Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Back to the future

Nice survey in the Economist on China development.

...The favourite reading at the moment among a younger, more cosmopolitan generation of Chinese diplomats is “Power Shift”, a collection of essays by mainly American-based academics. Its premise is that the tectonic plates that have defined Asia for the past half-century are moving, and that China is the chief agent of change as it resumes its historical role as Asia's central actor. Gone, largely, are China's fears of encirclement. “Impossible!” a senior Chinese diplomat laughs. “China is now far too powerful to be contained.” One of Deng Xiaoping's tenets—that the country should, as a Chinese saying has it, disguise its ambition and hide its claws—seems to have been buried.

But what kind of power is China becoming? Some Western hawks find it unsettling that this is even being debated within China, but it is better to talk about it than not.

Only once a decade or so does a piece of television programming break through the variety shows and the propaganda to capture China's attention. A hugely popular 12-part series on China Central Television has just done so, showing how nine countries rose to prominence, beginning with Portugal in the 15th century and ending with the United States in the 20th. The conclusion, as befits state television, delivers an explicit political message, but one that may surprise outsiders. In finding plenty of lessons to learn from, the series attaches greater importance to social stability and peaceful foreign relations than to jingoism and brute military strength.

Indeed, a propos of the television series, the same senior Chinese diplomat mentioned earlier argued energetically that pacifist Japan's post-war rise was a model of good-neighbourliness that China itself could usefully emulate. That is intriguing. Much of the present bad blood between China and Japan has to do with China's constant harping on Japan's brutal deeds in the first half of the 20th century while glossing over its positive regional influence in the second half.

...Yet suspicions remain. Mr Hu may have embraced the notion of China's “peaceful rise”, first advanced by Chinese academics in 2003, yet even the phrase itself is unsettling. As Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's former prime minister and now its “minister mentor”, puts it: “‘Peaceful rise' is a contradiction in terms. I told China's leaders that. I said: ‘Why not call it a renaissance, a return to a golden age when poetry, painting, clothes, music and drama flourished?'”

China's economic rise is certainly impressive. The economy's growth—an average of 10% a year since 1990—is not really more remarkable than the earlier rise of other Asian economies, led by Japan, but there is a difference: the huge size of China's population, at 1.3 billion. In 2005 China overtook Japan in the volume of trade it conducts. Depending on how you measure size and guess at future growth rates, it may overtake both Germany and Japan within 15 years to become the world's second-biggest economy. Measured at purchasing-power parity, China's share of the world economy is already much closer to the rich countries' (see chart 1). But bear in mind that the average Chinese income remains low. If China is on its way to becoming a superpower, it will be the world's poorest one yet.

Opinion polls suggest that the vast majority of Chinese see their rise as nothing that should trouble others. For many of them it merely marks a return to historical norms. Angus Maddison, an economic historian at the University of Groningen, has estimated that between 1600 and the early 19th century China accounted for between a quarter and a third of global output (see chart 2). At that time China's agriculture was more advanced than the West's, its cities bigger and more literate and its ruling classes more meritocratic. The country had also proved itself capable of long-distance exploration by sea. Another historian, Niall Ferguson, reckons that what went so spectacularly wrong for China then is more remarkable and worthy of investigation than why things should now be going right.

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