John Pomfret speaks on China, and he doesn’t disappoint

I was lucky to see John Pomfret, former bureau chief of the Washington Post’s Beijing office, address a group in Scottsdale last week. I was scribbling notes the whole time and now I’m finally going to decipher them. I was also lucky to spend some time with John afterwards at a local bar with my first cousin, who was John’s friend at Stanford. (Sorry, but I promised not to blog about our conversation at the bar.)

I always thought John was the best of the Beijing correspondents, followed by Joseph Kahn. John is now moving to Los Angeles, where he’ll be the new WaPo bureau chief. (His replacement in Beijing, Phillip Pan, is also doing an awesome job.) What I liked most about John was his honesty and courage. More than any other foreign correspondent in China, he wrote about the really controversial issues — Ma Shiwen, evictions of peasants who were thrown on the street, the SARS ambulance story (which he broke) — he wasn’t afraid to say what the government was doing and how bad some of those things really were.

That same honesty permeated his talk in front of an ultra-conservative group of lizardy gazillionaire businessmen.

“The longer I lived in China,” he began, “the less I came to believe China is really a great nation in the making.”

Now, I have to make it clear that he was not in any way slamming China. He was setting the stage for explaining just how tough China’s problems are, and that Westerners, immersed in romantic depictions from starry-eyed visitors, have no idea what kind of challenges China is facing.

This was at the heart of Pomfret’s talk: the West badly misunderstands China’s economic, medical, political, social and environmental hurdles. He was particularly emphatic that there is no need for the West to fear China becoming a global superpower along the lines of the USA. “Not all of China�s dreams are going to be achieved because hard-wired into their DNA are serious constraints that will keep China from becoming what it aspires to. Most of China is a third-, fourth- and fifth-world country” under constant threat from unimaginable poverty, so many people to employ, AIDS, a devastated environment, etc.

Last year the number of people living below the poverty line in China grew by some 800,000 people, he said, at the time of the nation’s great economic miracle. The wealth gap is simply too staggering for most Westerners to envision. He said one way China is trying to offset the people’s anger is by inciting nationalism (an old trick in China, used to masterful effect by Deng after Tiananmen Square).

“But the nationalism we are seeing is only skin-deep,” Pomfret said. “Michael Jordan retired is more popular among Chinese citizens than Yaoming. All the Chinese young people want to work for US companies and own US goods.” They know their futures and their salaries will be far more limited at a state-owned business, he said.

He later repeated his metaphor when he said “serious constraints are hard-wired into the Chinese DNA and the Chinese political, economic and social system that could stop China’s meteoric rise.” The major constraint, he made it clear, is corruption, which seems to make things work in the short term, but which could help unravel China’s great success over the long term. He praised this success again and again, but said the CCP is caught in a conundrum of failing to address how a single party can control absolutely everything when absolutely everything is changing right underneath its feet.

I was surprised at just how hopeless Pomfret views so many issues in China. For example, when someone asked about Chinese-Japanese relations, he described it as a “Gordian knot with no solution in sight. Relations between them won’t get better anytime soon, but there won’t be any war.” He added that the CCP uses this issue to unify the country, appealing to the masses’ raw emotions.

He also echoed a point that several bloggers have made, namely that the war on terror has been “a windfall” for China in every way. “From the Chinese perspective, it diverted the attention of those Republicans who saw the PRC as a competitor and a threat, and it focused them instead on the Middle East. Now China can crack down on radical Islam in Xinjiang and Americans don’t say anything. There will be many more executions — the Chinese will just crush these people.”

Contrary to the article in the Atlantic I linked to Friday, Pomfret say relations between Taiwan and China won’t degenerate into war. “The US won’t let Chen Sui Bian go too far off the rail. China understands that the key to Taiwan’s not declaring independence is Washington. And China uses the issue to win hearts and minds at home. In a way, it benefits from the continual bad relations.”

He was critical, too, of the CCP’s treatment of HK, but most of you know the story so I won’t write down all he said. Money quote: “They’ve given a lot of benefits to Hong Kong on the economic side, playing to the people’s love of money. But in the long-term, the conflict is an ominous development. Now, China is a potential enemy to Hong Kong, when before [HK protested] they were considered a friend.”

China’s military is another example of Westerners seeing more than is really there, John said. “It has pockets of excellence, including great missile technology, but all in all it is still a middling power.” He added that any invasion of Taiwan would be all but impossible, if only because of Taiwan’s lack of beaches. “It would end up being a million-man swim…Many military people say that China is nowhere near ready to threaten Taiwan. There’s huge military spending, but in terms of bang for the buck, what they’ve got just isn’t that significant.”

This was in many ways a sad talk. What China dreams of being simply isn’t coming anytime soon and probably not ever. “They want to be seen as a great country, as a good country….but I am a cautious pessimist.” He didn’t say China was going to fail or crash — just that it’s ultimate dreams would elude it, made impossible by a harsh reality that in many ways the one-party system only exacerbates.

John made it clear how outraged he is over Joseph Kahn’s assistant in Beijing being thrown in jail for 6 to 10 years for his alleged involvement in the NY Times’ story on Jiang’s imminent resignation (which came out days before the official announcement). “He wasn’t even involved in Kahn’s story, but they don’t care about things like that. They just wanted to teach the Times a lesson.”

While critical of the CCP, John also says that under the circumstances he doesn’t know how they could do things any better than they’re doing now — but only because they created the situation in which there’s no alternative. That’s an important point: “They completely smashed the opposition so there’s no one in the wings who could replace them. If any new voice were to arise, it could be an even uglier one that what they’ve got now.” He was a war correspondent in Bosnia, and he compared China’s political situation to Yugoslavia under Tito, where one strong man crushed all the opposition and held the country together through brute force. Once he was gone, it all disintegrated.

Last of all, when asked what the Chinese now believe in, John said, “Chinese students have told me they simply have no beliefs. They have less respect for the family than earlier generations. Will there be a renaissance during which the youth of China rediscover their traditional values? I don’t see it. So many people in China live to rip other people off — this takes place on such a huge level, it’s scary. One has to worry that China is a society devoid of values.”

Yes, it was a sad talk, and there was little to celebrate. Maybe I’ll take hope in that he didn’t say China is doomed to defeat or that it will all come crashing down — only that its vision of itself doesn’t jibe with reality, and that its opportunities are more limited than they’ve led themselves to believe. And with that, I have to sadly agree.

Update: By the way, this all ties in with a good article in yesterday’s Guardian on why China’s roaring markets still don’t in and of themselves make it a great superpower. It’s really quite amazing — the author makes so many of the points Pomfret did. Thanks to the reader who alerted me. I can’t recommend it enough.

Update 2: With this post, a new commenter joined this blog named Mark Anthony Jones, and he comments at great length below. It was frustrating to later learn that literally all of his comments were cut and pasted from articles he found using Google searches. My apologies for all of those who were made fools of.

The Discussion: 46 Comments

Interesting thoughts. It is very easy to underestimate the difficulty in moving from a 3rd world to a fully developed country. China’s got a long way to go, and many problems to address, but that shouldn’t detract from the fact that it does seem to be moving in the right direction.

One issue though: did he really talk about “constraints are hard-wired into the Chinese DNA”? I’m hoping he’s using this as a figure of speech to imply cultural limitations, but even then it sounds a bit off …

November 14, 2004 @ 9:13 pm | Comment

I was listening to Tom Freidman (NYT) and I guess he has a new book coming out called’ the World is Flat’, in which he extols the coming era of india and china as Superpowers..economic, military, eyc.
Indeed, they are going to be in a short time, rivals for the US as the newest hegemons…
Balderdash..I respect Mr Friedman and I am not a China “expert” but China’s problems are immense from the disparity of men to women, to corruption etc. And India has the same problems.

November 14, 2004 @ 9:39 pm | Comment

All very well said and thank you so much for sharing what you heard.

On the point of alternatives, sometimes I wonder whether the Chinese “dissents”, students and immigrants who are residing overseas, especially in America, would become a source of viable alternative, if one day (touchwood) that the CCP comes down in a blink like the Berlin Wall.

During my last stay in China, I also noticed that there are quite a number of burreaucrats (in their early 40s) who have received some training in the West. Perhaps they would also be a source of change, when they come into power.

But all in all, I am cautious more than optimistic.

November 14, 2004 @ 10:04 pm | Comment

Asia by Blog

Asia by Blog is a twice weekly feature, posted on Monday and Thursday, providing links to Asian blogs and their views on the news in this fascinating region. Previous editions can be found Asia by Blog is a twice weekly feature, posted on Monday and Thursday, providing links to Asian blogs and their views on the news in this fascinating region. Previous editions can be found November 15, 2004 @ 1:33 am | Comment

I think the more you know about China, the harder it is to be optimistic. I don’t know that I agree that corruption is the worst of the problems … I just think that is simply a factor that makes all other problems worse or harder to fix. I think in the end it’s going to be physical factors that pose the greatest challenge to China – food production, water supply, erosion, and demographic factors, that are ultimately the biggest challenge and the biggest threat. When I think about the problems China faces, try as I might, I find it hard to see how she can overcome them all. I cling to a hope that somehow she’ll “muddle through” … and we better all hope that is good enough, because I can’t see China producing any kind of leadership capable of more than incremental reform … tinker a bit here, tinker a bit there. If any kind of vision or major system change is required … China is all but lost.

As for whether any other group could provide a viable alternative to the communist party? My answer (for whatever you consider that to be worth) is “not a snowball’s chance in hell.” I also can’t see any likelihood of an alternative emerging at any time in the future either. What I can see is a repeat of the past: fall of the Qing Dynasty, an ill fated attempt at parliamentary government, seizure of power by a military strongman superficially operating within the new constitution, and finally decline into regionalism and low-level civil war.
*** SHIVER ***

November 15, 2004 @ 1:56 am | Comment

Having lived in China for more than five years, I ABSOLUTELY agree with “Filthy” and John Pomfret.

BTW, ecology disasters aside, (for those of you don’t live in small town China) you just can’t even imagine what a culture desert most of China is.

November 15, 2004 @ 4:54 am | Comment

richard, what is the SARS ambulance story?

November 15, 2004 @ 5:21 am | Comment

SARS ambulance story: The government hid SARS patirents in ambulances and drove them for hours through Beijing to fool the World Health Organization inspectors into believing there were no SARS patients in the hospitals.

November 15, 2004 @ 5:50 am | Comment

I have to apologize to my good austrian friend Jürgen then. When he told me the story at the time I didn’t believe him, I thought I was a joke.
Jurg if you are reading this blog…you were right and… ok fine, austrian soccer doesn’t suck.

November 15, 2004 @ 6:40 am | Comment

I would be interested to know how Taiwan compares with China in the areas mentioned here. Is corruption as rampant as it is in the PRC, or do they have it under control? If so, perhaps Taiwan could provide a counter-argument to his idea that the problems in China are “hard-wired into their DNA”.
I’ve always thought that Taiwan proves that a democratic system isn’t incompatible with Chinese society. On the other hand, Taiwan has never had to deal with the sorts of problems which exist on the Mainland.

November 15, 2004 @ 2:17 pm | Comment

There’s corruption everywhere, but nowhere is it like Mainland China. Hell, most Singaporeans are Chinese are corruption is extremely rare there, and punished harshly. Remember, modern corruption in China only soared to its insane heights after Deng took over. So the true “hard-wiring” took place in the 1980s. While there was always corruption in China, it was only then that it became the oil that kept everything moving. So the hard-wiring applies to those ruled by today’s CCP.

November 15, 2004 @ 2:30 pm | Comment

Hmmm …with regards to my earlier comment about corruption … it may be worse than I imagined.

14 ot 15 vice-chancellors of various Chinese universities were down here recently, and pretty much all of them were shaking their heads, sighing, saying “curruption, corruption, you just can’t imagine how bad it’s become” and then sighing and shaking their heads again. Older people are even reputed to be saying things like “KMT corruption? Hah! Nothing like what we have today!”

I forgot to mention my other possible scenario (which doesn’t exclude what I said earlier) of a Neo-Maoist peasant revolutionary movement against the current leadership and wealthy elite. They might even get to repeat the flight of the capitalists from Shanghai all over again.

For the above reasons, and because of the dreadful state of the Chinese banking industry, I urge my Chinese friends to do everything they can to get theirs or their parents’ savings out of China and into some kind of secure international bank … but none seem to give sufficient credence to my words to actually do anything about it. There’s such a strong belief among the general Chinese population that things will just keep getting better and better … which, ironically, is possibly the most dangerous factor of all. If people start getting disillusioned with that …
*** SHUDDER ***

November 16, 2004 @ 4:30 pm | Comment

Li En, have you ever tried to get money out of China? Good luck! Those bloodsuckers make it virtually impossible to move your RMB out of the country. They need to keep their banks as full of cash as they possibly can. The only way to do it now to is to travel to Hong Kong with suitcases crammed full of 100-rmb notes. At least there you can get it changed to dollars (although dollars isn’t the best investment choice these days either).

November 16, 2004 @ 5:26 pm | Comment

Greg, please stop sending in comments using different names and saying nasty things — your IP address tells me who you are, so it’s quite silly. How will people take your site seriously, knowing you do this sort of thing? Please be an adult.

November 23, 2004 @ 6:19 am | Comment

When considering China’s future, John Pomfret describes himself as a “cautious pessimist”. While I agree with many of his arguments, I prefer to remain a cautious optimist.

Corruption may remain a huge problem, but it is the increasing pressure that economic development is placing on China’s environment, particularly on its river systems, that will prove to be the most difficult and costly to overcome – in my opinion.

Just take the mighty Yangtze River for example, which begins its life from the Geladandong glacier on the Tibetan plateau. According to a recent article published in The Guardian, “China’s leading glaciologist, Yao Taedong, warns that global warming is melting ice that has been locked in place for more than 5,000 years,” and while in the short term this may be adding to the volume of the river, in the long term the river may simply end up drying up – which of course, would be the worse case scenario.

Already the river is under serious strain: “For the first 3,200km of its journey it runs clean and fresh through some of the most remote and spectacular scenery in China, but even here it will not remain pristine for much longer”. That’s because the upper reaches of the Yangtze face an explosion of dam-building. According to the WWF and the World Resource Institute, “46 major dams have been built or are under construction or are being planned in this area.” Among the most controversial is at the Tiger Leaping Gorge – a world heritage site, which I have been to – where work has begun in recent months on a dam that “will sweep away the area thought to have been the inspiration for James Hilton’s Shangri-La in Lost Horizon.”

The lower reaches of the Yangtze are already so polluted that the WWF says that it is now the biggest cause of pollution in the Pacific Ocean.

Of course, the melting glaciers of Tibet are the result of global warming, and China is certainly not the only contributor to its causes. The United States is by far the world’s biggest producer of green house emissions, and per capita, Australians are the biggest offenders. But China is nevertheless the second largest emitter of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions after the United States, producing 12.7 per cent of the world’s total. China’s share of world carbon emissions is expected to increase in coming years, reaching 17.8% by 2025.

