Will This Be China’s Century? A Skeptic’s View
Prepared by Michael Marien
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China has the world’s largest population, with 1.36 billion as of mid-2013 or 19.0% of the world total. It has the world’s second largest economy, soon to be the world’s largest, with currency reserves of >$3 trillion, although lagging considerably behind the US in GDP per capita ($9,210 vs. $50,610). Because of its dynamic growth in recent decades, scores of books have been written about China and US-China relations.
This book is surely among the best. It is broad-ranging yet compact, very well documented (including translated Chinese phrases), even-handed regarding China’s positives and negatives (contrasted to US positives and negatives), refreshingly nuanced, and—above all—it concludes with sensibly constructive suggestions for enhancing US-China relations and avoiding ruinous conflict. Throughout, Gurtov, the author of Global Politics in the Human Interest (5th edition, 2007) and >30 other books, takes a bold and much-needed “human-interest approach” to international affairs, which puts the global community’s security and well-being ahead of any one country’s priorities.
Overall, “The chief purpose of this book is to challenge the notion that the new century belongs to China in the same way that the preceding century was claimed to belong to the United States. This is no small issue… China’s leaders do not claim a ‘Chinese century’; nor do they claim a Chinese exceptionalism. Yet the extraordinary pace of China’s economic development has led to numerous predictions that just such evidences of global leadership are forthcoming or have already taken hold. The question mark in the book’s title is there to propose that, whether in domestic or international terms, a Chinese century is far into the future, if it will happen at all.” (p.1)
FIVE VIEWS OF CHINA
The world of China-watchers is sharply divided.
1) China Critics include several types, ranging from those on the right who see China as a looming military threat to the US, replacing the Soviet Union as an implacable enemy that needs to be contained, to those on the left concerned about Chinese repression of human rights;
2) China Engagers have held sway in the US government since Nixon’s ground-breaking trip to Beijing in 1972, and are also the dominant voice in the EU; engagement, however, has always meant different things to different leaders, who also differ as to when and how to engage;
3) China Duopolists believe in taking engagement to the next level of a US-China duopoly or “G-2”;
4) China Leads argues that China is on the verge of replacing the US as the most important power, and that a “Beijing Consensus” has already supplanted the “Washington Consensus” of rules to govern the international economy;
5) America Firsters includes analysts, political scientists, and politicians who believe the days of the US are far from numbered (the sophisticated version accepts the widespread view of a US in decline, but argues that China would do well to stay within the Western-dominated system).
“Each of these Western schools makes presumptions about China’s motives and objectives in world affairs,” and each proposes an agenda for US policy toward China based on perceived intentions. Gurtov openly supports the “Engagers,” arguing that “those who proclaim that China’s rise might displace the US greatly overstate China’s strength, ambitions, and most of all its capacity to lead.” (p.10) China’s economic power introduces a new factor in world politics, but those who dwell on this change focus far too much on the “China challenge,” and far too little on challenges to China, while also exaggerating the extent of US decline.
CHINA’S MANY PROBLEMS
The challenges to China are largely covered in Chapter 6, “Feet of Clay”:
Environmental Damage. “China’s Achilles’ heel” involves water shortage, drought, floods, air and water pollution, yellow dust, acid rain, deforestation, and desertification. “All of them exact a huge toll on public health, safety, and agricultural and industrial production.” (p.83) The predicted costs of dealing with these problems range between 8-12% of annual GDP, and tell us that China’s real economic growth rate is far lower than reported; if environmental damage were fully factored in, the growth rate would probably be halved. “The situation is likely to get much worse”: 16 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities are in China, yet the country remains dependent on coal for 70-80% of its electricity. Although much foreign attention is on CO2 emissions, “water is the greater crisis, with respect to both availability and pollution.” Various studies report that drinkable water is as little a30% of the water supply in most urban and rural areas.
Public and Occupational Safety. China leads the world in mine accidents, building construction codes are routinely violated, tainted food is a recurring problem, and unsafe buses are routinely used to shuttle children.
Internal Migration. At least 150 million migrant workers crowd cities looking for work, and, as in many other countries, they are treated shabbily.
