China and the World

Let’s take a break from the ruthless pursuit of what right-wing postmodernism exactly is and turn to this news article in the London Free Press that my dear old grandparents decided to send me for my interests.

China Not Really A Superpower

Having written five papers on the subject, permit me to lay aside my ideological background for a second, so I can give this article a proper critique and make old granny and grandaddy proud. I may even play the devil’s advocate for a while.

Assumption #1: Key numbers are left out when considering China as an economic superpower.
Proof: IMF ranked China 94th in terms of GDP per capita, with $7,519.
Counterpoints:

  • Nominal GDP is virtually worthless in measuring the economic wealth of a nation, especially judged from the standard of the US dollar. Purchasing power parity (PPP) is a much more effective measurement of the purchasing power of consumers in a given country, since consumers may be able to purchase more goods with their dollar in one country than in another. In this respect, Hong Kong and/or Macau consistently ranked in the top ten places with the highest PPP according to IMF’, World Bank, and CIA figures, often beating out the United States.
  • The IMF, WB, and CIA also separate Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau from the calculations of China’s economic figures, which if included (we’ll ignore the political ramifications for now) would considerably put China higher up the economic growth ladder.

Assumption 2: Civil unrest exemplified by strikes and demonstrations have impeded economic and political development.
Proof: 87,000 incidents in 2005, up from 74,000 in 2004 according to the Chinese Ministry of Public Security
Counterpoints:

  • The United States had some of the bloodiest and worst riots in history as well.
  • Since when does civil unrest indicate weakness in government institutions? Did the riot in Vancouver after the Canucks lost indicate a coming collapse in the current Canadian government?  Did the recent riots in London indicate a deterioration in the democratic institutions of the United Kingdom? Strikes, demonstrations, and protests happen on a daily basis on Parliament Hill in Ottawa and on Capitol Hill in Washington, sometimes emphasized to the same extent as those in China. It would be absurd to draw the conclusion that civil unrest is an indication of weakness, as much as an indication of the strength of government institutions in suppressing, ignoring, or neutralizing them.

Assumption 3: Massive industrialization and megacities have reduced standards of living through poor air quality and the destruction of the environment.
Proof: 1% of China’s 560 million urban inhabitants breathe air deemed unsafe by EU standards and 500 million Chinese lack access to safe drinking water
Counterpoints:

  • The Chinese government hasn’t ignored the problem and has actually be addressing it in the last ten years. Wen Jiabao introduced Green GDP in 2004 to replace the GDP index as a performance measure of the economy. While the project was abandoned in 2007, credit should be given for China being the first country to be brave enough to test it out. It was empirically useful because now we know that it doesn’t work and countries must find alternative methods to “go green” in their development. I find it impressive that after implementing this plan for a few years, China was able to get it’s real GDP growth rate back up to 5%.
  • In the 12th five year plan, China has shown considerable interest in continuing to move toward sustainable development and environmental protection, such as making emissions reducations targets, installing more public transportation, and moving away from fossil fuels.

Assumption 4: China possesses a poorly educated citizenry.
Proof: none
Counterpoints:

  • Countries with larger populations will naturally quantitatively have MORE uneducated people than countries with smaller populations. Every country faces the dilemma of funding and quality of its education, even the United States. Even with all its wealth, constant complaints are made against the American public school system falling into shambles.
  • 95.9% of Chinese citizens are literate, a considerable difference from the 94.6% that Hong Kong has with its top-notch education system
  • In terms of male/female ratio and geographical aptitude, Chinese and American students are on par. Chinese students also receive better attention at the primary school level than American students. China and the US allocate the same percentage of government expenditure to education. China invests significantly more in university education than the United States.
  • 95% of students take the required nine years of educational training. Secondary school enrollment is on the rise.
  • In the 2009 test of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a worldwide evaluation of 15-year-old school pupils’ scholastic performance by the OECD, Chinese students from Shanghai achieved the best results in mathematics, science and reading. The OECD also found that even in some of the very poor rural areas the performance is close to the OECD average.

Assumption 5: American owes its superpower status to historical and cultural circumstances.
Proof: It won the Second World War and the Cold War and has cultivated its military power ever since.
Counterpoints:

  • Rewind. Last time I checked, Canada, Britain, France, and a host of other countries were part of that last stand against Hitler. If Churchill hadn’t won the Battle of Britain, I’m pretty sure the Allies would have had a hard time of it on D-Day. Not to mention the million or so Russian soldiers that died on the eastern front, pushing back the Nazi and Japanese advances at the same time. As for the Cold War, it was a combination of capitalism being awesome AND the weakening of the Soviet Union’s structure, since a planned economy stagnates with lack of organic innovation and ceding human development to an individual level. No one could have  predicted the fall of the Iron Curtain and for the US to take all the credit for winning a stalemate is absurd.
  • America rose as a superpower because of its neoimperialist policies (capitalism, expansionism and interventionism). China does not necessarily subscribe to the interventionist creed of that the US hegemon feels as the world’s policeman. They tend to exercise soft power, which has been strongly felt in other developing countries on the continents of Africa and Latin America, along with countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. There is a wealth of information on all these topics and report released by leading universities, think tanks, and organizations.
Assumption #6: China does not export ideas.
Proof: none
Counterpoints: 
  • Then why is everyone so interested in China? Why has it become the object of concern, worry, enthusiasm, excitement, intrigue, etc. for so many intellectuals, policymakers, media sources, bureaucrats, politicians, and the list goes on? Why are American scholars vying for places at Peking University or the Shanghai Institute or the University of Hong Kong? Surely not for vacation. Perhaps it is the novelty, but I generally think that America has dominated the export of ideas and innovation long enough. I encourage plurality of perspective and once outside the box, one can see how narrow-minded and constricting American ideas can be once getting past the usual dogmas and ideologies.
Well that was fun. All that being said, I think US policymakers can sleep safely tonight and not fear that Communist China will overtake its military capabilities (i.e. huge nuclear stockpile and DARPA), however I would not entirely exclude the possibility of a G2 world someday. I suppose it shall be the purpose of the remainder of my academic career to predict such trends, but until then, I will endeavour to debunk common Anglo-American perceptions of China, as one who has studied there and appreciates the best of both worlds.
For further reading, I would suggest John Ikenberry’s article in Foreign Affairs: The Rise of China and the Future of the West.
Other good reads on China’s rising:

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