But if Tibet’s glaciers were to melt away too much, it would have a huge and devastating impact, not only on China, but on all of South-East Asia, and therefore it would have a huge impact on the entire world.

All of China’s rivers have their starting point in Tibet. I don’t think I need to detail the consequences here – other than to say that billions would starve, with social stability severely disrupted and strained. No glaciers, no rivers. No rivers, no rice.

Still, China does have a chance to clean up its act, but only if it acts fast. The building of 46 major new dams along the Yangtze is hardly a promising sign though. Chongqing, a city of 30 million, pumped out 1.3 billion tonnes of waste water last year, 90% of which ran into the Yangtze and other rivers untreated, adding to a contamination corridor that stretches from Sichuan to Hubei Province. In the past, the fast-flowing river could clean itself, but the construction of the giant Three Gorges dam hundreds of miles downstream of Chongqing has raised fears that the 600 kilometre lake behind it will become a huge cesspool. The government insists that water quality has not deteriorated since the dam was sealed last year, but that raises the question of why it is now spending billions of dollars on 320 new water treatment facilities in the area. Fisheries officials certainly have no doubt that the ecology has changed.

The volume of petrol consumption in China is very quickly rising too, as the number of private cars sharply increases – a situation which I think is definitely unsustainable. China consumed about 3.3 million barrels of oil per day back in 1995. It now guzzles up more than 6.3 million barrels per day. China needs to introduce alternative energy sources to power its cars, and I know that researchers at Tongji University in Shanghai are right now busy developing hydrogen powered models. If China can introduce such a “standard” before petrol powered cars become too firmly entrenched, then great! It is possible, but once again, only if such technology can be introduced commercially soon, and this can happen only if the Central Government encourages such an alternative to the extent that it can become a new standard. Time is very quickly running out in this regard.

John Pomfret notes the fact that 800,000 people here in China fell below the poverty line last year. While this is disturbing, it needs to be viewed in the wider context. Let us not overlook the fact that China’s stunning economic development has produced a dramatic political liberalisation in this society compared to two decades ago, one that promises (as I said earlier, I remain cautiously optimistic) to eventually transform China into a modern nation. According to the World Bank, since China opened its economy in 1978, when Deng Xiaoping first came to power, its gross domestic product has increased from $362 billion to $11.9 trillion. As a result of the rapid economic growth and various poverty reduction policies that include having wealthy cities forming partnerships with poorer areas, the number of people in China living on less than $1 per day dropped from 490 million in 1981 to 88 million last year. During this period the country’s output has increased more than eightfold and the average income has risen by 7% a year, passing $1,000 for the first time in 2003.

China’s economic expansion has been on a scale and at a speed the world has never seen before. Since opening its economy in 1978, China has accounted for three-quarters of all the people in the world lifted out of abject poverty.

So while 800,000 people may have fallen below the poverty line last year, this needs to be seen in the context that, over the last 26 years, roughly 400 million people have been lifted out of poverty, or at the very least, have had their living standards significantly improved. It is because of this overall trend, that I am able to remain an optimist, despite the many serious challenges that China now faces, and despite the fact that the impressive growth in China’s economy and the accompanying improvements in living standards have been made at the expense of China’s environment – particularly, as I said before, at the expense of its river systems.

Finally, let me comment on another of the issues raised by Pomfret: the question of nationalism. “China is trying to offset the people’s anger,” argues Pomfret, “by inciting nationalism.” This I agree with, though not entirely – rather than “inciting” nationalism, they are in fact quite cautious about encouraging nationalism, and for reasons that I will explain later.

Of course, every country on this planet promotes nationalism, because nationalism serves as a unifying discourse. The virtual collapse of Communism as an ideology here in China has resulted in the rise of nationalism as a replacement – and Mao’s image is manipulated by the Central Government in order that he may be used as a signifier of unity. Zhang Yimou’s film Hero, in my opinion, reinforces this idea by presenting us with the morally ambiguous idea that peace and stability can only be achieved by sacrificing our own struggles for independence, by giving in to the dictates of the hegemon (like a Qin Shihuang or a Mao, or a Central Government authority – or, if we think globally, to a hegemonic superpower like the United States).

Pomfret also mentions the Urgyur separatists from Xinjiang, and predicts that they will be crushed. Only last week I sat watching a television interview on Hong Kong’s Pearl TV with a Beijing official, talking about the Central Government’s feelings towards the re-election of George W. Bush. He very frankly stated that Beijing is happy with the election outcome, which he said would help legitimise Beijing’s plan to crackdown on Urgyur separatists in Xingjiang Province. Pomfret was definitely spot-on when he said that China can now “crack down on radical Islam in Xinjiang” without fearing that Americans will “say anything”.

A few weekends ago my girlfriend and I visited the Shenzhen Folk Culture Villages theme park, which made me think a little of this issue of nationalism and ethnic cohesion here in China. In my opinion, the Folk Culture Villages in Shenzhen is a Disneyfied fantasy-world, designed not merely to make money and to attract tourists to Shenzhen, and to mainland China more generally, but also to create and to promote a particular Central Government-inspired narrative: such amusement parks provide a space of representation, within which the nation can be rendered as a total concept, a timeless essence. Ethnic minority theme parks narrativise the nation as an eternal unity, made of an essence that does not change, that allows it to cohere together.

China’s capitalism may have lifted many millions out of poverty, but it has also created a society of growing inequalities, and with it, the increasing threat of social fragmentation and potential instability – as Pomfret is keen to stress. Beijing’s “One China” policy is aimed at maintaining and strengthening social cohesion, by promoting a greater sense of nationalism as a unifying discourse in place of a discarded communism.

Ethnic separatism is the last thing that the Chinese Government wants, or can afford, which is why the proliferation of carefully managed ethnic tourism is about more than merely the consumption of commodified forms of the cultural past – and which is why Beijing is also keen to wipe out Urgyur resistance before it can spread or serve as an example to other would-be separatists.

But where I disagree with Pomfret, is where he says that this nationalism is merely “skin-deep”. Just about every Chinese person that I have ever met here on the mainland harbours a very strong sense of national pride – something which they are taught both at home and at school. In particular, the Chinese are very proud of their varied food culture, and of their long history of civilisation. Most of the students I have taught here at university level love to write nationalist and patriotic poems, and express enormous pride in China’s national poets and artists. They know what it means to be quintessentially Chinese, and they are proud to be so.

The Central Government in Beijing is well aware of this, I am sure, and is aware of the potential dangers that growing nationalist sentiments could cause should it be allowed to flower unchecked: the growth of separatist movements for starters, could be one bi-product of an unchecked surge in nationalist sentiments. China, after all, is home to a recognised 56 different ethnic minority groups.

Of course, Pomfret is not all doom and gloom when it comes to imagining China’s future. As Richard points out, “he didn’t say China is doomed to defeat or that it will all come crashing down – only that its vision of itself doesn’t jibe with reality, and that its opportunities are more limited than [what Chinese leaders have] led themselves to believe.” Where I differ from both Pomfret and Richard (who says he agrees with Pomfret’s assessment), is that I edge more on the optimistic side – but only just! I think that the opportunities for China are immense, and that realising them is an obtainable goal, in spite of the huge challenges that presently stand in its way.

To conclude: new environmental technologies could indeed allow China to manage its environment sufficiently well enough to enable it to continue to prosper. A good number of cities in China over recent years, like Dalian for example, have won international environmental awards for their efforts in cleaning up their air and river systems, and as I said earlier, it’s still not too late to replace petrol-driven cars with hydrogen-powered ones as the national standard.

There are also other clear signs that the Chinese are now beginning to take the future of their environment more seriously: unlike other developing countries such as India, South Korea and Brazil, both the amount of energy and carbon consumed per dollar of GDP have decreased dramatically in China over the past two decades. With average annual GDP growth rates of around 7-8% over the last decade and with energy consumption growth rates somewhat lower, China has been reducing its energy intensity. This is in large part a result of efforts by the Chinese Central Government to conserve energy, and by the adoption of more modern industrial plant equipment. China’s Energy Conservation Law entered into force on January 1, 1998, and efforts by the government in recent years to increase overall energy efficiency have included the reduction of coal and petroleum subsidies.

With economic development, population growth and higher living standards, the amount of primary energy consumed will almost undoubtedly continue to increase in the future, as will the resultant carbon emissions. These absolute increases will occur despite continued technological improvements and reductions in energy intensity.

But China has introduced bold initiatives to cut back on coal use, and in an effort to encourage a switch to cleaner burning fuels, the government has introduced a tax on high-sulfur coals, and in Beijing, officials are aiming to phase out coal from the city centre and have already established 40 “coal-free zones,” and have made plans to construct natural gas pipelines. Similar efforts are taking place in other major Chinese cities. A system of emissions trading for sulfur dioxide, similar to that used in the United States, is being tested in some cities with pilot projects, and may eventually be applied nationwide.

One of China’s main priorities for the future is developing and utilising technologies to solve the major environmental challenges it is currently facing and will face in the future. These efforts are focused on technologies that will treat wastewater, prevent air pollution and improve environmental monitoring systems. There are a number of policies that the State Environmental Protection Administration is considering: adopting the “polluter pays” principle, and allowing for the accumulation of funds for pollution abatement are currently policies being enacted. Ensuring that fees charged on pollutants are higher than abatement costs and strengthening existing laws, which currently are not strongly enforced and impose only small fines on pollutant emissions exceeding the legal limit, are also now being considered.

Future Chinese environmental initiatives may also include formulating a tax structure beneficial to environmental protection, and granting preferential loans and subsidies to enterprises that construct and operate pollution treatment facilities or produce environmentally friendly products. Clearly, I think, there is some room for optimism.

But the biggest environmental threats to China are global ones, and so China’s future prosperity is intimately linked to that of our own, to all of the world, just as the world’s future prosperity is linked to China’s.

All our futures are now one and the same – and this is essentially why I can continue to remain cautiously optimistic about China’s future – because I remain cautiously optimistic about humanity’s creative potential to come together in order to overcome global issues for the collective benefit of all.

If China is doomed, then we are all doomed.

Mark Anthony Jones

November 23, 2004 @ 10:25 pm | Comment

Thanks for the comment, Mark.

I have to say that Pomfret never said or even remotely implied that China is “doomed.” Only that the lofty aspirations they have set for themselves — to be not only a truly great country but a good country — will most likely not be reached, based on the staggering problems it faces and its poor track record to date in dealing with many of them. China isn’t doomed. It’s doing better than it ever has in many ways, because the CCP loosened its grip on the economy and decided to be a global player instead of an inward-looking and perpetually prickly whiner as it was during the Cold War.

As far as overcoming environmental obstacles, Pomfret talked at length about how and why China is failing miserably in this regard. The CCP is really, earnestly and aggressively trying to make a difference. They are closing down factories dumping poisons into the lakes and rivers. But because China is huge and because there is no rule of law as we in the West know it, their efforts are nearly always thwarted. The factory owner tells the local cadre that the factory shut-down will drive hundreds into joblessness and ruin the village’s economy. And he gives the cadre a “gift” for his help, and voila, the factory quietly reopens. This simply cannot occur in a country where there is a free and active media and a court system where these acts of corruption can be challenged and punished. And the corruption can’t be stopped, because it’s part of the vast loyalty system that keeps the CCP united and in power. It’s the grease that keeps the machine in motion.

As to global warming, this is the first time I have ever heard this mentioned as a significant factor in China’s environmental devastation. I’m sure it plays a part, but every country is a victim to global warming, but very few have such devastated environments. If you read Jasper Becker’s The Chinese, he traces the origins of this depressing phenomenon, and it can mostly be pinned to Mao and his policies. The depletion of Chinese soil, the pollution of its water with lead and industrial runoff and waste, the acid rain — none of this is in any way related to global warming, but came about as a direct result of Mao’s inane belief that man could fashion the environment as he chose to, killing the sparrows and forcing farmers to grow incompatible crops, etc., etc. It’s a tragedy of carelessness and stupidity with strong roots in the 1950s, a tragedy that blossoms further with dams that have created unimaginable drought and devastation on a scale unprecedented on the entire planet.

You’re right about the Chinese being fiercely proud of their nationality; I’ve seen plenty of that myself. But as Pomfret said, when you get down to what they really want, it’s to own more American goods and work for a non-Chinese company and worship American stars and athletes. So while they may sincerely feel this nationalism and talk about it a lot and celebrate national culture, when it comes to their actual choices, this nationalism is only skin-deep.

As for the “dramatic political liberalisation:” of the Chinese people, I again must take issue. I would say rather that there’s been a dramatic social and economic liberalisation. But not political. Censorship of political materials has increased, not decreased. We all know the stories of the news reporters in Guangzhou sent to prison for reporting on corruption and government-related crime. We all know there will be no national elections anytime soon. We all know how just 2 years ago the government betrayed its own people by deceiving them about SARs so as not to make the CCP congress look bad. Of course there are signs of new hope under Hu, but there have been virtually no political reforms to speak of — maybe a less totalitarian approach than under Mao or even Deng, but no true reform.

November 24, 2004 @ 8:47 am | Comment

Thank you most sincerely for your thoughtful and detailed response Richard. I agree with much of what you say (especially about corruption, the CCP and the scale in which it continues to violate the human rights of its own citizens), and I am also well aware of the fact, as I mentioned in my original piece, that Pomfret is not all doom and gloom when it comes to imagining China’s future. His central argument, as you say, it that China, while it may one day be able to develop into a good country, is likely to fail in its ambitions to develop into a “truly great country”. But what exactly does Pomfret mean by “greatness”, and just exactly whose vision is he referring to when he talks of “China’s dreams”?

His comments about nationalism provide a hint here: Pomfret notes that some American sports stars are more popular among the Chinese than their own sports star equivalents, and that many young Chinese “want to work for US companies and own US goods.” He then draws what I think is the wrong conclusion from all of this, that Chinese nationalism is only “skin-deep”.

The wealthier urban Chinese like to buy luxury imported goods, only some of which are from America, as well as the faked brands, because they, like humans everywhere, enjoy the status that comes with owning such products. It’s why many Chinese students say they want to study at Harvard, or Oxford or Cambridge. They want to study in the “famous” ivory-league universities of the West, because of the status they expect this will bring them. Owning status gives human beings a greater sense of self-esteem and self-worth, which is why owning status is so important to most people in this world.

Commodities are endowed with status for various reasons: pricing and scarcity play a major part, as well as advertising and of course, quality.

I like to buy imported products too sometimes. I like New Zealand cheeses, Italian suits, and Spanish olives. And whenever I buy a bottle of French red wine, I never feel guilty because I chose not to buy one of the many fine bottles of red wine that are produced in the country of my birth, Australia. Consumers rarely base their choices in accordance with their patriotic loyalties.

