Saturday, October 06, 2012

List of the Month - Why China will never be a great power

After a week of battering my brain with "academic" papers on China's foreign policy (mostly written with the level of research you'd expect from a senior high school student, and often framed in the whinily histrionic language of a pre-schooler), I am deeply fed up with contemplating "China's rise".

It's over a decade now since Gordon Chang gave us his notorious book The Coming Collapse of China. He invited scepticism and ridicule by overstating his negativity, giving insufficient attention to a number of factors that might ameliorate or delay his financial disaster scenario, and, above all, by committing himself to a definite and very short timeframe for his prediction - only five years. Once 2006 had passed, with China's economy seeming stronger than ever, Chang became a bit of a laughing-stock. But just about everything he said in that book was perfectly true, and nothing has changed. The fundamentals of China's economy and its political system are unsound. The question is not if a crash is coming, but when. More and more of my foreign friends here, even those who were the rosiest of China optimists until quite recently, are now fretting that the crash is looming. Suddenly, in comparison to this great upsurge of doom and gloom, I find myself in the relatively 'moderate' camp on this: a qualified collapsist - I think it might be gradual rather than sudden and catastrophic, I think it might still be two or three decades distant. But it is coming, it is inevitable. China is NEVER going to displace America as a dominant global superpower. I think it's extremely unlikely that China will even be able to maintain its integrity as a single country of the size it is now.

Here's why....

The Top Ten (or so) Reasons Why China Is Never Going To Be A Superpower

Too big to be viable
China is unwieldy. It's roughly the same size as the United States, but with a far less developed transport infrastructure. It's now catching up very quickly in that regard, but I don't think the country is ever going to work. Much of its peripheral territory is ethnically and culturally (and, in some cases, geographically) quite distinct from China proper. The "autonomous regions" of the far west, in particular, were forcibly annexed during the early years of the People's Republic and have had to be maintained by military occupation ever since: China is a neo-colonialist power within its own borders. That alone doesn't bode well for its long-term stability. The CCP myth of a China that has been one and indivisible since the dawn of time is nonsense: even  during periods when China was united under one rule and nominally 'stable' (and for much of its history it's been fractured into multiple kingdoms), in practice there was a high degree of local autonomy - with warlordism and banditry rife, and the Emperor's representatives often behaving as a law unto themselves. "The mountains are high, and the Emperor is far away" has been a favourite proverb about the ineffectuality of central control for centuries. And any attempts by the capital to bring things under a tighter rein usually resulted in mass insurrections.

It's not just China that I think is too big. All large countries have a problem, and may break up into smaller units over the next century or so (the division of America's Federal Reserve banking system might provide a template for a breakup of the USA). Russia, Canada, and Brazil are only viable because so much of their vast territory is unpopulated. India and the USA are only viable because their federal systems of government allow a large degree of regional autonomy. (A federal model might save China, but I doubt if the CCP would be willing to countenance such a thing.) I've always been a sceptic about the European Union because it seems to me to run counter to the trend of the times (a tendency towards increased devolution of power to regional governments, and, in many cases, towards large countries splitting up into smaller ones), and counter to human nature (we like to keep our societies on a 'human scale': we like to define our cultural identity with reference to quite narrow geographical areas [well, in Europe, at least!], and we like our governments to be accessible and responsive because local - in tune with our particular needs and desires); you can achieve trade liberalisation without administrative integration; only megalomaniacs want a bloated superstate. China, unfortunately, is run by megalomaniacs, and is thus likely to remain a bloated superstate - until it collapses under its own weight.

Too many people
Again, this is not just a China problem. Almost every country - and the world as a whole - is dangerously overpopulated. Most estimates I've seen of a world population that might be 'sustainable' with the lifestyle of the advanced nations are no more than 1.5 billion, and some of the more pessimistic assessments conjecture only a few hundred millions. China aspires to become "fully modernized" and to attain something approaching the American or Western European standard of living for most of its citizens by the second half of this century. The planet cannot support that - never mind China being able to support its population at that level of development, the planet can't support it. (I confess, I tend towards the gloomy view that - absent a near-Extinction Level Event such as an asteroid strike or a supervolcano or a massive plague that wipes out 70% or 80% of the world's population - the human race is f***ed. It's probably not just China that's going to go belly-up in the next 50 years.)

Inadequate resources
China is massively dependent on imported oil. China is becoming a net importer of food. China has an acute water shortage. China struggles to meet its ever-rising demand for electricity generation. It's amazing that the country hasn't come off the rails already. But give it another ten years or so, and these problems will become critical.