Human Underdevelopment. China is still some distance from the most developed countries in a number of basic-needs categories. It particularly lags in public health spending, health insurance, hospital beds, work-safety regulations, and number of physicians relative to population. Air pollution levels in nearly all the major cities far exceed WHO guidelines. Only 8 universities rank among the world’s top 500, and educational spending by government was only 2% of GDP in 2006. For the great majority of Chinese students who obtain degrees, the growing problem is finding a job.
Looming Financial Crisis? China’s extraordinary growth has been marked by very large state investments, which may not continue. China has already been through periods of breakneck construction and cowboy financing leading to accumulation of nonperforming loans, bank failures, real-estate bubbles, and serious inflation. “A repeat performance is entirely possible.” Local governments competing to replicate the massive public-works projects of Beijing and Shanghai have a level of debt so high (>$2 trillion, perhaps more) that the four banks dominating loans and capital may again face a financial crisis.
Energy Insecurity. China has chosen to rely for oil and gas imports on regimes with questionable durability. Having fully embraced an automobile culture, dependence is sure to increase no matter how successful China is at conserving energy and building more nuclear plants; “thus, China’s energy picture may be inherently unstable and much less likely than the US to achieve energy independence.” (p.88)
Social Instability and Inequality. Failure to deliver growth, prosperity, employment, and environmental reform risks protests, including violent ones. Gaps in income and living standards are widening between rich and poor, and between urban and rural dwellers. “No wonder China’s reported public-security budget, around $111 billion in 2012 for all levels of government, is about the same size as the official defense budget.” Since there are no official channels for venting grievances, other than petitions to authority figures that are easily ignored, protests are the alternative, and they are becoming commonplace. Each year the official figure on all protests rises sharply, to >125,000 in 2010. Industrial strikes are also increasing in frequency. “To the Chinese authorities, the term national security chiefly means domestic security.” (p.91) The surveillance system called the Golden Shield Project, but popularly known as the Great Firewall, is under the ministry of public security, and is “exceptionally effective” in regulating the Internet. Censorship of speech and press is systematic. But “the likelihood of a dramatic uprising seems very small.” (p.118)
Corruption and Nepotism. Official corruption is extensive; money laundering, illegal sales of state assets, and embezzlement are frequently cited. The top ranks of the party, state, military, and business are heavily populated by princelings (taizi dang), the offspring of senior leaders. Lawlessness of officials is widespread, and “state security” often trumps individual rights. Resistance can lead to arbitrary arrests without trial, long-term imprisonment, and lack of access to legal help and families.
Unsustainability. “One thing the US and China have in common is that their economies are becoming increasingly unsustainable, and in similar ways. Market socialism and free-market capitalism alike accept degrading of the environment and waste of natural resources as necessary costs for the sake of development. Both systems suffer from widening income and wealth gaps. And both face serious sources of social instability.” (p.119)
China’s Place in the World. China’s path to success, dubbed “socialism with Chinese characteristics” (the Chinese don’t like the term "state capitalism"), incorporates Beijing’s reliance on the Washington model of liberal internationalism, e.g. more than one-half of China’s exports are the exports of multinational corporations. “In a word, China has fully embraced globalization capitalist style.” (p.18) It is a key member of the global club of the rich. But as China gets richer and its status as an economic power solidifies, “its relevance to developing countries as a development model will decline.” (p.19)
China’s Defensiveness. Chinese leaders are obsessed with maintaining social order and fearful of anyone who might pose a challenge to their authority. US and Chinese officials frequently engage in a dialogue of the deaf, as the US pressures China to liberalize its politics and correct human rights abuses, while the Chinese are piqued at what they see as an assault on their sovereignty and national pride, denying the abuses but occasionally releasing a prisoner to quiet US protests.
Global Leadership. China’s economic prowess is widely respected, but the foreign-policy and international security capabilities of the US are without peer. The US often acts as a peace broker in major international conflicts, and Washington is far more likely than Beijing to support interventions in the Third World. “Unlike the US, China has no one to lead.” Even if Chinese leaders were to make a determined effort to displace the US in taking the initiative and pointing the direction for others, there are many reasons why this would prove immensely difficult (e.g. China’s export of environmental problems and fear of its economic power).