Let us take the two Disney theme parks that are planned for China – the one for Beijing, the other for Hong Kong: many may presume an opposition between real, natural panda that symbolises inherent Chineseness, and the artificial, fabricated American imperialist token of Mickey Mouse. But to do so, in my opinion, would be false and misleading. The giant pandas in San Diego Zoo are no less fictional and imperialistic than Mickey Mouse, whereas the Disney cartoon figures could also be regarded as a “natural” part of the growth of consumer capitalism in the Chinese community.

The Chinese are happy to embrace the advent of “Disneyfication” on their soil, because what Disney the corporation stands for is no longer simply American cultural imperialism or the omnipresence of American mass culture. Disney theme parks are always connected to many other projects in urban planning, ecological development, product merchandising, technological innovation, construction of national character, as well as manifesting a vision of a utopia made possible by capitalism and technology.

If many young urban Chinese long for American products and dream of one day being able to study in American universities, it is because they see America as somehow representing the kind of utopia that they themselves wish to live in, and which they hope China will one day become. The living standards enjoyed by those who reside in the developed West, and America is usually regarded throughout Asia as representing the West in its most spirited form, is what many young urban Chinese aspire to.

America is what many Chinese measure their own country against, and it is what they hope China will one day become. This is not unpatriotic of the Chinese. Such ambitions and tastes do not signify a nationalism that is only “skin-deep.” The gesticulated excitement that I witnessed here last year when China succeeded in putting a man into space signifies a growing confidence among the urban young that China is well on the way towards meeting its ambitions of one day rivalling the United States as a nation of true greatness. The country’s success in the last Olympic Games has had the same effect.

The dream of one day developing into a country as developed as America, with the global status of a present-day America, is as nationalistic as any.

And so this, I assume, it what Pomfret really means when he speaks of a “great nation”. He is referring to the type of nation that America is now, and he doesn’t believe that China is capable of one day realising its dream of becoming one. He uses the present state of the Chinese military as one indicator of China’s inferiority, dismissing it as a “middling power” that is unlikely to ever develop into a force capable of turning China into a truly hegemonic global force – a power capable of invading those countries in the developing world whose resources it may one day need to exploit.

And he is right. I agree with him here. It is unlikely that China’s military capabilities will ever be able to match those of the United States. And it would be foolish of China to even try. The costs would be so huge, that China would most probably end up going the same way as the former Soviet Union did if it were to try to compete. And who wants another Cold War?

But is replicating America’s military might a prerequisite to becoming a nation of true greatness?

Mark Leonard, director of Britain’s Foreign Policy Centre, has noted that “everywhere in the developing world people are sitting up and taking notice of the Chinese juggernaut. As a model for development it is a source of inspiration, its giddy growth rates of over 8% a year lifting millions of people out of poverty.”

But what is even more exciting, according to Leonard, “is the prospect of a new superpower that might challenge US hegemony and the American way of doing things”. In a paper for the Foreign Policy Centre, Joshua Ramo, a former foreign editor at Time who is based in China, laid out the elements of a new “Beijing consensus”, which he sees as a direct challenge to the “Washington consensus” that defined attitudes towards the development debate in the 1990s. Beijing is “driven not by a desire to make bankers happy, but by the more fundamental urge for equitable, high-quality growth”, he wrote.

“China,” argues Leondard, “treats the ideas of privatisation and free trade with caution rather than pursuing them with zeal; the country is defined by its ruthless willingness to innovate and experiment and has created a series of special economic zones to test out new ideas. Its foreign policy is driven by a lively defence of national borders and interests and an increasing commitment to multilateral institutions such as the United Nations, which it hopes will pin the US down. Together these policies have allowed China to grow without surrendering its independence to such financial institutions as the World Bank and IMF, global companies, or the Bush administration.”

This recipe for success is so intoxicating that countries as diverse as Iran and South Africa, are now discussing with excitement the “Chinese model of development”. China’s model is seducing leaders in countries as different as Vietnam (which is taking business tips from the thoughts of the former Chinese president Jiang Zemin), Brazil (which is sending study teams to Beijing), and India (Ramgopal Agarwala, an eminent sociologist, observed: “China’s experiment should be the most admired in human history. China has its own path.”).

Few in the West have picked up on this excitement, because they have looked at China’s power simply by measuring the size of its economy or the technology of its army. But by focusing on Chinese hard power in the way that Pomfret does (its ability to use military force or economic might to get its way) people are missing the extraordinary rise of the country’s “soft power” – the ability of its ideas and values to shape the world. It is an unwritten rule in the minds of the West that though China might become wealthy, it is Western values and culture that will continue to define the rules of the world.

That is already beginning to change. For the first time there is an emerging pole that is strong enough to change the way things are done on the global stage. Japan was too small and inward-looking; India is too protectionist; Russia too weak. As China emerges as a superpower, it is desperately trying to present itself as a force for good in the world. The past few years have seen a successful Olympic bid, the creation of an English language international TV channel (CCTV 9), a series of high-level visits by President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao to key countries, and a concerted attempt to befriend not just China’s neighbours but other countries as far afield as Africa and Latin America. Two centuries ago Napoleon warned China was a “sleeping giant” that “once awake would astonish the world”. That prediction – I say this as a cautious optimist for China – may just one day come true.

Of course, as you quite rightly point out Richard, the image that China is now busy trying to create for itself does not always sit well with the present day reality: corruption remains a serious problem, and the CCP continue to censor their critics, and to violate the human rights of its citizens, and in a variety of ways.

China has many serious hurdles to get over, but I’m not sure that I would go so far as to say that they are unlikely to be one day largely overcome. Once again, I remain an optimist – but only just.

China’s environmental problems are indeed very serious, as you mentioned Richard, and yes, global warming is a global problem, and one that China contributes very significantly to. While cleaning up river systems and rescuing soils and improving air quality are all costly and difficult, they are nevertheless achievable for China, and the signs are that the country is beginning to take these problems more seriously, and is beginning to act. But as I said in my earlier piece, the biggest environmental problem that China faces is global in its nature: the melting of Tibet’s glaciers and the overwhelming impact this could have on the health of not only China’s river systems, but on those of all of South East Asia, and in particular, on the rivers of India.

Finally, let me address the point you made about political liberalisation. I must concede this one to you, though I’m afraid I didn’t express myself very clearly when I spoke of China’s “dramatic political liberalisation” over the last twenty years or so. I agree that the liberalisation that has occurred throughout this period has been largely confined to the economy, and to social policy. What I meant though, was to say that the economic and social liberalisation that has taken place in China over the years represents a shift in the thinking of the country’s political leaders – economic and social policies are political by nature, in that they are the result of decisions that are made at the political level.

I don’t wish to sound in any way inherently anti-American, because I am not, but I just cannot buy this idea that for a country to be “truly great” it has to replicate modern America. Pomfret is perhaps being a little arrogant when he cautions his fellow patriots not to bother worrying too much about the possibilities of China ever rivalling the power of the United States – his own use of language, used either consciously or unconsciously, betrays his ethnocentrism here, as David, one of Peking Duck’s other contributors, has already noted: “Not all of China’s dreams” says Pomfret, “are going to be achieved because hard-wired into their DNA are serious constraints that will keep China from becoming what it aspires to.” As David says, this does sound “a bit off.”

Finally, I want to say that, personally, my idea of a “truly great nation” has little to do with the power of its military might, or with the strength of its economy, or with how many colonies its manages to gain and control, or even in the size of its Gross Domestic Product.

What makes a nation truly great lies in how it treats its own citizens, and in how it treats its neighbours. How egalitarian is it? How well educated are its people? How healthy and happy are its citizens?

China has a long way to go before it can claim to be truly great, if measured using these kinds of indicators. But then, having said that, Western countries like the United States and Australia also have a long way to go before they can be said to be “truly great”. And already, China doesn’t compare too unfavourably on many of these measures – according to UN figures.

Mark Anthony Jones

November 24, 2004 @ 11:23 pm | Comment

I think we — you, Pomfret and I — are in basic agreement, but there is a problem with the definitions. He never said said China wanted to be another US. They want to be great, which doesn’t mean they want to be America. He was saying, I believe, they want to be like any other economically strong and prosperous country, like Norway or Canada or South Korea or Japan or Australia: these are great countries because their people are realtively prosperous, they are self-sufficient, they are strong in global trade, they are hugely respected by the international community. They don’t need to impress anyone by building the world’s tallest building — their greatness is real and apparent to all. They can claim true economic and social successes on a nationwide and global scale. That’s not to say everyone is a millionaire and there aren’t problems, often serious. But they command huge respect becuase their system works. China’s system of SOEs and corruption and government meddling may “work” but they command no respect because it is a house of cards. If the government stopped supporting the Iron Rice Bowl there would be collapse and revolution. It is not an independent, healthy and fair system that benefits the entire population — far from it! And, of course, there’s that dirty little secret of China’s human rights that perpetually stains the good image China so desperately wants to convey.

About nationalism. Someone in my post yesterday on China’s “lost generation” points to an article on how today’s Chinese students have no knowledge or interest to speak of in China’s history! That tells me a lot about how deep their nationalism goes. It’s shallow, propped up by jingoistic sloganeering against Japan and other “enemies,” and the CCTV is constantly going to near-insane and embarrassing lengths to keep drumming into the viewers’ heads how great the country and its rulers are. A truly great country never needs to do this.

I can’t go through every point you make, but I can say I’ve heard it all before and I was totally seduced by these arguments myself. It was only when I lived there and saw what was really going on that I came to the conclusion that a lot of it is propaganda and illusion. For every quote telling us how great China is and will be, I can find one (or 100) testifying that it’s a mirage and a pipedream. I give far more credence to John Pomfret, who lived there for 10 years up until a few months ago, than to Napoleon, who died nearly 200 years ago and was not, to my knowoledge, a China hand, when it comes to discussing China’s greatness. Not that Pomfret is the only one who knows, and not that I’m unwilling to listen to counter-arguments. But after doing my own reading and seeing China with my own eyes I’ve decided whose camp I am in. I recommended Jasper Becker’s The Chinese, and strongly recommend you pick up a copy (which you can’t do in China, another reason why it is far from being a great or good country).

I want China to succeed and thrive. I love many people there. I think they’ll do okay. But while they will continue to dominate the light manufacturing markets — mostly based on the fact that they pay their vast oceans of workers practically nothing and often treat them no better than animals — I see no signs that they will emerge as a great country in the tradition of Switzerland or Japan or England. As long as you have a relative sliver of the population living like kings and nearly everone else living in poverty, and as long as you have a police state that has the power to arrest and torture anyone who raises a voice, as long as you have a government so insecure it has to ban books and arrest Internet essayists, as long as you have a corruption system so deeply entrenched that it simply cannot be overcome….as long as you have these things, China remains a long, long way from greatness. I am cautiously optimistic China will succeed, improve and grow. I am totally pessimistic that it will ever achieve international greatness like Sweden or even Singapore; not under its current leadership who put their own survival infinitely higher than the well-beling of their people.

November 25, 2004 @ 8:57 am | Comment

Well, I must say that I’m really impressed with the intelligence of the commentary here. Yet another reason why I consider the Peking Duck a required daily read. Just want to throw my two cents in on the topic.

When I arrived in China in August 2002 I was absolutely enthralled: I was looking at the future. The United States was toast.

When I left China in July 2004, my opinion had, to say the least, changed. My experience had been eye-opening, I had made many good friends, had many memorable travels…and yet I left with a deep unease about the future of the country. I was (and still am) quite doubtful about the sustainability of the society I lived in. So what happened?

I think modern China is, for the most part, a triumph of style over substance. The state seems far more concerned with making the ‘nation’ look good than with the 1.2 billion people who actually have to live in it. Hence the plethora of questionable mega-projects and urban redevelopment projects on an almost insane scale.

Mark Anthony Jones quotes Leonard in his comment above:

“the country is defined by its ruthless willingness to innovate and experiment and has created a series of special economic zones to test out new ideas.”

Ruthless is the key word here. Development has become an end in itself; all these projects often take place to the detriment of the people they are supposed to be helping in the first place. Having a problem? Throw a huge boulevard, an empty highrise and a few redudant shopping malls at it.

I admit that many of us Westerners are completely complicit in these actions: the current environment in China allows us (as planners, architects, businessmen) to get away with wild schemes that wouldn’t get past the boardroom at home. Can you imagine a plan to destroy and rebuild central London in 5 years? I sure as hell can’t. But is all this instant modernity really going to help China overcome its serious problems? I’m not convinced.

China is in such a rush to be the world’s super power that the government has thrown caution to the wind in terms of development projects. The probem is that when you trip running that fast, it hurts. For a country with such a long history (as I was so often told), it sure doesn’t seem to have much patience.

As for innovation, I see very little going on at the macro-level. China could theoretically offer the world an alternative development model…but it won’t. It seems intent on beating the United States by, well, become a US full of Chinese people. America with Chinese Characteristics.

I just read a journal article about the development of Pudong, and the whole idea there was to make the place the most “un-Chinese” as possible. China needed to show the world it had arrived by, well…not being ‘China’ anymore. Kind of warped.

Chinese leaders have really bought into a very Western conception of modernity (and they are definitely not alone in this regard). In this sense you could say that the ‘West’ has already won.

Lastly, I do not think China is going to collapse. Many people seem stuck on the “either/or” scenario of world greatness or absolute societal collapse, but I don’t buy into it.

Rather than moving towards world supremacy, China has instead become just like any other developing country. There are really rich people, and there are a lot more really poor people. The path out of communism doesn’t automatically lead to a wealthy, ‘developed’ society. And being capitalist doesn’t necessarily mean automatic ‘all-around, well-off’ societies.

I might be of the minority opinion, but I don’t think China will change that much in the next 10-20 years. It seems to have hit a point it doesn’t know how to get around (barring massive political upheaval, obviously). In fact, many chinese cities might regress to being more ‘third world’ in character, as millions of migrants crowd the promised land and the hastily built ‘modern’ infrastructure starts to wear. As Chinese society loosens up, it will come to be more ‘third world’, not less, as so much of China’s development has consisted of trying to hide the fact that it has almost one billion, rather poor rural citizens. As they urbanize, so will extreme poverty become more evident in Chinese cities (effectively ending the common “I can’t believe this is a poor country!” response so common by visitors to Chinese cities).

China has mostly completed its transition to being just another highly unequal, ‘developing’ country, but I’m not very convinced it can get much further. Brazil, India and Indonesia have cars and skyscrapers too.

How’s that for a dose of negativity? 🙂

November 25, 2004 @ 2:17 pm | Comment

This has become a more interesting thread. But I have two questions.
Jasper Becker wrote in his book, “The Chinese’, years ago, that you can never trust Chinese government statistics, If that is true how do we judge the true status of the Chinese economy, especially in the hinterland?
What about the surplus of males in China and India?
More violence/wars/civil disorder as males “fight” for females?
I ask, because it is my understanding that having a family is VERY important to the Chinese.

November 25, 2004 @ 6:48 pm | Comment

This dialogue is certainly for me a very stimulating and thought-provoking one, and so thanks again Richard for your critical commentary on my views. And thanks too to Patrick, for entering into the dialogue with some equally challenging ideas and insights.