A rickety financial system
The Chinese academics and politicians I've been reading all week love to gloat over the embarrassment of Wall Street by the sub-prime crisis and to crow about the innate superiority - the moral superiority - of the Chinese economic and development model. They turn a blind eye to the fact that the Chinese banking system has many of the same problems as America's and more besides. The 'economic miracle' here is built on straw. Well, it's built very largely on fraudulent loans. But non-performing loans can easily be swept under the carpet; the banks are all propped up by the government (well, the major ones are; some of the lower-tier banks might well be allowed to fail, and that would trigger an unholy shitstorm); and, since the government owns everything (well, all of the land, nearly all of the heavy industry, and most of America's foreign debt), its coffers are almost bottomless and the surreptitious bailouts can continue ad infinitum. Well, except that nothing can continue ad infinitum. And if you keep pumping more cash into the system, you get runaway inflation.

An awful education system
People point to the achievements of Chinese academics in a handful of fields (maths, applied science, computing), and to the numbers gaining acceptance at prestigious overseas universities as an indication of how formidable the Chinese education system is. But, given the size of the country, these few egregious successes are in fact pretty rare, almost statistically insignificant. The Chinese education system is overcrowded and underfunded, and hobbled by poor quality teaching, poor quality teaching materials, antiquated teaching methodologies, and an ongoing requirement of ideological indoctrination. Some Chinese kids are becoming high achievers as a result of their parents' hothousing efforts (it's more to do with the private lessons forced on them outside of school than with the teaching they're getting within the state school system), but the scope of this success is rather limited (it's not doing much to foster creativity or self-reliance in today's youngsters), and it comes at the cost of a 'lost childhood': thousands of hours of exhausting and miserable enforced studying that is likely to lead to burnout, rebellion, or long-term psychological problems.

An obsolete ideology
The CCP has abandoned every element of communism except the central planning of the economy (and even that's increasingly just for show; I note that, following the wisdom of Bill Murray in Ghostbusters, official translations here are often now referring to the Five-Year Plan as a Five-Year Guideline), yet still obstinately insists on trumpeting its communist heritage. It's a curious hypocrisy - or, as they would call it, a 'contradiction' - at the heart of this country: it is now the most ruthlessly capitalist society on earth, and yet it still purports to uphold the ideals of Karl Marx. This doesn't do much for the government's credibility. And it leads to a stifling inflexibility of thought on certain issues.

An acute intellectual and emotional immaturity
China cannot engage effectively with the outside world because it is crippled by an inferiority complex that makes it suspicious and contemptuous of outsiders, and excessively defensive; it is locked into a 'them and us' siege mentality. The country's "finest minds" in the sphere of international relations rarely attain a level of debate that is anything other than puerile.

No rule of law
And without a reliable system of law, there is no certainty in commerce and no confidence in the future. China's successful entrepreneurs almost invariably emigrate as soon as they can. Social trust, the belief in your government's ability to provide for your welfare - healthcare, schooling, old age pensions, etc. - is almost non-existent in China as well. I suspect a very large percentage of the population would quit the country if it could; but, at present, this is an option that's usually only available to the very wealthy.

The one-party state
The CCP's continuing stubborn rejection of plural democracy and effective separation of the powers of government means that China is a gangster state. The Party controls all channels of influence, all opportunities for enrichment, allowing the cadres grow fat at the expense of the ordinary citizen. This isn't just corruption; all countries have corruption. This is a system which is entirely corrupt by its very nature, and cannot ever be otherwise. [I went into rather more detail on the political shortcomings of the Chinese state in this post a year or so ago.]

No moral centre
You would think that the basic tenets of morality were grounded in universal human instinct and would be found everywhere. But it seems that these instincts need to be codified somehow in order to really take root, and need to be supported by the surrounding culture. If you have a thoroughly immoral government, perhaps it's no surprise that the rest of society seems so thoroughly immoral too. Opinions differ as to whether Chinese culture may always have been somewhat deficient in terms of its moral infrastructure, or whether basic ideals of decency were crushed by the privations of the Mao years, and then by the subsequent explosion of unfettered get-rich-quick materialism. Whatever the reasons for it, lying (often not even for any transactional advantage, but simply as knee-jerk tactic for attempting to "save face"), cheating, bribery, and theft are endemic here. Not just endemic, but in many cases normal, routine, not even perceived as being 'wrong'. A country where everybody is constantly cheating each other surely can't survive and prosper for long.

I've never seen any evidence of a true work ethic here either. Some people will work hard out of a desire to make money. Many uncomplainingly accept unreasonably onerous conditions of working, because they are powerless to oppose them. And many office workers quite happily spend long hours at work because they have free Internet access there (and they don't have much to entertain themselves with at home). But, in my experience, Chinese people very seldom work conscientiously or efficiently; they will bunk off entirely for long stretches of the day, and aren't usually all that productive even when they are working. They are not inspired by any sense of pride in their work, they do not seem to recognise the idea that it is intrinsically more satisfying - regardless of any censure or reward - to do something well rather than to do it badly... or, in the typical Chinese way, to do something to the minimum acceptable standard ("chabuduo"; also check out an excellent [translated] Chinese satirical essay on the connotations of this word).

And, of course, the language....
The antiquated writing system used by Mandarin Chinese holds the country back in so many ways, as I expounded just the other day.

No comments: