will have overtaken the United States. In 1840, at the time of the First Opium War, China's gross domestic product was more than 30% of the world's. To reach that level again it could take decades, maybe about 60 years, yet to reach the per capita GDP of the average Western level, China will need to keep growing very fast for maybe a century.

Up to the 19th century, China kept itself isolated. This time it is overflowing into the rest of the world, with purchases and exports in every corner of the globe. In 2009, China became the world's largest exporter, and Chinese people are opening businesses, restaurants and other enterprises everywhere. It is a whole different ball game than in the 19th century.

The changes to global politics and economics that these projections imply are mind-boggling and impossible to compute.

The only certain thing is that the changes brought by China's rise will dwarf the changes brought by the discovery of America in 1492. Only an invasion by extraterrestrials or the colonization of Mars could be bigger. For the West, and particularly for Europe, it could be the end of a world view centered on itself, something akin to the end of the Roman Empire.

China could in a few decades become the driving economy of all Asia, as Asian economies are growing around China. That means that a continent that is home to 60% of the world population will be the center of the world. This could further spur China's growth to reach the Western standard of per capita GDP, and total GDP as big as 50% of global GDP - a record China may have reached in the past but which now, in a globalized economy, could mean much more. The United States had more than 50% of global GDP at the end of World War II, when the rest of the world had been bombed to near death and lay waste.

Yes, China could achieve the goal of concentrating half of the global wealth without firing a shot, but what are the implications? Nobody knows, and everybody can only trust the Chinese who say "we will do nothing in haste". Certainly, as we have seen, they have no interest in doing anything in a rush, but they themselves do not know what will happen. Thus we have fear of the unknown, made even more scary as China is not "one of us".

An alien civilization

From a Western perspective, no civilization is more distant and more different than that of the Chinese. The ancient Egyptians and Babylon soon merged with the Greek civilization that inspired and was integrated into the Roman tradition. The Persians were set apart, but were a constant enemy and threat to the Roman Empire. Islam is a religion of the same God of the Jews and of the Christians, who dominate Europe and the West. The Indian civilization remained further away, but it has been in contact with the West since the time of Alexander the Great; besides, it is an Indo-European culture: its pantheon and its earliest myths share the same ancient linguistic roots as the Greco-Roman world.

China is very different. It was isolated for the whole first millennium of historical development. Its earliest proven and massive foreign influence came in the 1st century AD, with the arrival of Buddhism from India. The religion moved only east and not west, finally almost disappearing from the subcontinent while evolving and thriving in China, thus making China even more odd compared with the West.

Its sing-song language, its ideographic script, its lack of religion in the Western sense, its lack of a systematic pantheon, even its use of chopsticks and not the hands (long before forks and knives became standard in the West) for eating made China distant from the West. Even without considering that China for centuries kept to itself and was not interested in joining the trade rush the Europeans started after the discovery of America, China was, and still is to Europeans and their descendants, the closest thing to Mars there is on Earth.

Furthermore, unlike other civilizations, such as the pre-Columbian American peoples or those in Africa, which were easily wiped out by the sophisticated onslaught of disease, crosses and gunpowder, China had a resilient civilization, hard to put down.

Still the civilization and its language are very hard for foreigners to learn. Western children need about six days to learn the basics of reading and writing through the alphabet. For the same task, a Chinese child takes six years - the whole Chinese primary-school system basically teaches a child just the basics of reading and writing.

A world so different becoming so important is objectively scary for those who are not Chinese.

Non-democratic politics

On top of all these fears and concerns, which are rarely openly discussed or even admitted, comes the fear always put forward - the different political system, dominated by the Communist Party. The fear of a non-democratic state is serious, especially as many countries have emerged from more than 50 long years of Cold War. But this fourth fear must be seen in the context of the first three.

When communism was toppled in Russia, that country became overnight "normal" in popular Western perception, although US leaders were quite aware it still had a powerful nuclear arsenal. Present concerns deal more with the authoritarian turn Russia took politically after Vladimir Putin took the helm of the state. Japan, although it has been a democracy for some 50 years, and has meekly toed the line of US foreign policy for some 60 years, is still considered with some fear and suspicion in the West.