I think all three of us – all four of us if I include Pomfret – do indeed agree on many issues, but I think where I differ is that I remain, in spite of all that the three of you have said, a cautious optimist. I remain so not out of stubbornness, but because I am perhaps reading all of the signs and indicators a little differently. You may assume then that I must be wearing rose-coloured glasses, but I can assure you that I am instead the proud possessor of 20-20 vision.

I do not wish to dwell much more on the issue of nationalism, because I do not think that it is crucial to Pomfret’s central argument – other than to say that I am sticking to my guns on this one. Just because many of today’s Chinese youth do not have a good in-depth knowledge of their nation’s history does not in any way indicate the depth of their nationalism. Having taught in Japan, South Korea, England and Australia, I know that Chinese youth are not alone in their historical ignorance. They simply have too many other pressing issues in their lives to deal with, and education systems today focus more on information technology, the sciences, and numeracy and literacy skills rather than on the humanities, not to mention the effects of the entertainment and communications industries on the lives of today’s urban youth, which of course compete with any intellectual interests that they may happen to harbour.

A nation, of course, is an imagined community, and from my observations and discussions with Chinese students, they certainly do see themselves as belonging, emotionally and spiritually, to the imagined community that is China today, and virtually all of the young Chinese that I have met, have felt a strong allegiance or affiliation to this concept that is China. The fact that many of them may not have a very good understanding of their own country’s history is, I think, no indication of how strongly they feel themselves to be “Chinese”. But let us leave this issue aside, at least for the time being.

Let me address instead the three crucial factors that Pomfret identifies as being constraints on China’s future ambitions: the state of the environment, employment and social inequalities, and what he believes is the biggest constraint on China’s future development – corruption, and the absence of the rule of law.

I shall begin by addressing the environment:

In yesterday’s edition of The Economist there appeared a very interesting article totally relevant to the discussion that we are now having. The author of the report, A Great Wall of Waste, began by cataloguing all of China’s environmental problems, and the seriousness of each. It was noted that “water and waste pollution is the single most serious” environmental issue in China today, and that this is “the bottleneck constraining economic growth in China”. Per head, China’s water resources are among the lowest in the world and are concentrated in the south, so that the north and west experience regular droughts. Inadequate investments in supply and treatment infrastructure “means that even where water is not scarce, it is rarely clean. Around half the population, or 600 million people, have water supplies that are contaminated by animal and human waste.”

The author of the report then went on to detail air pollution problems and the problems of increasing desertification. “Adding it all up,” he wrote, “the World Bank concludes that pollution is costing China an annual 8-12% of its $1.4 trillion GDP in direct damage, such as the impact on crops of acid rain, medical bills, lost work from illness, money spent on disaster relief following floods and the implied costs of resource depletion. With health costs escalating, that figure will increase, giving rise to some grim prognoses that growth itself will be undermined.”

It was also noted, and this is something that Richard raised in his last entry, that “in a country where data are untrustworthy, corruption rife and the business climate for foreigners unpredictable”, neither the causes of China’s environmental problems nor the smooth efficiency of its remedies are necessarily what they seem. “As with many other aspects of China’s economic development, rapid progress and bold experiments in some areas are balanced by bureaucratic rigidity and stagnation in others.”

And yet, despite noting all of this, the author of this article remains cautiously optimistic about China’s ability to manage its environment sufficiently well enough to enable it to continue to prosper: “Certainly, awareness of China’s environmental problems is rising among policymakers at the highest level—reflected in a new package of right-sounding initiatives like a green GDP indicator to account for environmental costs. So is the pressure, both internal and international, to fix them. But while all developing economies face this issue, there are historical, political and institutional reasons why it will be a long and complicated process in China. There is some cause for optimism, not least an influx of foreign technology and capital.”

And later in the article: “There is no need to be unremittingly gloomy about China’s environment. As developing countries get richer, they tend to pollute less. Nationally in China, discharges of chemical oxygen have declined over the past three years, those of industrial dust have stabilised and sulphur-dioxide emissions had been on the downtrend until 2003 when energy shortages increased demand for sulphurous coal. Most east-coast cities are enjoying more sunny days and the pollution load in the rivers is falling. Environmentally, in many places, China may have passed its nadir.”

Indeed, the Central Government is increasing environmental spending and the more concerned attitude of the top leadership could filter down the hierarchy if the performance of officials begins to be measured partly on environmental criteria. This is already beginning to occur, according to one report that I read recently on the China Environment Forum website.

What is encouraging is that Beijing is under pressure to do more, and partly from domestic public opinion. As urban Chinese see their material wealth increase, more are caring about the environment, while the concerns of the poor are increasingly being channelled by green non-governmental organisations. Though these remain extremely weak—few have more than a handful of members and all need government affiliation – Wen Jiabao said recently that he suspended plans for the construction of 13 dams along the Nu River in Yunnan Province partly because of the concerns outlined by such groups.

External pressure on China is even greater. Despite reservations, foreign companies are flocking to China, scenting a fast-growing market for their environmental technologies and skills. According to a new study conducted by the Business Communications Company Inc., titled “RE-114 Environmental Protection and Control in China: Air, Water and Land”, the total market in China for pollution control products and equipment reached $5.3 billion in 2001. Rising at an average annual growth rate of 15.1%, this market is expected to reach nearly $10.7 billion by 2006.

International agencies are now beginning to tie funds to environmental criteria, while foreign governments are beginning to complain about China’s dust storms and greenhouse-gas emissions. All this will help spread best practices. Beijing is fast cleaning up ahead of the 2008 Olympics, moving out factories and introducing clean-vehicle technology: a new premium is being placed on global respectability – the effects of which I think should not be underestimated.

Although Richard acknowledges the fact that the CCP “is really, earnestly and aggressively trying to make a difference” to the environment, and that they “are closing down factories [that are] dumping poisons into the lakes and rivers,” he nevertheless remains skeptical of China’s ability to sufficiently overcome its environmental problems. He makes the very good point that, “because China is huge and because there is no rule of law as we in the West know it, their efforts are nearly always thwarted.”

“The factory owner tells the local cadre that the factory shut-down will drive hundreds into joblessness and ruin the village’s economy,” he says. “And he gives the cadre a ‘gift’ for his help, and voila, the factory quietly reopens. This simply cannot occur in a country where there is a free and active media and a court system where these acts of corruption can be challenged and punished. And the corruption can’t be stopped, because it’s part of the vast loyalty system that keeps the CCP united and in power. It’s the grease that keeps the machine in motion.”

While I think this a very good point to make, and while I have no doubt that this type of behaviour is common enough throughout much of China, I disagree that this is something which cannot be stopped, or at the very least, reduced significantly in its occurrence. As Robert P. Weller, a researcher from Boston University recently concluded in a paper published in the China Environmental Review, there is a growing awareness among the Chinese of the link between clean production and industrial competitiveness, though he admits that this awareness remains “fairly low” among the state-controlled industrial sector in China. Legislation is necessary to force change, which is exactly was the CCP has been busy doing, and as Weller says, “while enforcement may not be universal in the early stages, this legislation is likely to have a significant impact on clean production in China in the long term.”

To successfully reduce rural air pollution in China, Weller proposes broad policy changes that would address environmental consciousness, the ineffectual bureaucracy that Richard talks about, as well as changes to China’s immature legal culture. Admittedly, each area is extremely difficult to change. When educating the public on environmental issues, officials need to use less abstract examples such as the negative effects of global warming, acid rain, and endangered species and make environmental consciousness relevant to rural life—villagers must be shown they could make more money with better irrigation or that their children would be spared from debilitating disease by using cleaner burning household fuels. More difficult a task is to change the performance criteria by which cadre are measured for promotion. But one of the advantages of a strong central government is the ability to more effectively issue directives—if Beijing insisted on true enforcement of environmental regulations, Weller argues, the local officials would more quickly follow through. In the long term, Weller insists that China must “create a culture of law by establishing a truly independent judiciary, autonomous local environmental protection bureaus and independent statistical monitoring.”

All of this is possible, and as some researchers have cautiously pointed out, are now already beginning to take place.

Like Weller, Richard also identifies the absence of a “free and active media” as being a problem, and while I agree with him on this, I once again see cause for optimism. As James Detjen, of the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism, Michigan State University, points out, “much like its other Asian neighbours, news media in China has undergone gradual change in response to market forces. Chinese journalists are indeed hopeful that greater economic success will translate into greater press freedom.” Indeed, only two days ago it was reported in The Guardian that “China will further relax its tight control of the media sector next week by introducing rules allowing foreign broadcasters to invest in television production companies.”

The short-term impact of this will be small, but this is a trial period. If the foreign firms respect China’s ideology and play a positive role in development and stability, they “may later be able to enter more deeply in the cultural market.” There could be greater openings in 2006 and 2007.”

As I said earlier, Chinese journalists and media consultants predict a steady expansion and opening of the market, which has already undergone some small but significant changes this year.

“In the newspaper industry,” reports The Guardian, “the Beijing Youth Daily has announced that it will be the first daily to seek foreign investment with a partial flotation on the Hong Kong stock market.” Wholesale book publishing is also poised to open up to foreign competition by the start of next year under China’s commitments to the World Trade Organisation. Once again Richard, there is room for optimism.

Let us look now at the problem of China’s growing inequalities. Deborah Davis, of Yale University, notes that China has experienced a rapid increase in income inequality over the past 15 years, with a large gap between urban and rural incomes. However, she maintains that China’s “human software” advantage—in terms of age and education—will help the country’s continued economic development. The World Bank, in its most recent report on China, agrees, and notes that the CCP is now pursuing policies to meet both its environmental and social equity challenges through its 10th Five-year Plan (2001-2005), which aims in part at economic growth and restructuring and reform by developing three related areas. First, the spread of market forces is being encouraged, especially through reforms of state enterprises, the financial system, agricultural output and labour markets, and pricing of natural resources. Second, market development is being supported by building the legal, social, human, physical and institutional infrastructure needed to spur private investment and rapid growth. Finally, and essential to its development agenda, China continues to go forward with broad-ranging initiatives for its integration with the world economy, building on its success in gaining WTO membership.

Fenwick Yu, of the U.S. Department of Commerce, emphasizes the positive impact of China’s entry into the WTO on its economic development; China’s WTO membership, he argues, will force Beijing to protect intellectual property rights, develop the rule of law, and reform China’s state-owned enterprises and banks through global market competition. In short, he remains confident that China’s economy will be able to sustain high-speed growth in the many years ahead.

The 10th Five Year Plan incorporates a Western Region Development strategy to assist the 12 western and inland provinces where per capita income is less than half of that of the more developed coastal provinces, where illiteracy is higher, and where the largest proportion of China’s very poor reside. This strategy, as the World Bank reports, began with stepped-up government investment, primarily in infrastructure, throughout the western region. “The Government recognizes, however, that human capital development, environmental protection and an improved investment climate—with flexible markets, basic physical infrastructure, and a social protection system—also need to be addressed by its western growth strategy.” Since agriculture will continue to be the mainstay of the rural economy, agricultural research and technology development geared to the needs of typically mountainous poor western areas are likewise viewed as imperatives.

As indicated, environmental protection and sustainable development are intrinsic to the 10th Five Year Plan goals for both economic development and poverty reduction. In rural areas, it recognises the inter-relation of poverty and environmental degradation, specifically severe soil erosion, deforestation and desertification. In urban areas, the Plan points out the need to improve the environment by reducing water and air pollution, the latter by promotion of clean coal energy sources and technologies.

Indeed, growth in agricultural production has picked up recently and rural incomes have increased significantly—due to grain price increases and, to some extent, the government’s “pro-rural” policies. Plans announced to expand the social security system more fully to rural areas may help to reduce the remaining large gap between rural and urban living standards, although the feasibility of the plans at this stage of China’s development remains to be seen.

Rural living standards rose significantly in the first 9 months of 2004, according to the World Bank report, “mainly due to increased agricultural output, a more than 30 percent increase in the grain price, the introduction of direct subsidies to farmers, and a reduction in agricultural taxes. Rural residents’ cash income increased by 11.4 percent in the first 9 months of 2004, compared with only about 2 percent per year over the period 2002-2003. Indeed, for the first time in 6 years, rural incomes grew faster than that of urban residents. As a result, rural poverty rates are estimated to have come down significantly. In addition, anecdotal evidence suggests a favorable externality in the form of wage increases and improvements in living conditions for unskilled workers in the coastal region.”

There are no signs Patrick, that China has stagnated, or that it is about to. Quite the contrary in fact. We Westerners simply need to be more patient. Change does not come overnight.

Let us not underestimate the abilities of the Chinese Central Government to introduce plans and reforms capable of overcoming, or at least significantly alleviating the serious problems that Pomfret quite rightly identifies as being potential obstacles to China’s ambitions of one day developing into a country of true greatness.

Mark Anthony Jones

November 26, 2004 @ 2:23 am | Comment

Mark Anthony Jones,

Our major difference in opinion seems to lie in the ability of central government planning to overcome the serious problems facing China. I feel they are still too enamoured with ‘national glory’ mega-projects to adequately deal with issues such as environmental degradation and rural poverty relief.

Many of China’s environmental messes come from the state’s long-standing desire to ‘conquer’ nature. Although communism has been dumped as an ideology, its legacy of preference for grandiose projects remains in such wild schemes as huge diversion canals from south to north and hundreds of dams pretty much everywhere. It seems to me that not enough attention has been paid to the fact that earlier “great society” projects might indeed by the source of the very problems they are trying to fix now.

Another serious problem facing China’s environment is the lack of political will to restrict consumer demand (and I will admit, this is not a problem unique to the Middle Kingdom…far from it!).

The CCP has staked its legitimacy on the betterment of material life for Chinese people…how can it realistically say “Sorry, most of you won’t be able to get remotely wealthy, there is just not enough to go around!”? Although it might well be aware that current trends in China are environmentally suicidal, I can’t see this awareness overcoming the party’s more immediate concerns for political survival. The CCP has promised the Chinese people too much, and now it is forced to deliver for its own sake.

Lastly, the Chinese economy has backed itself into a proverbial corner. The huge focus on foreign exports requires two things: cheap labour and lax environmental controls. International companies don’t come to China out of the goodness of their hearts: they come because they can pay workers nothing (or get contractors to do the same), and they can still largely pollute to their heart’s content. This, unfortunately, is what makes China such an attractive market/production base.

So how can China continue employment growth, pump out massive amount of exports while somehow fixing the environment and bettering working conditions? My answer: I don’t think it can. Its increasing wealth is based largely on rampant exploitation, both of natural resources and of people. China is getting richer precisely because it is such a mess right now.

As for China stagnating, I don’t mean in the more traditional economic sense. Sure, GDP will continue to grow, more consumer goods will be sold and so on. I mean more in terms of massive societal change (I know this sounds rather general and vague, so please bear with me).

