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China: Between Myth and Reality - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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As the year 2010 drifts towards its end, the talk in Western political circle is about the fading of the United States as a superpower and the emergence of China as successor. The recent G-20 summit in Seoul, South Korea, revealed the beginnings of a new balance of power, with China’s star rising at the expense of the US and the European Union.

Even before Seoul, China had flexed its muscle on a number of occasions.

At the summit in Copenhagen, it brushed aside US and EU pressure to commit itself to a new charter to deal with climate change. Later, it ignored US and EU demands to increase the value of its currency. In a more dramatic way, last month China forced Japan to throw in the towel in the row over a Chinese fishing boat that had violated Japanese waters.

Talk of China as a potential global power is not new.

Much of the 19th century was dominated by fear of China, or ‘Yellow Peril’ as it was called before Political Correctness consigned the sobriquet to oblivion. Once China had obtained its independence in 1911, a more positive image began to take shape. By 1949, however, that image had been buried under the red avalanche unleashed by Mao Zedong.

Almost 40 years ago, with the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution dying down, Alain Peyrfitte, a French politician, wrote a bestseller entitled ‘ When China Wakes Up’. In it, he envisaged a China that, thanks to its position as the world’s most populous nation, claims leadership.

At the time, Peyrfitte’s prediction appeared far-fetched. China was one of the world’s poorest countries still facing the threat of famine.

Today, the picture appears different. China remains the most populous nation at least until 2020 when India is projected to overtake it. It is also the world’s fourth largest country. Until even 10 years ago, everyone in the West saw China as a great market. Today, it is everyone else that is a market for China. Leaving aside the oil exporting countries, almost every trading partner of China has a huge trade deficit with it.

How realistic is the image of China as the new world leader?

The principal argument of the ‘China-as-World-Leader’ school is economic. In 2009, China’s GDP rose to $8.5 trillion, making it the world’s third largest economy. However, when it comes to GDP per head China is numbered 131. The average Dutchman is six times richer than his Chinese counterpart.

But what about China’s annual growth rate?

China’s growth rate of 8 per cent is certainly impressive compared to two per cent n the European Union and, perhaps, three per cent in the US. However growth rate is often higher in developing economies. According to the World Bank, in 2009 Iraq, for example, had a growth rate of 34 per cent while Afghanistan’s rate of growth was projected at 22 per cent. In the first phases of the Industrial Revolution, Great Britain enjoyed average annual growth rates of 15 per cent.

In any case, economic power alone cannot propel a nation into a leadership position. For example, Japan and Germany, the fourth and fifth largest economies in the world, do not play a political role commensurate with their economic power. Candidates for global leadership must meet a number of conditions.

The first of these is to ensure the goodwill of neighbours in one’s region.

On that score, China appears in a weak position. China has long-standing territorial disputes with Russia, Japan, Vietnam and India. In the 1960s the Russians occupied large tracts of Chinese territory along the Usuri River. In the same period, China attacked and occupied big chunks of Indian territory, including almost a third of Kashmir. China is also in dispute over continental shelf, water frontiers and islands with South Korea and Japan, not to mention its claim of ownership of the Taiwanese archipelago.

Russia, India and Japan are not alone in watching the rise of China with concern. Indonesia, Vietnam and The Philippines would also regard the emergence of China as a hegemonic power with little enthusiasm.

In fact, among China’s immediate or near neighbours, only Pakistan could be regarded as an ally, and that because of shared hostility towards India.

The second condition that a candidate for global leadership must meet is internal peace. Here, too, China’s position is less than secure.

Tibet may never be able to break away. But it could continue to blacken the country’s image while raising the cost of its absorption into the Chinese sphere.

Even more complicated is the situation in East Turkestan or Xingjian as the Chinese prefer to call it, where the Muslim Uighur nation resists forcible sinification.

More importantly, the current system of one-party politics plus capitalist economy might not be sustainable for long.

Zhao Ziyang, the reformist leader of the Chinese Communist Party who was pushed aside after the Tiananmen massacre in 1989, had recognised that contradiction as early as 1987. In his journals, smuggled out of China and published in the West, he warns that without democratisation the country could head for instability and even disintegration.

China’s ‘ economic miracle’ has created a new middle class of around 200 million people and brought more than 400 million others out of poverty along the country’s seaboard. However, that leaves almost half a billion people still in poverty with at least 250 million in precarious employment. Export-driven, China’s economy remains vulnerable without a strong domestic market.

Thirdly, a candidate for global leadership needs an attractive cultural profile.

Here, too, China s found wanting. The world’s third largest economy is not yet producing writers, composers, painters, filmmakers and designers that could attract a following in the outside world. In the same register, China does not feature among the world’s leading scientific innovating powers. In 2009, less than three per cent of scientific and technological patents were registered by China.

To play a global leadership role, a great power also needs a wealth of knowledge and experience about the world. Here, too, China is far behind. Apart from English which has become popular with China’s new middle classes, few Chinese learn foreign languages. Nor has China developed the research institutions dedicated to the study of other cultures and societies.

Over the past 20 years, China has become the world’s factory, manufacturing cheap consumer goods for sale in Western markets. In other words, low-paid Chinese workers have been subsidising wealthy Western consumers, in part thanks to a national currency that is kept below its real value.

Although a great power that must play a role in shaping the global agenda, China still lacks the wherewithal for assuming world leadership. It would be both unfair and potentially dangerous to propel it into a position for which it is not ready. The greatest service that China’s leaders are offering the rest of the world is keeping their country, a quarter of mankind, relatively stable and peaceful.

Whether one likes it or not, the US must continue to bear the burden of world leadership. Right now, partly thanks to its clueless president, the US appears to be in decline as it did under Jimmy Carer in the 1970s. Nevertheless, news of its demise as a world power may prove to be widely exaggerated.

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.

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