The developed world stalls, and struggles to work out its future. In doing so, it looks judgementally at China, so determined to do everything differently. China’s difference makes it difficult to comprehend, and having so successfully embraced growth since the 1990s, there is a sense that the country faces another turning point after 2013. Meanwhile, a torrent of alarming headlines makes it difficult to judge what this may bring.
The terrors are as follows. China surpasses the US in world trade, though it prefers to deny it. China has invested $67 billion in African resources to feed its hunger over the last 6 years. China holds $3 trillion dollars in foreign currency and $1.5 trillion of US debt. Chinese telecoms companies might allow the state to infiltrate our networks and will in the future run the essential infrastructure that we can no longer afford ourselves. Having grown by exploiting the established technological advances of the West, China is now stealing cutting-edge research. Chinese influence may become too powerful to oppose. Even in Russia, where the message from Putin’s precipitous power vertical is that the Cold War never ended, some fear that they will be simply overwhelmed, economically and demographically, by their Eastern neighbour.
The writer’s crutch of the ‘Asian Dragon’ itself incites a kind of fear; the image of the ancient beast, not content even with its hoard of gold, flying out to despoil the settled peoples of Europe and their former territories. It is in the latter that can be found the strongest hint of the resentfulness of the West; a tendency to externalise failure onto the successful outsiders. It is said that Chinese business is privileged in the developed world because it doesn’t demand compliance with the liberal internationalist agenda. This implies that the world is not as it should be, and it is China’s fault. Aside from the developed world having no right to be the privileged partner, this view flies in the face of claims that China is also just more attuned to business needs in Africa.
It is true that many politicians and officials do benefit greatly from the Chinese way of doing business, often no worse than that of the West, whilst chafing at the demands made of them by past oppressors. However, this bond is with the old Africa, its anachronistic colonial parts. Despite several setbacks, democratisation continues its spread across the continent, and a population that could outnumber that of China by 2050 is becoming more interlinked and demanding of their rights. Chinese (and Western) companies that do not respect local labour law, the environment, or that deal corruptly with rights-abusing governments face resistance from this growing and definitive force. If the groaning Europeans take note, make their demands for human rights to be followed more consistent and believable, and match them by improving their business practices, there is no reason why they might not compete.
This raises the second misconception about China’s rise. No one nation can dominate alone. The question asked of China is whether it will maintain its difference whilst ruthlessly using its power to seek riches elsewhere, or take up the charge of becoming a leading developed nation, diversifying its economy and meeting demands to intervene in the global economy and other issues.
Again, the image of the solitary predator is a product of fear. Chinese success as an exporter is a function of demand from developed nations. By lending the US $1.3 trillion, China has effectively been financing its own growth. This is either a threat or a sign of increasing co-dependence. It is also just one of a multitude of growing powers, and it will have to expand its diplomatic boundaries, working with others to be a stronger competitor. There are signs that the idea of ‘Marching West’, taking note of Beijing’s stalemate with the US in East Asia and calling for a new trading and foreign policy focus in Central Asia and the Middle East, has already influenced the Party.
The most obvious question of all is of how China will face the fundamental contradiction between the means and the proceeds of its incredible growth. For those whom have comforted themselves by exclusively labelling their own path as ‘developed’, the prospect of the Chinese transition provokes much doubt and consternation. As current policies reach their limit, China’s competitive advantage may fall as wage demands increase at home and consuming power falls overseas. In a few decades, its workforce will be aged. The strong central state model faces demands for greater freedoms on the part of the growing middle class. This in addition to its problems with minorities, corruption, and the key issue of how China’s opaque, centrist and yet tumultuous political class will choose to respond to what is essentially a challenge to their own entrenched interests.
The colonising powers taught Chinese intellectuals long ago that freedom is only a function of power, and so the Chinese state’s idea of freedom is defined by the pursuit of national strength. But now that China has found power and the ‘mature socialism’ that eluded Soviet party strategists, what will it make of this position? China’s advantage is that when it does form a strategy, it can pursue it relatively single-mindedly, but it remains to be seen whether it can do so this time, and is fortunate enough to find success.
No matter the uncertainty around China’s leadership, it is certain that steps will have to be taken, and soon, that entail elements of a more ‘developed’ economy and society and possibly the renouncement of the advantages of the underdog. The catastrophic environmental fallout from heavy industry must be halted before it results in more unrest. But despite the scale of the task, China is the world’s greatest investor in green technologies, and therefore the best placed to profit when the world must eventually turn green. It is also assumed that for China to become an innovative economy it will have to open up its society to greater freedoms. China has already set in motion a plan to massively expand higher education, but it is unknown what effect this will have on society. China could take another lesson from the West, and test how restricted a level of reform and freedom the new rich might accept in return for security and the marginalisation of the poor.
The developed nations should not doubt the possibility that China might overcome these problems. Above all, they should not allow the fear of their relative decline or their own cozy assumptions about China’s destiny to distract them from the necessity of correcting their own path, as China once did when faced with external domination.