I think all the fuss about China’s growth and rise has been due to the world witnessing a society’s move from centrally-planned poverty to a much more market-oriented, less poor state. Given China’s massive population, any segment of Chinese society moving into the middle-class is going to have a profound effect.

Yet, I am also of the opinion that this transition is largely over. Those who would be ‘rich’ in China have by-and-large become so. In a market economy, you get some wealthy people and lots of not-so-wealthy people. China’s relatively wealthy urban citizens are on a consumption binge, but I am skeptic of how many more millions (or billions) can join their ranks. They have played a big part in China’s boom; but what if there is nothing else after them? Is China’s economic ‘miracle’ nothing more than the natural realignment of wealth in a market economy after so many years of of forced equality? I think so.

And what happens when 800 million peasants want a share? I’m not so sure the urbanites will be happy to give it to them. The CCP, for political purposes, promises wealth to all but in fact needs to desperately protect its new urban guilded class from the poverty and blight that surrounds their citadels.

The Chinese central government decided that urbanization was the path to wealth generation. It may have been so for the past twenty years, but now they have hit a snag: to keep the cities wealthy (and happy), they will somehow have to limit any larger redistribution of wealth. When your economic system is based on short-sighted exploitation, you are bound to run into some problems.

And after all this ranting, I promise that my next comment will include the things I like and miss about China. 🙂

November 26, 2004 @ 8:44 am | Comment

Patrick, I really appreciate your comments, which reflect my own view of China to the letter. China isn’t going to implode or collapse or die. But it’s stuck in a rut of its own making, and unfortunately this rut ensures that corruption will flourish and the environment will further deteriorate, despite token gestures that are announced every few months.

Pomfret said it in a nutshell: “China is a third-, fourth- and fifth-world country.” Is it doing better and developing fast? Sure it is, but the leap from a fifth-world country to a country of true global greatness is a long and hard one under the very best of systems, and China’s current system can’t facilitate such a leap. Only an agonized crawl. There was the dazzling supersonic leap (sorry for straining that metaphor) after Deng took power to the present, but now, as you say, distributing the wealth poses incredible problems. And in a system where guanxi is everything, that doesn’t bode well for the disenfranchised peasant.

So China’s in a bind and it’s dreams seem unattainable any time soon. But that doesn’t mean it’s not one of the world’s most amazing countries. A day doesn’t go by that I don’t think of going back, at least for a couple of years. When I think back to the day I made my decision to leave, I cringe, because it was a bad mistake — SARS and other anxieties played a big part in that choice and I regret it every day. I miss the people — at least the individuals. Not the masses who push me off of lines or the drivers who consider every pedestrian a moving target. But the individuals I knew there are among the most wonderful people I’ve ever known, and seeing them enjoy the fruits of China’s undeniable progress is thrilling. Let’s hope it continues, and let’s hope as the government matures they’ll recognize that making Pudong into a Jetson’s fantasy city or building the world’s biggest dam or tallest skyscraper isn’t the way to become a respected global power. Those things are actually symptomatic of insecurity, not greatness.

November 26, 2004 @ 9:44 am | Comment


I’m completely with you on China being an amazing country. When talking politics and economics I tend to drift into cynicism, but then I stop and remember that the fact China works at all is a small miracle in itself. I’m utterly fascinated, perhaps almost addicted. One sixth of humanity bustles inside its borders. Just incredible.

But I think it does a huge disservice to all the struggling, hard-working people there to pretend that all is hunky-dory in the PRC. To buy into the blind hype around China’s ‘rise’ to superstardom is to deny the existence of their very real-life problems. Every time a major Western newspaper does a special on China you can guarantee drooling over Pudong and such. Are people really that gullible? I wonder.

Mark Anthony Jones’ informed, cautious optimism, despite my difference of opinion , is at least more realistic and not star-struck.

Like you, I made some great friends while I was in China, along with meeting dozens of truly memorable characters. From corrupt police officers trying to befriend me to absolutely hilarious college students, they still occupy my thoughts daily. Don’t even get me started on the taxi drivers! The place had enough of an effect on me that I’m continuing my Chinese language learning here at school in the UK, and I’m hoping to go back for a visit soon.

It’s really strange that some of the things that aggravated me the most while I lived there are the very same things that I now miss.

I never thought it would be possible to hate a place so much yet absolutely love it at the same time. I don’t know of many other countries that have this effect, but somehow many of the China expats I’ve met have the same reaction I do. What the hell is wrong with us? 🙂

In the end, the greatness of China really lies in its people and the absolutely random spontaneity of daily life there, not Pudong’s empty odes to the power of the state to glorify itself by wasting its people’s money.

(If you are wondering about my focus on developments projects and urbanization, I’m currently doing a Masters on urbanization and development. Needless to say, China comes up quite a bit.)

November 26, 2004 @ 11:15 am | Comment

Mark, sorry for not addressing your earlier comment. I understand all your points, and there’s merit to them. But for me, what they all come down to is that there is the potential for China to make great strides. True. There is a possibility — but it all hinges on a lot of “ifs.” As soon as I see genuine cause for optimism, I’ll be willing to make the shift into the cautiously optimistic camp. For now, I simply can’t. Just because there is a growing awareness of the problems among the CCP doesn’t mean they’ll do the right thing. Witness the staggering waste of money on the glitter and the nonsense — just last week they announced they’d be building the world’s tallest building. I’ll be more sympathetic to your argument when I see them apply their awareness and get real about their priorities. I saw them in action two short years ago, when they decided their image at the People’s Congress was more important than telling the truth about SARS and saving lives — it spoke volumes to me about their priorities and about how their minds work. So yes, they really do have the potential to solve their problems — if they took the appropriate action. But that is a tremendous “if.” In their minds, initiating real change and reform would threaten their power, alienating either the new middle/upper classes or the masses of peasants. And, since maintaining “social stability and harmony” is of paramount concern to an insecure one-party system obsessed with losing power, I simply cannot imagine them taking such a risk. But we’ll see over the years to come. I’ve tried to give them the benefit of the doubt time and again and always came away disappointed. Let’s hope I’m wrong.

November 26, 2004 @ 6:35 pm | Comment

Just a small point. Inciting nationalism is not China’s patent. Many authoritarian transition countries have done this.

November 26, 2004 @ 11:31 pm | Comment

Dear Richard and Patrick,

Thanks enormously for your detailed and informed criticisims. I am busy this weekend, but I shall definately write a detailed response on Monday morning (China time). For now though, let me say that I really do agree with much of what the both of you have to say – though I remain, nevertheless, cautiously optimisitic about China’s future to develop into a nation of true greatness – but by greatness I do not mean an imperialistic hegemon – and when I say cautiously optimistic, I mean only just – especially after considering your comments.

Best regards for now!
Mark Anthony Jones

November 27, 2004 @ 2:16 am | Comment

What a great series of posts! I’m in such agreement with everyone that I can only think of a few areas in which to throw my two cents.

a) Chinese nationalism. It’s not as “skin-deep” as people might think. When you’ve been as introctrinated as that to “ai Zhongguo” since birth … it’s going to have an impact. I’ve been particularly struck by the way a number of Chinese have said to me, quite unprompted, about how they would go back and fight for China in the event of a war. The other interesting aspect to their comments has been … it’s always “in the event of a war with Japan.” You can buy American goods, and still be nationalistic. Hasn’t anyone seen those pics from the middle east of people burning American flags, while they wear NY Yankees baseball caps?

b) My pessimism about the future of China is based entirely on internal factors to China, and not on the basis of any comparison to other countries … except in the sense that it provides a yardstick with which Chinese themselves like to measure their success. If the Chinese populace becomes disillusioned with their chances for reaching the goal they’ve come to expect is inevitable … then there’s going to be trouble.

c) I think people need to spend more time to consider the factors that have made China fall apart in the past. China is a universe in its own right, and so much of what goes on there is due entirely to its own internal dynamics. What this lesson says to me is this: the government will fall, sooner or later. When it falls, there will be no viable alternative to replace it, until years have passed. In the meantime, China will suffer terribly.

November 27, 2004 @ 5:18 am | Comment

Thank you Richard and Patrick, once again, for your insightful and challenging criticisms. And thanks too, to the writer who goes by the rather intriguing name of Filthy Stinking No.9, for joining the dialogue.

I am heartened by the knowledge that at least one person agrees with my take on the issue of Chinese nationalism. The point that Filthy Stinking No.9 makes about people from the middle east burning American flags while wearing NY Yankees baseball caps provides a very good example of what I was talking about earlier: that there is no link between nationalism and the consumer goods that people choose to buy.

When I first arrived here in China almost three years ago, the first person I met at the college where I taught was a young man whose English name is Paul. I was struck by the fact that, only a day after meeting him, he declared his allegiance to China as being so strong and passionate that he would “gladly” give up his life to help protect it in the event of a foreign invasion. Like the people mentioned by Filthy Stinking No.9, Paul also expressed a strong dislike towards the Japanese, but Paul was more concerned about a possible future American invasion over Taiwan. He was fiercely proud and nationalistic, to the point where I would even describe him as being a chauvinist, and yet he had ambitions of one day studying at the University of Sydney, and he loved American movies – though his favourite actor was Hong Kong’s Andy Lau. And despite his dislike of the Japanese (Paul is from Nanjing, where one of the worst atrocities committed by the Japanese in China took place), he always named Japan as the country he most wanted to visit for a holiday. He viewed Japan’s development and economic success as being a good model for China to follow, and he admired the Japanese for being the first Asian country to modernise. His attitude towards the Japanese was a love-hate one.

I wish that I had a dollar for every other Chinese person I have met who harbours these same sets of views.

But it seems as though all of us, as both Patrick and Richard have already pointed out, are actually in broad agreement with one another over most issues. Where I stand out as being different is that I am optimistic about China’s future to develop into a great nation, but very cautiously so. Patrick and Richard and Pomfret are all pessimistic, but are nevertheless cautious, and so it would seem as though all of us are not too far away from the centre. There seems very little point then, in continuing this dialogue by trying to entice the other across the fence, and into one’s own yard. I shall instead, simply share my thoughts on a number of the points and issues that have been raised since I last contributed to these pages.

Let me begin by addressing one of the points raised by Patrick. He argues that the Central Government is probably still not capable of solving China’s problems because “they are still too enamoured with ‘national glory’ mega-projects to adequately deal with issues such as environmental degradation and rural poverty relief.” Richard agrees, and calls upon us to “witness the staggering waste of money on the glitter and the nonsense – just last week they announced they’d be building the world’s tallest building,” he says. “I’ll be more sympathetic to your argument when I see them apply their awareness and get real about their priorities.” It is Richard’s view that “making Pudong into a Jetson’s fantasy city or building the world’s biggest dam or tallest skyscraper isn’t the way to become a respected global power.” Those things, he says, “are actually symptomatic of insecurity, not greatness.”

Now, I can certainly agree with Richard and Patrick with all of this, at least up to a point. To argue that money could be better spent on projects designed to help alleviate rural poverty or environmental degradation, rather than on these Jetson’s-like fantasy buildings, is certainly a fair enough comment to make. China’s space program provides another good case in point: estimated to be costing at least 2.2 billion US dollars per year, China’s space program doesn’t seem to serve any clear purpose other than to act as a kind of prestige program to enhance domestic legitimacy for the CCP, and to help give the impression that China ranks up there internationally with the big boys. China is now one of only three countries to have put a man into space.

But does the space program, and the building of skyscrapers, really signify an insecurity on the part of the CCP, or of the Chinese in general? Perhaps? But maybe the reasons for embarking on such projects have more to do with human psychology than with anything else. I still find Brian Easlea’s 1984 book, Fathering the Unthinkable, to be a very convincing read. In it, he argues that men, generally speaking, suffer collectively from “womb-envy”, and as a result they compensate for this lack of giving birth, so to speak, to science and to technology (including weapons technology). Men do not possess the “magical power” of procreative wombs, and so instead they give birth to bombs. He argues that sexual and parenting metaphors, the imagery in language, provide evidence of this. Mary Shelly of course, recognized this well when she wrote the story of Frankenstein.

I recall reading a book based on ten years of research into a tribal group from the highlands of Papua New Guinea several years ago, by the French anthropologist Maurice Godellier, titled The Making of Big Men, published by Cambridge University Press. Godellier’s findings and observations certainly support the views of Easlea – the collective “womb-envy” of men, and the way that men try to compensate for their inability to give birth to human life.

The kind of language that Easlea quotes in his book to help support his thesis can also be found in the following speech made by Chinese President Hu Jintao, following the successful launch of China’s first man into space. He described the event as “an honour for our motherland…and a historic step taken by the Chinese people in their endeavour to surmount the peak of the world’s science and technology.” The Chinese nation, it would seem, led by the CCP, has given birth to a prodigal new son: the spaceman.

China is by no means the only country in the world to have squandered money and resources on building for itself great and impressive monuments. In the early 1930s the United States embarked on similar projects: it built what was at the time the world’s tallest building – the Empire State, which was hailed back then as representing the “finger of God” (once again, we have men imagining themselves to be creators – perhaps the very idea of a God is in itself evidence of man’s collective womb-envy?)

Conceived during the prosperous 20s, but not built until the depression of the 30s, the Empire State Building spoke volumes about America’s confidence in its future. The grandiose city represented the nation-building aspirations of the bourgeois urbanists of thriving America. Such skyscrapers weren’t built because they were useful. They were, for the most part, billboards boasting of capitalism and commerce in addition to insurance (Metropolitan Building), sewing machines (Singer Building), cars (Chrysler Building), railroads (New York Central Building) and, of course, media empires (Chicago Tribune Building). The Empire State Building became known shortly after its completion as the “Empty State Building” – just as many of China’s skyscrapers today sit largely unoccupied.

One can just as easily interpret China’s lust for the skyscraper not as a sign of insecurity, as Richard suggests, but rather as a sign of optimism and confidence. They are phallic monuments to China’s success, and they stand proud and erect, and are “reaching for the sky”.

Finally, let me comment on a question raised by Richard in one of his earlier entries: “What about the surplus of males in China and India?” he asks. Will there be “more violence/wars/civil disorder as males fight for females?”

This very question is explored in a book titled, Bare Branches: Security Implications of Asia’s Surplus Male Population by Valerie M. Hudson and Andrea M. den Boer, who warn that the spread of sex selection is giving rise to a generation of restless young men who will not find mates. History, biology, and sociology all suggest that these “surplus males” will generate high levels of crime and social disorder, the authors say. Even worse, they continue, is the possibility that the governments of India and China will build up huge armies in order to provide a safety valve for the young men’s aggressive energies.

Hudson and den Boer assert that the governments of Asian nations may cope with the social strains caused by their “bare branches” – a Chinese term for men who cannot find spouses – by turning to militarism and to ultra-nationalism. “The security logic of high-sex-ratio societies predisposes nations to see some utility in interstate conflict,” they write. In addition to stimulating a steadier allegiance from bare branches, who are especially motivated by issues involving national pride and martial prowess, “conflict is often an effective mechanism by which governments can send bare branches away from national population centres, possibly never to return.”