Similarly, even if China were to adopt the US political system totally, there would be still fears about its different and challenging civilization, its speed of growth and its size.

The West fought communism and other totalitarian ideologies at home and abroad for almost a century, and China's political system, no matter what we choose to call it, is authoritarian and only slowly moving out of its totalitarian mold - so slowly as to seem a fiction and ready to be reversed at any time.

And even taking this movement in good faith, as proof of real change, the system remains different, and it is opaque to Western politicians. As China moves to integrate in the world, it retains features very different from those of other states, and its political system and decision-making process are more secretive and much less transparent than democratic systems in the developed world. China has moved toward greater transparency but it is still a long way from the Western standard. In the West, journalists or even ordinary people can be admitted to parliamentary debates, hearings and other important occasions that shape government decision-making. In China, access to such events is carefully restricted.

The very process of selection of leaders, crucial in any country, and clearly presented in developed countries, in China remains a mystery. How was President Hu Jintao selected? How was Xi Jinping, his alleged successor, chosen? Who participated in the selection process? Who opposed whom? Can the selection be reversed? How does the competition for political power, inevitable in any country, work in China? All these questions and more can be answered only through guesswork, much as was true with Soviet or Maoist politics. In developed countries, such questions have clear and open answers, although there can be dealing under the table. In China there are also dealings under the table, but the table itself is not out in the open, but shrouded in mystery.

The lack of transparency and the difference between the two systems are cause for real and serious concern. Chinese intentions remain largely unfathomable, whereas Western intentions are largely in the open, and any decision-making process has to go through open debate in commissions and the press, and thus intentions are largely clear long before they are put into practice.

This difference is both strategic and practical: how do you deal with China when its intentions are not clear and there may be hidden long-term agendas? Thus the pressure on China for democratization: a democratic China, with all its risks and dangers of being tempted by nationalist sirens, would be easier to gauge and deal with than a closed, hidden China.

What can be changed and what can't be changed

In this list of fears there are things that Beijing can change and things that it can't. Beijing can strive to be more "Western" in its civilization, it can popularize the use of English and encourage the learning of foreign languages and culture, but it is foolish to think that China will ever stop being China. In fact, it should never do so - that would be a huge loss to the world civilization. China can learn different cultures but cannot and should not forget its own.

China has tried to downsize itself. Forty years of birth control culminating in the strict and controversial one-child policy subtracted some 400 million people from the total Chinese population, which otherwise would now have soared past 1.7 billion. [1] It has been a huge sacrifice for China, though necessary for its own accumulation of wealth conducive to growth. Now Beijing is backpedaling from this policy, as it faces the problem of an aging population long before it has reached full development. But it is impossible to think that China's population can shrink dramatically by magic. Conversely it is possible that it will continue to increase slowly before stabilizing at a size huge by any standard.

Similarly, it is unlikely that it will slow down its development. Millions of people want to obtain the wealth only a small minority of their countrymen have so far reached. Before considering the politics of social pressure, the danger of class struggle between rich and poor, the economic necessity to expand the domestic market, and so forth, China will need to continue its fast growth simply so that more people can be brought to a better life as soon as possible. For the same reason, it is impossible to wish for a slowdown of China's development. And it would be hard to think that the entrepreneurial spirit of the Chinese people could be easily stemmed by central government policies.

While the first three fears cannot be addressed, the fourth can and must be, as a necessary way to assuage those previous three fears.

Incidentally, considered against the backdrop of the present trend of development and expansion in the world, Mao Zedong's rule, which virtually stopped Chinese economic and social growth for more than 30 years, was a blessing for those in the world who have wanted to keep China off the political and economic map. For the enemies of China abroad, then, the real recipe to cut China down would be to support a new Maoist revolution, which would bring back those times of misery and terror. And for Chinese rulers wanting to prevent policies treacherous to Chinese interests, a rule of thumb would be to spot people harking back to the methods and the thinking of the old Maoist days.

1. See for instance Zhao Baige, vice-minister of China's National Population and Family Planning Commission, as reported on December 11, 2009, Chinese minister links 'one-child' policy to emissions reduction at climate conference ( (2010-01-09 Asia Times)


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