China’s Military. “China has a long way to go to become a great military power, much less challenge US preeminence.” (p.31) Despite ongoing weapons modernization, its military reach and capabilities remain limited. Military spending by China was $114 billion in 2010 ($758 billion for the 2000-2010 period), compared to $685 billion by the US ($5.85 trillion for 2000-2010). China’s $5.3 billion in arms exports for 2006-2011 was far below US exports of $46.5 billion. The US has 823 bases abroad in 39 countries; China has none. The US has some 8,500 nuclear weapons (including >1,900 strategic and operational), while China has 240 (possibly 20 strategic).
China’s Reach. China is becoming the most important outside actor in Africa due to stressing mutual gain through trade and investments, and common experiences of civil war and anti-imperialism. China has joined the ASEAN dialogue group, but several Chinese practices have proved troublesome to its Southeast Asian neighbors, e.g. energy and environmental policies and increasing tension over South China Sea claims. China’s interest in the Middle East has been consistent in the quest for greater energy security, but always at the mercy of political uncertainties, and Beijing was silent about unfolding Arab Spring events. As for Latin America, China is second to the US as a trading partner, but respects the paramount regional role of the US. In sum, China pursues the “five principles of peaceful coexistence” which promise mutual respect, equal benefit, dialogue, and no interference in the affairs of small powers. However, like the US and the rest of the West, it sometimes practice neocolonialism by exporting deforestation, taking raw materials for value-added processing back home, dumping cheap goods, and displacing local businesses and labor.
China vs. Japan, Korea, and India. China has replaced the US as Japan’s leading trade partner, even as relations remain “fraught with suspicions based on long-standing grievances.” China has also become South Korea’s top trade partner, while trying to keep North Korea afloat with political support and food and energy assistance. China is India’s leading trade partner, although India is well behind China in economic growth and human development: “No matter how you slice it, the fact is that China is much more important to India than India is to China.” (p.71)
China’s Successes. “Most notably, it has dramatically alleviated poverty for some 600 million people.” (p.78) Reduction in rural poverty has been extraordinary—so much so that China alone accounts for >75% of poverty reduction in the developing world over the last 30 years, and now falls in the middle ranks of 187 countries when human development indicators are averaged (101st in 2011, ahead of India at 134 and South Africa at 123, but behind Brazil at 84 and Russia at 66). Grassroots democracy has gained a small toehold in village elections, and, at the top, China’s party-state has institutionalized leadership transition. China has become a global leader in manufacture of wind turbines and solar panels, and is #1 in hydropower and biofuels.
STEPS TO A POSITIVE FUTURE
“Responsible leadership in our time should mean finding common ground between adversaries on policies and ideas that serve the global community.” (p.125) But this will not be easy, because US-China relations run hot and cold, defenses are always up when leaders meet, and mutual perceptions tend to shift abruptly. Virtually all speeches and writings by highly-placed Chinese emphasize the overriding importance of positive PRC-US relations and the necessity of cooperating to deal with issues of mutual concern. In turn, US officials consistently reassure China that they wish it peace, prosperity, and stability, and US public-opinion polls show by substantial margins that Americans want strong ties with China. Gurtov proposes various steps “to reduce tensions, promote trust, and widen the basis for cooperation”:
Military Policy. The US should eliminate or significantly reduce redundant weapons systems, nuclear and conventional, and resist calls for Japan to become a more active security partner in response to China’s rise. Regularizing the Sino-US military relationship should be a priority of both countries; neither country can afford arms racing, though both are in a position to finance one if required.
Human Rights. While the US properly calls for improvement in human rights in China, it should reposition itself as a partner with China in making globalization work for everyone.
Threats to China. Rather than think overly much about China’s threats to US interests, Americans might consider what the Chinese believe most threatens them. President Clinton remarked in 1999 that “As we focus on the potential challenge that a strong China could present to the US in the future, let us not forget the risk of a weak China, beset by internal conflicts, social dislocation and criminal activity, becoming a vast zone of instability in Asia.”