But I have to agree with Goldstein and Parikh, two of the many sociologists to have dismissed the Bare Branches argument as being too crude. “The authors seem to completely lack empathy for these low-status rootless men,” argues Parikh. “These guys are the victims of development, and they call them criminals and potential criminals.” For instance, contrary to the book’s suggestion, Parikh says, most migrant workers in Asia maintain strong kinship ties with their home villages, send money home every month, and are nothing like the untethered marauders pictured in the authors’ warnings.

It certainly does seem implausible to me to argue that the CCP would increase militarism simply in order to soak up free-floating bachelors. In fact, the political leadership in China has been held in place for the last 25 years partly by the fact that they have kept the country out of war, as Goldstein has observed. In any case, the kinds of wars that are fought these days don’t involve human waves of 20 million unmarried men – not with today’s military technology.

Also worth considering is what Professor Zhai Zhenwu of Renmin University has to say about the topic: he has said that the argument “that there are 70 million more females than males is an exaggeration.” Chinese population statistics are very complicated, and according to Zhai, the “proportion of girls who are left out of the population count has reached astonishing levels.” That proportion may average as high as 30 percent in the countryside, and since “the girls who were not reported do exist, they will bring down the actual sex ratio of the marriageable age group.”

In Professor Zhai’s view, there is a certain amount of elasticity in the marriage market, and for this reason he argues that there will not be tens of millions of life-long bachelors. Nevertheless, he does acknowledge that there is a “severe imbalance” in the ratio of male to female births and that this is likely to “create social problems, raise crime rates, pornography and the sex trade and create some social instability.”

But I really do think that to predict war as a consequence of this gender imbalance is to stretch the range of its probable effects into the realms of Hollywood fantasy.

I shall conclude here for now.

Mark Anthony Jones

November 28, 2004 @ 10:13 pm | Comment

I don’t think you can fairly compare the building of the Empire State Building in NY with China’s mad dash to do the same in Shanghai. New York took care of its other priorities first — it had become the world’s epicenter for commerce and just about everything esle. It was the most thriving metropolis in world history, with a huge majority of its citizens in the middle class. It didn’t build the Empire State Building first, as proof it was ambitious. It had everything in place, and the tower was a cherry on the cake, so to speak. In Shanghai, you’ve got the cherries, but the cake is essentially half-baked and often downright dysfunctional and inedible. (Okay, enough with the cake metaphor.) To many observers’ eyes, there is something tragi-comical to the rush to modernize Shanghai, a metaphor for the CCP’s insistence that they are a world-class power, although there’s no foundation for such a claim, at least not yet.

Bottom line: NYC and Chicago are first-rate self-sustaining cities with or without their towers. China should have other priorities than showpieces, and a lot of the “prosperity” the world is cooing over in China is show, tinsel. They are still “a 3rd, 4th and 5th-world country,” in Pomfret’s own words, so why are they plowing trillions into the tinsel, and ignoring what’s at the heart of the matter?

We won’t agree about the nationalism, because I know too many Chinese who, if they could, would go to the US in a heartbeat, and would love to work for a multinational or US firm. Their love of China is real, but it doesn’t really mean much when there’s no comitment behind it, no dedication to serving and improving their country (though there are certainly some dramatic exceptions). I see it mainly as sloganeering and a balm for the ego. When it comes down to making choices that impact their pocketbook and their sense of prestige, nationalistic considerations drop to the very bottom of their list. So in that sense, it’s fair to call it, as Pomfret does, “skin deep.” (And I don’t buy the comparison with a Moselm kid in Iraq wearing a US baseball cap and killing Americans. That kid really does hate us, and it’s not skin deep. On the other hand, the Chinese kid in the US baseball cap who repeats the party line about the imperialist West would kill to work for IBM or to study in Boston. The jingoism is skin deep.)

November 29, 2004 @ 10:59 am | Comment

Cheer up, Mr. John Pomfret

Will China be a great nation? Time will tell. It’s interesting to wait and see. For those who don’t have enough time in life to wait, the issue shouldn’t really concern you.

The topic is not like “what should we do if Taiwan declares independence” or “which exit do I take to downtown”. It’s just for entertaining. My answer is, yes, it will.

You could feel pessimistic when you see so many obstacles in front of Chinese people. But, think of this: China’s leaders, intellectuals and people know the problems too. But most of them are optimistic about their future. Why? It’s because you know more than we do? Unlikely. It’s because you’re more knowledgeable and insightful on those issues? That’s also doubtful. We’re making our country better every day. No, I can’t say it’s happening everyday. But in a period of ten years or so, no unbiased observer could say China’s not making a huge progress.

Capitalism, plus a strong government in China’s case, makes money. Higher living standard leads to better education. The society evolves like this. It’s been approved in history. Does China’s culture or reality make itself an exception to the theory? I don’t see it either by myself or in your arguments. As a matter of fact, India is now behind China. However, I see no reason that India couldn’t be a great nation in the future, because they’re building the orders of a modern society, too.

Unlike what foreiners say, the China officials have been saying that China will be a developing country for a very long time because of our huge populations, but we’ll be a strong nation in term of GDP. Most Chinese agree that. Speaking of greatness, how do you specifically define it? If you’re talking about economy, China will be. In a sense of culture, it has always been a great nation. If you’re saying human rights, I kind of agree with you.

November 29, 2004 @ 11:24 am | Comment

He never formally defined “greatness,” though I took it to mean universally respected as an economic success and role model with a comfortable population and world-class infrastructure and facilities. There is absolutely no question they are making strides. But with the challenges confronting them, they can only go so far — and that’s not as far as we’d be led to believe by their excellent PR campaigns. A lot of people see the glistening steel and glass architecture of Pudong and get an impression of China’s prosperity that isn’t grounded in reality. Those towers are really cool, but they are not China. Most people who stay there longer than a few weeks soon realize that China’s situation is much more complex and frustrating than its surface impressions indicate.

November 29, 2004 @ 12:23 pm | Comment

The problem with Shanghai, and other aspiring ‘global’ cities in the developing world is exactly as Richard described it: they are trying to put the cherries on a cake that isn’t quite cooked.

In Western cities, the rise of valued ‘global’ sectors in the urban economy have definitely had a profound effect on the urban form, often leading to increases in income gaps and disparity. The elite segments of society are catered too more and more by services and accomodations targeted at them, which then crowd out and exclude those who aren’t so fortunate. So in cities like New York and London you also see an absolutely huge wealth gap, and the ‘global sector’ takes up a lot more attention, glamour and space than its actual share of the economy.

But these problems are occuring in what were once middle class societies, with the legacy of decent social services, adequate gov’t,etc. The legacies of Fordism and the middle class means that the gap between rich and poor is somewhat constrained.

In places like Shanghai, however, the forces of globalization hit a lot harder because there never was a generally well-off middle class to begin with (in China as a whole). Urban exclusion and income gaps thus become absolutely ridiculous. Can you get away with installing a ‘global’ infrastructure in a place like this with causing wrenching problems? (I’m thinking of Jakarta in the late 90s, that got pretty ugly).

Most developing countries (and, yes, I will include China in here) do not have the resources to be blowing billions on building space-age “development bundles” to attract international finance which, arguably, will not strive to help them become an “all-around, well-off society”.

If cities like London and New York are having problems with income gaps and increasing exclusion of the poor, you can bet Shanghai’s situation is many times worse (although they do hide it really well for the casual visitor). All that glitters isn’t gold.

If the rise of global financial services in urban areas is destructive to the distribution of wealth, then imagine what it does to places where there is no real distribution of wealth to begin with.

The Empire State Building was a symbol of corporate power and the triumph of mass-consumption Fordism. Pudong is a very specific state-driven attempt to create “an important symbol and image of the results of reform” to be developed “as quickly as possible, and in a visually striking manner”(Quotes are from a journal article on Shanghai). Kind of hard to compare the two.

And if you want to get into the nationalism debate (which I don’t), what does it say that Pudong was developed to be as “un-Chinese” as possible? In China, it seems to me that “modernity” is accepted as a culturally neutral state of being. But strangely enough, modernity there looks rather “Western”.

The only way I see China becoming a bonafide force of the future is if it offers an alternative vision of modernity, one that is not so unsustainable, destructive and…well…completely American. Any country can be a major economic force in the conventional sense with 1.2 billion people, but the real question is: can China show the planet a new way? I profoundly doubt it. (And no, consumer capitalism without democracy is not a new way). China doesn’t want to beat America, it wants to BE America. The United States has already won.

PS: I’m not American.

Sorry for being so provocative. I’ll stop now.

November 29, 2004 @ 6:06 pm | Comment

Dear Richard,

You say that you don’t think one can fairly compare the building of the Empire State Building in NY “with China’s mad dash to do the same in Shanghai” because “New York took care of its other priorities first – it had become the world’s epicenter for commerce and just about everything else. It was the most thriving metropolis in world history, with a huge majority of its citizens in the middle class.”

But I’m really not sure that I can agree with you fully on this. In the 1920s, when the Empire State Building was conceived, the United States was a society of many contradictions and conflicts. Freedoms in dress, behaviour, and sexual attitudes clashed with a new Puritanism. The automobile was replacing the old horse and buggy. There were conflicts between the traditional small-town way of life and a new urbanism and cosmopolitanism. In the 1920s, some Americans saw life as a glorious orgy, with the popularisation of Freud, songs such as “Hot Lips” and “I Need Lovin,'” and movies called “Up in Mabel’s Room” and “Her Purchase Price.” On the other hand, religious fundamentalism underwent a rebirth, as people tried to latch onto the traditional moral standards – either real or imagined – of bygone years.

Life in New York wasn’t great for everybody during the 1920s and especially even more so in the 1930s when the Empire State Building was completed. New York was a city striving to deal with the dislocating consequences of a huge immigrant influx, with issues of race and social justice and with the glaring disparities of wealth and poverty. This was the New York described so well in E.L Doctrow’s novels.

Not all Americans benefited from the “politics of prosperity” in the 1920s. Many servicemen had trouble finding jobs when they returned home from World War I. Furthermore, the nation experienced an upswing in racism and xenophobia. Moreover, by the 1920s, many Americans had grown weary of two decades of crusades for reform, and with the seemingly endless attempts to pass moral legislation.

New York, as in other cities across the United States, also experienced, at times, considerable class violence and instability during both the 20s and the 30s. Union Square alone, was the site of a number of violent clashes: in August 1927 angry crowds who had packed into the square to await news of the Sacco-Vanzetti execution were roughly dispersed by the police. On May 18, 1929, a demonstration against police brutality ended similarly when police charged the crowds to make arrests and injured several marchers. These confrontations erupted into uglier violence on March 6, 1930, when a mass protest at Union Square, calling for government action against unemployment, deteriorated into a melee after demonstrators – many of them jobless -resisted police efforts to prevent them from marching south to City Hall. The ensuing tumult resulted in one hundred injuries and thirteen arrests. This riot was the turning point in galvanizing public opinion against such acts of unnecessary police coercion, and city officials were subsequently pressured to guarantee the right to free assembly in Union Square.

I could go on all day giving you examples like this. New York, as you said, did have at that time a sizable middle-class, but it also had a sizable and angry number of impoverished workers who were often treated little better than animals, and it also had a considerable number of unemployed, many of whom literally starved to death on the streets during these years.

In the great steel, car and rubber plants all across America, non-unionised workers could be fired at will. They faced a 10 to 12 hour day on the production lines, and people didn’t have the right to freely assemble in protest. When they did, they were usually met with police violence. Only nine months after construction first began on the Empire State Building, a hunger march on Washington DC was stopped by police armed with machine guns, and less than one year after the building was completed unemployed demonstrators at River Rouge were machine gunned down – a least four of the marchers died from their bullet wounds.

Furthermore, New York was not the world’s “epicentre for commerce” at that time in its history. The United Stated didn’t emerge as the world’s most powerful economic and military force until after World War Two. London was still the “epicentre” of world commerce throughout the 1920s and 30s. The United States was still an emerging power.

Close to $41 million (a huge amount of money at that time) was spent on constructing the Empire State Building, while many remained unemployed, some of them starving – and then as I said earlier in my last entry, it sat largely unoccupied for a long time, the “Empty State Building”, as it quickly came to be known. New York did not, as you claim, take care of all its other priorities first, before building its skyscrapers.

Even today in the year 2004, there are said to be more than one and a half million people in New York who live well below the poverty line.

Shanghai today is arguably a more stable community than New York was in the late 1920s and throughout most of the 1930s.

Shanghai does have considerable poverty too, of course, especially when measured against today’s Western standards, but it also has a sizable middle-class – as do most of the cities to be found along the eastern coastal regions of China.

I think it is fair therefore, to compare the building of the Empire State Building with the building of skyscrapers in China today, because my main point for doing so it to demonstrate that such projects were not built entirely for their utility purpose, but rather to impress, and that they can be interpreted not as a sign of “insecurity”, as you argue, but rather, as a sign of confidence. It is irrelevant to my argument as to who finances the buildings, and under what economic and social circumstances they are built in.

Patrick argues that the “Empire State Building was a symbol of corporate power and the triumph of mass-consumption Fordism. Pudong is a very specific state-driven attempt to create an important symbol and image of the results of reform…and in a very striking manner.” This is no doubt true, yet Patrick thinks that it is “kind of hard to compare the two.” But I don’t think it’s hard to compare the two: in both cases the construction of these skyscrapers signify a growing confidence in the future. They are monuments to success, and they are designed to impress.

Richard – I take your point about nationalism, and of course I respect your view, but once again, I fail to see the connection between wanting to work for a transnational corporation like IBM and one’s sense or depth of nationalism.

You also say that in Shanghai, “you’ve got the cherries, but the cake is essentially half-baked and often downright dysfunctional and inedible.” Where is your evidence for all of this? Before moving to Shenzhen, I lived and worked in Shanghai, and I found the city’s major infrastructure to be quite good and efficient. The trains in Shanghai nearly always run on time and are safe and reliable – the metro system in Shanghai is definately, without a doubt, far more reliable than the equivalent services provided for in London and Sydney – where I have also worked and lived. The London Underground, throughout the two years that I lived there, was almost dysfunctional – but not quite. I lost count of how many times I was late for work due to delays caused by signal failures and track problems. Sydney’s trains are just as bad.

I have to fly all over China quite frequently for my work these days, and I also do quite a lot of travelling all over China in my private time, and I certainly wouldn’t say that the trains, buses and flight services here are in any way dysfunctional. I rarely experience problems. And most foreigners that I know who live in Shanghai have mostly praise for that city’s taxi services.

Where is all this “inedible dysfunction” that you talk about?

Patrick – to develop Pudong so as to make it look as “un-Chinese” as possible says nothing about the depth of nationalist sentiment that the average Chinese person feels. Nothing at all. All it says is that Pudong’s government and private sector planners want to create a showpiece of modernity/postmodernity – a space for international commerce that utilizes postmodern architecture, and for the same reasons that other countries utilize such building designs: partly to help market office space, and partly to impress.

