January 7, 2005


China won’t be a superpower (Martin Vander Weyer, 1/08/05, The Spectator)

The time is surely ripe to rehearse the counter-arguments on this one, and let me start by declaring a bias: the last day I stood in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square was 4 May 1989, which was the first day the students marched in with their banners, and were there to stay until the tanks crushed them a month later. Before and after that traumatic moment, I made many visits to Taiwan, a country which achieved prosperity and democratic progress by refusing to be part of China. In the same era I was often in Tokyo, where hotel bookstalls were full of tomes by American gurus predicting the rise of Japan as the global giant of the 21st century on the strength of its fabulous industrial and financial supremacy; after the Tokyo stock market collapsed — never to recover — at the end of 1989, the books were pulped and the arguments never heard again.

So it 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.

To enlarge that last point, many observers argue that China cannot continue to advance economically without reforming politically. The new middle class, concentrated in the coastal provinces, is content simply to get rich by paying its dues to the party elite, but a younger generation, more aware of the freedoms enjoyed elsewhere, may not be so compliant. 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.

But the party will not loosen its grip without a fight, and meanwhile there are still a billion Chinese who are not part of the economic miracle — instead they are underemployed peasants like Mr Zhang’s displaced and disgruntled ex-neighbours, whose only hope of a better life is to stare through the fence that keeps them out and wait for remittances from their offspring, who labour for a pittance in urban sweatshops. One day they may rise up to cut the throats of the rich and powerful, taking China back to the civil wars of its pre-Communist past.

And lastly — my guiding text here is Niall Ferguson’s The Cash Nexus — we should remember that money is not always the answer to everything. Mr Zhang may be able to buy a château, but today’s Chinese leaders cannot so easily buy themselves a seat at the top table. International reactions to the two relative unknowns now at the top, President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, tend to echo General de Gaulle’s remark on first seeing a diminutive Japanese prime minister of the 1960s: ‘Who is that transistor radio salesman?’

The truth about superpowerdom is that it is partly to do with economic might, but also a matter of culture, education, science, military hardware and statesmanlike posturing. It is about coercing or persuading other parts of the world to want to be like you — which Britain, France, the Soviet Union and the United States have all achieved in their time and in their spheres of influence. How many French millionaires do you know who want to build replica Chinese pavilions in the suburbs of Paris? China produces thousands of gifted musicians who have adapted to the Western tradition — Lang Lang, for example, was the world’s best-selling classical pianist last year — and, needless to say, proud British piano marques such as Broadwood are now actually manufactured in China. But how many European musicians adapt the other way, and how many Spectator readers have ever willingly sat through a Chinese opera? We have always liked Chinese food and we have recently warmed to Hero and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in the cinema, but a survey this week said that China is one of the five countries where Britons would least like to live. In a broad cultural sense, it is China that wants to imitate the West, and not the other way round.

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.

Read a good Chinese novel lately?

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 7, 2005 3:21 PM

I'm waiting for the reviews by Leonard Pinth-Garnell first.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at January 7, 2005 3:49 PM

Chinese novels are all about the same thing: revenge. So, too, are Chinese movies. There's always grudges, and people either pay them back tenfold or die trying.

Posted by: pj at January 7, 2005 4:29 PM

At the end of 'Hero' they should have at least had the courtesy to have a voiceover saying 'This is Hu Jintao, Chairman of the Communist Party of the People' Republic of China and I have approved this message.'

Posted by: Bart at January 7, 2005 4:53 PM

Murder in Ancient China was a fairly good book. I bought it in China so assume it was written there.

Mr. Weyer need more research on the relations between Mainland and Tiawan. He's forgetting the blood bond and the intertwined business relations that boggle.

I doubt we'll ever see the political being totally driven by the economical.

The survey showing Brits don't care much about living in China is understandable. China is only cordial to them at best. #1, the Opium Wars, #2 the colonialization of Hong Kong.

No author will ever really understand China until he sits down to a large plate of MaLing's Cow Tendons with Bone Marrow Jelly.

Posted by: Tom Wall at January 7, 2005 5:27 PM

The cultural influence of Asia in general is on the rise.

Sales of Manga (Japanese comics) are reaching or surpassing sales of American made comics, and Japanese anime has ceased being a small subculture and been embraced by American youth.

Asia dominates the video game market which is its own brand of mass entertainment, and if you don't think they have Asian themes, ask any gamer what the Romance of the Three Kingdoms is about. Control of this production will effectively make Japan and Korea the new Hollywood.

Martial arts culture, filled with Asian philosophy, has been mainstream since Bruce Lee or the Karate Kid films at the latest.

Eastern philosophy became mainstream in the 1980's with the rise in interest of strategy classics by Sun Tzu and Miyamoto Musashi by the business class.

The success of Crouching Tiger and Hero is particularly noted because Americans do not watch any other nation's sub-titled films, but we are beginning to do it with Asian ones, particularly Chinese. The genre of Wu Xia films have been a cult feature for a while and is now becoming mainstream. Chinese actions movies by John Woo and Jet Li have already passed into the mainstream. American movies are already emulating them in a much deeper and broader way than Akira Kurosawa's movies were copied by earlier film makers.

Chinese fashion is already being seen in woman's clothing, and probably received a boost when Kirsten Dunst's Mary Jane was seen wearing just such an inspired dress in Spider-Man.

There is no indication that this is simply a fad, but a very broad trend. It is likely to continue. This cultural influence is unlikely to give China additional political sway anytime soon, but the seeds have been planted.

OJ is right that China's future prowess has been overblown, sometimes hysterically so, but he is wrong to discount China. Despite its problems it is the only rising power of hegemonic capabilities. India has much potential too and has similar problems. The main difference between them is they have opposite strengths.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at January 7, 2005 7:16 PM

The Chinese will do very well for themselves in coming years.

That is the Chinese in just about every country that isn't the People's Republic.

Chris: Conflating Chinese and Japanese cultural contributions makes about as much sense as doing the same with US and French cultural exports.

And many of the things you mention spring from Hong Kong which is pretty distinct from the mainland in a lot of ways.

Posted by: Ali Choudhury at January 7, 2005 8:23 PM

Heck, I haven't read a good American novel in years.

One Chinese movie I can recommend that is not about revenge is 'Black Cannon Incident.'

Orrin would hate it. It's about free speech

Posted by: Harry Eagar at January 8, 2005 8:48 PM

Why wouldn't conservatives like a movie that attacks government bureaucracy?

Posted by: oj at January 8, 2005 9:06 PM