Copyright – The International Herald Tribune
THURSDAY, JULY 21, 2005
TOKYO China rising
The ever-growing economic power of China poses important questions: will China, despite its lack of freedom, become a true world-class power? And if and when it does, how should the international community respond?
With 760 million laborers, an average wage that is a small fraction of America’s, and one of the highest savings rates in the world (38 percent to 42 percent, though much of this is wasted by the dysfunctional Chinese banking system), China has enjoyed annual economic growth of 9 percent for the last quarter-century.
The Central Intelligence Agency, using the purchasing power parity method, ranks the Chinese gross domestic product as the second largest in the world, about 62 percent of the American and 1.94 times Japan’s, the third largest.
Yet Beijing has yet to forcefully claim the title of world leader.
There are two possible reasons. First, China is actually still poor and weak. About two-thirds of the Chinese population is systematically excluded from the glittering, vibrant urban centers and have the low living standard typical of a developing nation. While China’s most developed regions, Shanghai and Beijing, were ranked by the United Nations in 2001 as equivalent to Greece and Singapore, the more populous provinces, like Gansu and Guizhou, were ranked with Haiti and Sudan.
China is essentially still a giant labor-intensive processing factory. Among the great variety of industrial goods China now produces and exports, few are invented or designed by Chinese. As a result, the Chinese end up earning low wages at great costs to their environment, while foreign patent holders, investors and retailers capture the lion’s share of the profit. No wonder foreign capitalists are among the most enthusiastic cheerleaders of China’s rise.
Second, China’s foreign policy is still motivated by a besieged one-party regime’s desire for preservation. The persistent abuse of human rights and systematic suppression of freedom show how paranoid the regime is.
Many of China’s business leaders hold or seek foreign passports or residency. Capital flight from China has been surpassing foreign direct investment since the late 1990’s. Beijing’s top diplomatic objective has been to gain external acceptance that will prop up the regime, not to expand Chinese national interests or exercise power abroad.
This profound divorce of the regime’s political interest from the nation’s interest, of course, could easily change: Beijing could quickly become a typical rising challenger or even an imperialist power if it feels secure and powerful enough; the regime could also be aggressive and belligerent if it feels desperately weak and in danger of collapse.
Therefore, predictions that China will quickly become a world power, and will do so peacefully, are premature. Since the late 19th century, only one major non-Western nation, Japan, has risen to become a world-class power, and it did so only by wreaking much havoc.
Still, China should and can be powerful and rich. More important, the Chinese people deserve to be free: free from poverty and backwardness, free from the hurtful feelings of past humiliations, free from deeply trenched ethnocentrism and chauvinism, and free from political tyranny. Such a rise of China would enrich the world and truly glorify Chinese history.
Chinese people and the world must work together to devise and further social, political and institutional changes, in addition to promoting economic development, to ensure the peaceful rise of China.
It is also obviously premature to assume that China’s rise necessarily threatens the United States. Such a belief may become an enormously costly self-fulfilling prophecy. It is morally dubious to suppress the Chinese, a fifth of the human race, just because the government there is now undemocratic. It will take much more than devising some clever geopolitical moves to check and control China or to force a quick regime change in Beijing.
What is needed from the current world leaders is serious commitment, long-term goals, and steady leadership and coordination to help China rise and change, peacefully. The success or failure of China’s rise are too consequential to be left for Beijing to manage alone.
(Fei-Ling Wang is a professor of international affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology and an international affairs fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations.)