I do, however, agree with you when you suggest that China would probably be better off if it were to offer “an alternative vision of modernity”, one that is not so unsustainable, environmentally. As I have said though, there is plenty of evidence to give rise for cautious optimism.

I quite miss waking up to the sight of the Pearl Tower actually. I used to spend quite a bit of my time drinknig Guinness in The Dublin Exchange pub in the heart of postmodern Pudong, and I found the area to be quite an interesting and pleasant enough place. I think that the Jinamo Tower, designed by a Chicago firm of architects, is an absolute work of brilliance. Of course, I still prefer the charm of the old longtangs of Hongkou, but I have to say that I think Shanghai would have to be one of the most interesting cities in the world, architecturally. The diversity there is just mind-boggling.

Thanks again for your spirited and challenging protestations, Patrick and Richard. We clearly do have our differences of opinion, but I can see that we also have a good deal of common ground.

Best regards,
Mark Anthony Jones

November 29, 2004 @ 9:41 pm | Comment

Simon’s China and East Asia Briefing: 30th Nov 2004

The following is a digest of highlights from the past month’s Asia by Blog series over at The round-up has four key areas of focus: China, Taiwan & Hong Kong (Politics, Economy & lifestyle, History sport & culture, Information), Korea…

November 29, 2004 @ 10:54 pm | Comment

Dear Patrick,

I am interested in what you have to say about development projects and urbanisation in China’s major cities. You say that if “cities like London and New York are having problems with income gaps and increasing exclusion of the poor, you can bet Shanghai’s situation is many times worse”.

Furthmore, you say that if “the rise of global financial services in urban areas is destructive to the distribution of wealth, then imagine what it does to places where there is no real distribution of wealth to begin with.”

Certainly, Shanghai, with its population of around 20 million people, is experiencing some of the negative economic effects of having such a large population concentrated within its borders. The lack of space to accommodate housing, employment, and other requirements for its citizens is making it more difficult to find additional affordable housing and new employment for incoming residents.

People are attracted to cities in search of employment and other goods and services, and so the more successful a city like Shanghai becomes in generating employment, the greater the attraction of newcomers into the city. An unfortunate consequence of an ever-growing urban population, as I’m sure you know, is that the city becomes less cost efficient as a place to do business.

There is evidence that this is already happening in Shanghai. I noticed recently in a report published by the South China Morning Post, that Shanghai’s satellite city of Suzhou in Jiangsu province, has attracted more foreign investment than Shanghai during the past 12 months.

The greater urban region of Suzhou has a population of almost 6 million people, with one million living in the central core. In the last six months, this city received $US4.05 billion in international investment while Shanghai received $US3.84 billion, and in the previous six months before that, Suzhou attracted $US3.5 billion while Shanghai attracted $US3.34 billion.

This is a trend that I think is likely to remain in play – with a growing proportion of international investment being attracted to satellite cities that surround the largest of the cities in China such as Shanghai, Beijing, Chengdu, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, and even Shenzhen, where I now live.

This is not a poor reflection on Shanghai, because the foreign investment that Suzhou is attracting is dependent on its close location to Shanghai. Without Shanghai, Suzhou would not be attracting the same amount of foreign investment. It is primarily manufacturing industries that are being directed to Suzhou, where 6,000 foreign employers are already established – though foreign investment has been for some years, and continues today to spread well beyond this geographic space: I spent my first two years in China living in the provincial city of Huai’an, in the middle of Jiangsu Province, where quite a number of foreign joint-venture companies are established, like the South Korean Hankook tyre factory, to name but one example.

The gradual movement of manufacturing to lower cost urban areas in the environs of Shanghai though is not necessarily a negative outcome either, because the objective of Shanghai is to become an international financial, shipping and trading capital, not unlike New York and London. In both of these financial capitals, manufacturing employment is declining in relative terms to other types of work in the financial field, and has been for the past several decades. Neither New York nor London is weakened economically because of this trend. It is simply a by-product of an economic transition in the New Economy. However, it should be noted that a very severe and unprecedented increase in housing costs in New York and London is exacting a very significant hardship on the working and lower middle classes of these cities. My old colleagues in London tell me that places like Bethnal Green (where I used to teach) has become quite gentrified since I was there back in 94/95, and that many people on average incomes can simply no longer afford to even rent there.

Shanghai is trying to avoid the same experience, as the Mayor of Shanghai pointed out late last year during the 12th Annual Asia Leadership Forum.

As he said, because this urban economic transition is forcing large cities like Shanghai to become ever more dependent on neighbouring cities to sustain urban economic growth, telecommunication and transportation links will become increasingly important in the years ahead.

Currently in China and elsewhere in the world, most of the attention in transportation infrastructure has been in providing metropolitan based mobility; that is travel within the urban limits of Shanghai, for example. But with the evolution of the urban form in China to the Interlocking Metropolitan Region, increased attention will be directed to improving transportation links to and between satellite cities. This is the plan. Of course, as I mentioned in my last entry above, I think that road and rail transport infrastructure between such cities here in China is already of a very impressive standard. Take the road and rail links between Suzhou and Hangzhou, via Shanghai for example. Or the road and rail links between Hong Kong and Guangzhou, via Shenzhen, which are also excellent.

An automobile, travelling at 100 kilometres per hour can reach Suzhou from Shanghai providing there is no traffic congestion, in one-hour, so the automobile limits the range of these regional links to about 100 kilometres or less. But with the introduction of maglev technology for mass transit use, the range of these links can be more than doubled to 250 kilometres or more, using the one-hour travel time journey standard.

Shanghai’s city planners, working with a number of foreign experts, argue that the maglev mass transit system could link the surrounding cities, towns and villages of Shanghai into a functioning Interlocking Metropolitan Region, strengthening the economic, social, and environmental sustainability of this great urban region.

High-tech projects like the German designed and built maglev “train” (which I have used now on several occasions) are more than just pieces of show “glitter” – in the case of the maglev line, plans are already underway to extend it greatly, with the expectation that such a project could help to significantly maintain the long-term viability and sustainability of Shanghai and its satellite towns and cities by offering an environmentally clean and speedy transport link.

Is this a likely long-term outcome in your opinion Patrick, for Chinese cities like Shanghai to be able to adequately manage its growth at sustainable levels – or are you that cynical and pessimistic that you think it unlikely?

I think the challenges are huge, but the signs are that progress is being made – problems are being identified and possible strategies and solutions are being examined, and, yes, are sometimes (some would even say often) being implemented.

There is, I believe, as I have been arguing all along, some good room for optimism.

Of course, cities like Shanghai do not represent all of China. Development is highly uneven, and wealth very unequally distributed. But if you look closely enough at what is going on in the more remote western provinces, you will see encouraging signs there too – as I have also already documented, to some very small extent.

I have seen China in all of its extremes – from the glittering skyscrapers of Shanghai, to some of the poorest and most remote villages imaginable, 4000 metres above sea level on the far western fringes of rugged Sichuan Province, and I have seen plenty of what’s in between. Unlike you, when I first came to China, to provincial Huai’an, I was not “absolutely enthralled” by all of the development and glitz – because there is very little of the glitz in Huai’an to show. It has taken me a good three years, and a lot of travelling, talking and reading, before I have been able to finally assess China’s future with any real sense of optimism – though of course, I am yet to consider myself a China “expert”.

Best regards,
Mark Anthony Jones

November 30, 2004 @ 12:13 am | Comment

I’ve been in China for three months now and I was relieved to read some intelligent thinking which pretty much reflects what’s been going through my head of late.

I just have a few random impressons to offer. Firstly, in relation to corruption, what I’ve seen has actually been a big shock because it’s a kind of corruption which was unexpected and appears to be endemic. I’m talking about the coverups in which everbody colludes, and which don’t seem to substantially affect people’s faith in the system. Here in my University they had a biannual government inspection last month, for which everyboldy was told to be on their best behaviour. The most remarkable thing though is that the University doesn’t have as many foreign teachers as it’s supposed to, so everybody had to participate in a bizarre charade whereby all the students who are supposed to have native English speakers, but don’t, got just one lesson in which everybody including the teacher had to pretend that they’d been having classes together for the previous eleven weeks. Which meant that we foreign teachers were instructed not to ask anyone’s name as this might give the game away!

Now for people who have been here a while this probably doesn’t seem all that extraordinary, and obviously it’s not on the same scale as the SARS episode. But I think this case is quite instructive if we consider that the authorities fully expect the students to cooperate in this kind of situation, and none of the students I spoke to regarded it as remotely unusual. This generation is the first one to have lived all their lives in a supposedly more open environment, and yet they display no signs of even beginning to question what goes on around them.

Take the question of the internet, which according to many recent articles about China has given the young more or less uncensored access to unfiltered information about the outside world as well as a free platform to express their views. In fact, I’ve found that basic and seemingly wilful ignorance about life in other countries persists because, apart from – or possibly because of – the internet censorship that does exist, young people feel that they should steer clear of foreign sites. This internal censorship is very difficult to break through – when the Guardian ran it’s recent week of articles about the new China, I drew their attention to it, but not one of over one hundred students would admit to having read any of it by the following week. So students here have access to information like never before – the only gathering places they have here are in web cafes – but they choose not to go looking for it.

Which leads me on to the question of learning English. This is the new Great Leap Forward, in which everybody is exhorted to put all of their energies. Young people in particular are subjected to immense pressure, and can constantly be found obsessively repeating lists of words to themselves. At first I found this charming, and was very impressed, just as I found it very sweet when a toddler would shout hello – at least before I saw the threats and cajoling that went on to get the child to open it’s mouth and impress the foreigner.

But I’m starting to become suspiscious about the methods used. Time and time again I find in my classes that an entire class will all know one word, but be totally ignorant of another at more or less the same level of vocabulary. Similarly, when asked for common questions that one should ask a new acquaintance, the same 10 or so questions will be trotted out. Which has led me to think that, rather than English enabling them to communicate more freely with outsiders and to express their views in a different way, the state has control of what they learn and does not allow them to develop the ability to formulate questions of their own.

There is also the sense that their reading habits also don’t seem to have moved on much since the CR. The propaganda has changed of course: instead of the Little Red Book, they seem to read almost nothing but 10 Secrets of Very Successful People, and books about how to get very rich very quick. It took me a while to realise that the reason why there is so much of this stuff around it is that the Party wants people to read it, to concentrate their minds exclusively on their own individual material future, forgetting the shortcomings of the present.

As for that future, I don’t hold out much hope for mass enrichment, leading to inevitable political freedom. Every new cheaply built skyscraper overshadows another one built six months ago which has already begun to crumble. The lack of public infrastructure to match this chaotic expansion means that outside my brand new apartment block the sewage is constantly spilling up through the manhole covers and the amount of uncollected garbage means that everyone in the block has to take a detour to work. In any kind of democratic society critical questions of infrastructure like this would at least be dealt with by somebody, somehow: here nobody knows what to do with the waste – everybody is just waiting to see what happens next.

November 30, 2004 @ 12:49 am | Comment

Mark Anthony Jones,

Thanks for the response concerning urban development in the Shanghai region. Where I still disagree with you, however, is in your interpretation of what all this infrastructure construction ultimately means.

You seem to buy into the discourse that infrastructure is politically/socially neutral, that the construction of highways and train lines automatically benefits “the people” as a whole, and that any new infrastructure is inherently good because it is new.

I tend more towards the view that a lot of this infrastructure is geared towards very specific and often narrow segments of society. In the Shanghai/Suzhou/Hangzhou area, it is aimed specifically at the needs of foreign capital and the extraction of export products towards foreign markets (along with the movement of specialized labour to support this production process).

I am well aware of trickle-down economic theories, and the promise of globalization comes down to that: orient your infrastructure towards global, rather than local, needs, and somehow the surrounding population will get rich from this activity. This point, of course, is very debatable.

The type of infrastructural approach in China targets the highly mobile, wealthy urban elite. Not many farmers are going to be riding a maglev train into Pudong airport.

Some will argue that the resulting economic activity from this sort of connectivity will ultimately make its way to that farmer, somehow, but I think the jury is still out on that one.

I will be honest and say that I’ve been picking on China too much here. These are not necessarily Chinese-specific dilemmas; they can be found the world over, especially in places like London (where I’m now living).

This issue stems from the great job certain influential segments of society have done in convincing others that what is good for them is neccesarily good for all. The allure of global financial glory has driven many cities to rather scary levels of income gap, social exclusion and fragmented development (high-tech, connected park next to slum). ‘Global’ infrastructure is going to leave you with a large portion of bypassed locals.

So why do I pick on China? Well, mostly because that’s where I lived for the past two years. 🙂

But I am just amazed at how much the idea of “neutral modernity” is accepted hook, line and sinker there (although given the political and cultural climate, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised at all. The CCP should win world awards for indoctrination.)

Something is good because it is new. Period. I think as people, living everywhere, we should really look more carefully at the meaning behind the infrastructure we so blindly accept as progressive. More highways is not always less problems.

I’m by no means a Marxist or anything (in fact, I have no idea how to describe my political meanings), but I just think more critical analysis is sorely needed on our messed up little planet. Modernity has enjoyed ‘neutrality’ for too long (at least outside of the ivory tower, haha).

China does a spectacular PR job of selling its development as objectively beneficial to the population as a whole. But that is hardly the reality in the rest of the world, so what makes China so different? Because the CCP says so? 🙂

Ultimately, I get the feeling that people who are overly optimistic about China (and Mark Anthony, I’m not including you in there because your arguments are pretty reasonable) are just hoping for some counter-balance to the dreaded U.S of A.

I only spent two years in China, but I never got the sense that it was some mystical land that somehow transcends the problems facing the rest of us stupid humans. It has a good chunk of the world’s population, and a huge chunk of the world’s problems.

But I’m not necessarily giving up: a major reason I’m studying urbanization and development is because the processes I witnessed in China absolutely fascinate me. I’m continuing with my Chinese language studies, and I’m hoping to gain valuable employment at least partly related to China.

Call me an idealist if you want, but I think there are ways of working in and on China that don’t involve paying workers pennies to pump out crappy products to sell at Wal-Mart. I’m more interested in China’s long-term sustainability, both for its own sake and the world’s. And I must say, at the present moment, I’m a bit discouraged by what I see.

PS: Your comments on the London Underground really made me laugh. It’s the only subway system I’ve ever encountered where the system set up to warn of delays and breakdowns (think high-tech display panels, constant updates, next train times) is much better run than the train network itself!

Why bother fixing the actual service, when you have such innovative ways of telling people why it doesn’t work? 🙂

November 30, 2004 @ 9:08 am | Comment

Great observations, everyone. Thanks for making this such a great thread.

November 30, 2004 @ 7:57 pm | Comment

Dear Patrick,

Thank you for your extremely thought-provoking and, without trying to sound in any way patronising, highly intelligent response to my last entry.