Taiwan Policy. The US policy is out-of-date. The extent of economic integration between Taiwan and the PRC is extraordinary—some $200 billion in investments in the mainland by some 80,000 Taiwan firms, with annual trade >$150 billion. This presents an opportunity for the US to honorably remove itself from its long-standing position between the two parties.
Northeast Asia. China and the US should lead the way to creating a new security dialogue mechanism for Northeast Asia, beyond the periodic Six Party Talks on North Korea’s nuclear weapons.
Code of Conduct. A code of conduct that prevents the kinds of dangerous confrontations that have occurred at sea and in the air between the US and China in recent years “would be enormously beneficial.” Reducing and redeploying US forces involved in close surveillance of the China coast would be an essential element.
Human Development Projects. The US and China should launch collaborative projects for human development, starting in Africa.
Humanitarian Intervention. The two countries should seek a closer understanding of how and when “the responsibility to protect” should be endorsed by the UN Security Council. China upholds the doctrine of absolute sovereignty of states, but has sometimes altered its position.
Ethical Business. Theft of US technology by Chinese companies costs billions of dollars annually. Obtaining legal recourse in China is now on the US-PRC agenda. Also needing attention are improper labor and other practices by US firms operating in China, and necessary “naming and shaming” of errant firms.
Global Warming. China and the US are the world’s leading energy consumers, and a global energy compact should be negotiated, alongside agreement on global warming. The focus of cooperative efforts should be on sustainability and conservation, e.g. the jointly-financed clean-energy research center since 2009. China should have a strong public health interest in working with the US on environmental protection and clean energy sources.
In sum, “Whose century?” is the wrong question. The right one is how to create a legitimate and effective framework for cooperative security that addresses the most serious human security problems. Largely behind the scenes, US-China cooperation is happening in a wide range of fields. “For the US, China, and other countries with global reach, the answer must include practicing new forms of leadership, deepening cooperation with each other, and embracing common security as the touchstone of national security.” (p.145, italics added)
The US-China relationship is of critical importance to world futures and international security. This sensible and sensitive book, exposing a number of dangerous myths and shallow views, should be read by anyone concerned with security and sustainability issues. The nuanced argument for seeking common security is made in a mere 146 pages, followed by 44 pages devoted to six selected documents.
"The End of the Chinese Dream: Why Chinese People Fear the Future" (Yale U Press, July 2012, 320p), by UK social policy expert Gerard Lemos, "Stumbling Giant: The Threats to China’s Future" (Yale U Press, May 2013, 448p) by investment banker Timothy Beardson, and three recent illustrative articles that reinforce Gurtov, Lemos, and Beardson:
“China Faces the Enemy Within” (Guardian Weekly, 15 Nov 2013, p.1), with sub-heads stating that “Explosions reveal rise in violent dissent” and “Angry individuals may be the greatest threat”. China’s domestic security budget has risen to $126 billion in 2013 (Gurtov reports $111 billion for 2012). One analyst warns that social volatility is likely to increase; another notes that ever-tighter controls are counter-productive: repression works in the short term, but compounds problems in the long term.
“With Pollution Rising, Chinese Fear for Their Soil and Food” (New York Times, 31 Dec 2013, A6) notes “a surge of anxiety in the last year among ordinary Chinese and some officials over soil pollution in the country’s agricultural centers,” where fields are ringed by factories and irrigated by water tainted by industrial waste. China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection notes in a 2013 book that one-sixth of China’s arable land—nearly 50 million acres--suffers from soil pollution. The vice minister of land and resources warns that 8 million acres of China’s farmland has become so polluted that planting crops on it should not be allowed.
“The Face-Mask Nation” (The Week, 15 Nov 2013, p.9) reports that air pollution has made many cities in China barely suitable for living, making the population sick and angry. China says it will spend $817 billion to drastically cut pollution by 2017, but the new plan calls for only a 2% reduction in coal consumption, and provincial officials and state-owned businesses “have a history of ignoring policies handed down from the central government.”
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