You say that you disagree with my “interpretation of what all this infrastructure construction ultimately means,” and that you think that I “seem to buy into the discourse that infrastructure is politically/socially neutral,” and that “the construction of highways and train lines automatically benefits ‘the people’ as a whole, and that any new infrastructure is inherently good because it is new.”

In actual fact, I do not think like this at all, though I cannot (and do not) blame you entirely for reading me in this way. Quite obviously, I need to express my socio-political views more clearly.

You say that you are “by no means a Marxist or anything,” and that you in fact “have no idea how to describe” your political meanings.

I, on the other hand, do have definite political leanings: I see the world through the eyes of a Marxist – one who is quite highly influenced by the legacies of the Frankfurt School: Antonio Gramsci, Theodore Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, and Fredric Jameson. I will discuss my views on Marx and globalisation later in this piece, because I think the issue of globalisation is so central to any real understanding of China today. But first, let me just say that I agree entirely with you when you say that a lot of this infrastructure that I have been talking about, like the maglev line for example, “is geared towards very specific and often narrow segments of society.” As you so rightly observe in my opinion, in the Shanghai/Suzhou/Hangzhou area, the excellent quality transport infrastructure that already exists there “is aimed specifically at the needs of foreign capital and the extraction of export products towards foreign markets (along with the movement of specialised labour to support this production process).” I couldn’t agree more with you on this!

My argument however, is simply that Shanghai’s government, working alongside foreign experts in the area of urban planning, are right now proposing to extend the maglev line quite considerably, because such an environmentally clean, fast and efficient form of transport can help significantly to “strengthen the economic, social, and environmental sustainability” of the Shanghai urban region. By shortening the time it takes to travel from Shanghai to outer towns and cities, it is hoped that Shanghai will be able to cast its net of success further afield, thereby relieving itself of some of the strains of having to deal with undesirable and, ultimately unsustainable development pressures.

Of course, my real point in discussing Shanghai’s urban planning is to point out to you and Richard the fact that, although the obstacles to China’s development and prosperity are huge, the signs are that progress is being made. As I said in my last entry, “problems are being identified and possible strategies and solutions are being examined,” and are often also sometimes successfully implemented.

Let me turn now though to the issue of globalisation, because it is globalisation that has been responsible more than anything else in making China what it is today, and it will no doubt also be the driving force that will shape the China of tomorrow. You recognise this I think when you say that, although you are “well aware of trickle-down economic theories”, the promises of globalisation are unlikely to benefit everyone – not too many farmers, as you say, are likely to end up riding the maglev train into Pudong airport.

In a recent book titled One China, Many Paths, a group of Chinese intellectuals, who, broadly speaking, can be said to represent a Chinese “new left”, come together to discuss the effects of globalisation on China today. It their view, “more and more people have started to make connections between the hegemonic structure of the global system and the daily problems of contemporary China – savage privatisation, power-steered business, crony capitalism and ecological crisis.” By crony capitalism, they are referring to the type of capitalism that is also to be found in just about all capitalist societies today, and which, over the years, has become increasingly noticeable particularly in the United States under the Bush regime – take the present controversies surrounding the Halliburton-Cheney relationship, as but one example.

The authors of this book provide a fascinating account of changes in class structure and the growing attacks on workers’ rights as a consequence of foreign capital and privatisation, and they spell out the huge and still growing inequalities between rich and poor, between city and countryside and between booming and underdeveloped provinces as products of both the ‘market reforms’ and globalisation. Globalisation is perhaps the most interesting thread that runs through the book. Time and again, the writers draw out the ways in which what is happening in China is part of global capitalism.

Globalisation and “the market” hold out promises which they have not yet fully delivered on, and the result has been an upsurge of disconnected but increasingly militant battles against factory managers and local officials. Examples of such militant battles are not hard to find, as Green Left Weekly recently reported: for example, “on October 22, more than 10,000 workers and pensioners in the city of Benghu in Anhui province took to the streets protesting about deteriorating health care and the failure to index the retired workers’ pension to the fast rising cost of living.” And on October 18, “30,000-40,000 angry protesters put the local government of Wanzhou district, 300 kilometres from Chongqing city, under siege. A minor street row, triggered by threats and the bashing of a labourer, exploded into a major riot after it was rumoured that the attacker was an official. Rioters burnt a number of police vehicles and damaged the government building, which the police answered with teargas and rubber bullets.”

Meanwhile, in Xianyang City, also in Shaanxi province, “more than 6000 workers, mostly women, struck on September 14 after the new owner of their recently privatised employer, Tianwang Textile Factory, sought to seriously undermine their employment conditions. The new owner, China Resources, sought to terminate all workers and re-employ them all as inexperienced workers, at much-reduced pay and without accrued retirement or medical benefits.” According to the October 14 Epoch Times, the workers at this factory “have maintained a round-the-clock picket-cum-vigil ever since the strike broke out, staffed by up to 1000 workers who have been heard singing the ‘Internationale’ loudly.”

There are numerous other examples that I could list, but what is also worrying is that, as Bruce Dickson points out in his new study, Red Capitalists in China, the emergence of this new, entrepreneurial class in China is not the main force behind accelerating political reforms. In a survey of entrepreneurs and government officials, Dickson found reason to believe that instead of taking a stand against government authority to press for civic rights, many Chinese business elites “see themselves as partners, not adversaries, of the state.” Hence the existence of a crony capitalism.

So how can I continue to remain cautiously optimistic about China’s future ability to manage its problems sufficiently enough to enable it to sustain further development and to continue growing in prosperity?

I am well aware that, for many, Marx is a dead dog. However, we must be aware that whilst revolutionary Marxism is a dead dog, and a blood-stained one at that, many of Marx’s ideas are still alive. We must, I believe, try to re-establish a dialectic view of reality, i.e. one based on contradictions. And I would like to quote here, very briefly, what seems to me to be the most dialectic sentence of the 20th century. It was not penned by a Marxist but by a decadent American writer, Fitzgerald, who, in a short story with no philosophical content, said that the distinctive feature of real intelligence was to know how to function on the basis of two contradictory ideas; to know that things were hopeless yet be resolved to change them. I would call that optimism based on will. And since many of the contradictions inherent in both capitalism and globalisation are at least being recognized and acknowledged by China’s leaders and government planners and policy-makers, and because strategies to deal with many of these problems are now being examined in order to deal with them, and because some of these strategies are in fact also being implemented, and at times are even proving to be successful, then I would say that it is better to be an optimist rather than a pessimist – albeit, a cautious one at that.

The Chinese Central Government in Beijing, and the Chinese more generally, need and ought to have their efforts acknowledged by the wider world, so as to give them the encouragement they need to continue in their efforts. As most sober China specialists have observed, the CCP, for all of its undeniable faults, is generally steering China in the right direction – a fact which UN figures on poverty reduction, as well as on health and literacy indicators over the last two decades have shown. The World Bank’s studies on China’s poverty reduction and environmental management and recovery policies clearly support such conclusions – all of this I have already outlined in my earlier commentaries on this website, and at times I have even quoted from them at length.

In the 1850s, Karl Marx believed that the spread of capitalism, or what today we would call globalisation (the cultural logic of which, as Jameson argues, is postmodernism), was transforming human society from a collection of separate nation-states to a world capitalist society where the principal form of conflict would be between classes rather than nations. According to Marx, the conflictual properties of capitalism could not be contained. A political revolution led by the working classes would overthrow the capitalist order and usher in a world socialist society free from the alienation, exploitation and estrangement produced by capitalist structures.

Needless to say, the pattern of historical change anticipated by Marx 150 years ago has been thwarted by the persistence of the nation-state system, its propensity for violence, and the grip that nationalism maintains upon our political identities. Marx’s reputation has also been tarnished, perhaps unfairly I think, by the appalling interpretation and application of his ideas in a number of failed so called “communist” states.

So what, if anything of value, does Marx have to say about the current impact of globalisation upon our advanced industrial societies, and on developing societies like China?

Marx, as Scott Burchill points out, “was the first theorist to correctly identify capitalism as the principal driving force behind increasing levels of international interdependence, a process that he believed was both transforming human society and uniting the species.” With remarkable prescience, Marx argued that the very essence of capitalism is to “strive to tear down every barrier to intercourse”, to “conquer the whole earth for its market” and to overcome the tyranny of distance by reducing “to a minimum the time spent in motion from one place to another”.

Resistance to the expansion of capitalism was, according to Marx, futile. National economic planning would become impossible as barriers to trade and investment collapsed. In a famous extract from The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels described how globalisation prizes open national economies and how global markets determine the pattern of economic development across the planet: “The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. All old established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilised nations. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations”.

Globalisation, according to Marx, was a progressive, if transient phase in human history. The universalising processes inherent in capitalism promised to bring not only unprecedented levels of human freedom, but also an end to insularity and xenophobia. According to Marx and Engels, under globalisation, “national one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible. The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian nations, into civilization. The cheap prices of its commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production. In one word, it creates a world after its own image”.

However, unlike liberals who regard the collapse of national economic sovereignty as a positive development, Marx highlighted the darkside of interdependency, in particular the social consequences of exposure to the rigours of market life – the type of consequences mentioned earlier by the authors of One China, Many Paths, and as reported in the pages of Green Left Weekly. In the 1840s, Marx was already observing a backlash against globalisation. People had “become more and more enslaved under a power alien to them (a pressure which they have conceived of as a dirty trick on the part of the so-called universal spirit, etc,), a power which has become more and more enormous and, in the last instance, turns out to be the world market”.

Remarkably, Marx also anticipated the de-regulation of the world’s capital markets in the 1970s and was convinced that the rapid and unrestricted flow of money across territorial boundaries would disrupt many societies and exacerbate class tensions within them. In 1848 he asked, “what is free trade under the present conditions of society? It is freedom of capital. When you have overthrown the few national barriers which still restrict the progress of capital, you will merely have given it complete freedom of action. All the destructive phenomena which unlimited competition gives rise to within one country, are reproduced in more gigantic proportions on the world market. It breaks up old nationalities and pushes the antagonism of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie to the extreme point”.

Economist David Hale recently claimed that opposition to free trade in the US is “heavily influenced by perceptions that voters themselves now view trade issues in terms of a domestic class struggle, not as promoting exports and global integration”. Marx wouldn’t have been surprised I don’t think. Although he was describing a world already being transformed by capitalism in the middle of last century, Marx’s observations about the power of markets, class tensions and the emergence of a universal capitalist society resonate even more loudly today.

But of course, as Marx recognized and indeed argued, although capitalism is historically progressive, the contradictions inherent in it ensures that all societies that come under its grip will experience both positive and negative effects, socially, economically, and politically.
Due to the lack of a just and equitable international economic order, the influence of globalisation on countries at different stages of development has been entirely different. The “dividends” derived from globalisation are not fairly distributed, as you have already pointed out Patrick. The developed countries have apparent advantages in capital, technology, human resources and administrative expertise and in setting the “rules of the game”. They are usually the most active propellers and the biggest beneficiaries of globalisation. The developing countries on the other hand are on the whole in an unfavorable position. Developing countries can obtain some foreign investment, advanced technologies and management expertise, but at the same time they are the most vulnerable to the negative impacts of globalisation and lack the ability to effectively fend off and reduce the risks and pitfalls that come along with globalisation – something else which you have already pointed out.

For China, globalisation is a double-edged sword that brings both opportunities and challenges, advantages and disadvantages. How to turn disadvantages into advantages in the tidal wave of globalisation depends on how well one can formulate appropriate policies and strategies. China, from what I have seen and read, seems to have learnt many lessons and has indeed accumulated rich experiences in dealing with globalisation from its practice of reform and opening-up.

In the past 20-odd years, China has maintained an annual growth rate of around 8 percent on average. China is now the 6th largest economy and the 5th largest trading nation in the world. More than 200 million people have been lifted out of poverty. The average life expectancy reached 71.8 years in 2002, close to that of a medium-level developed country. The above accomplishments were achieved against the backdrop of a volatile international situation. The reason why China has been able to achieve so much in such a short span of time and in a constantly changing international environment is because China has found its own road of development, suitable to its national conditions – something which I have also already discussed in one of my earlier entries on this website when I quoted The Guardian’s Mark Leonard.

China’s opening to the outside world has also been quite comprehensive. It has opened up not only to developed countries, but also to developing countries, and not only in the economic field, but also in all areas of social development. Of course, it has fully exploited its advantages of low cost labour to attract foreign investment and technology, but in doing so it has increasingly integrated itself with the world economy – which is why I think its future prosperity should be reasonably secure, provided that it continues to invest money and resources in tackling the many serious environmental and social justice problems that, as Pomfret rightly argues, could stand in its way and prevent it from developing into a country of true greatness.

China is frequently portrayed in the West either as an emerging threat or as a crippled giant facing internal disorder. These sharply contrasting images reveal more about Western perceptions of China than about China itself. And they obscure, among other things, the important linkages between China’s struggle to modernise and Chinese foreign policy. While Pomfret is far more moderate and sober in his assessments than most other China critics, his attempt at portraying Chinese youth as having a nationalism that is only “skin-deep” is merely his way to question their commitment to China and its future, so that he can lay claim to yet more, badly needed evidence, to support his view that China is unlikely to fully realise its ambitions. In doing so, he reveals a certain level of ignorance: for a nation can be broadly defined as a “specific sentiment of solidarity in the face of other groups,” as Max Weber wrote in 1946, and since the nation is a specific set of social bonds, the nature of these bonds cannot be clearly defined outside of particular contexts.

A complete assessment of a given form of nationalism therefore requires an analysis of “all sorts of community sentiments of solidarity in their genetic conditions and in their consequences for the concerted action of its participants.” For Chinese youths to want to work for a transnational company like IBM or Sony, or for them to wear American baseball caps while admiring American sports stars, says nothing, absolutely nothing, about the level of their commitment to China as a nation state.

In addition to this need for context and thoroughness, feelings of solidarity vary greatly between states, ethnic groups and other social strata, and attachment to multiple nations is also possible – especially in today’s globalised world. Given the nature of national bonds and their frequent overlap, a thorough understanding of a given nation in isolation is difficult at best, which is why, for Benedict Anderson, the affective bonds of nationality cannot readily be pinned down to a single form – the nation should instead be regarded as “an imagined community.”

What is encouraging, is that the Chinese are now beginning to break away from their long history of isolationism, and are now truly beginning to see themselves as part of a the global community. China’s rise to future greatness will not be without pain, and it will always be a place of huge contradictions.

But what is also true, is that China’s future pains and joys, will be shared by us all.

Best regards,
Mark Anthony Jones

November 30, 2004 @ 11:32 pm | Comment

Yes! The Chinese are beginning to imagine themselves differently – they are now starting to see themselves not only as “Chinese”, but also as “internationalists”, as global citizens.

Regards again,
Mark Anthony Jones

November 30, 2004 @ 11:39 pm | Comment

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