By Invitation

Defining China: A rising, fragile global power

China is no part of the emerging market; nor Brics, nor Chindia. China is itself, and has to be understood on its own terms.

Among the many daunting questions the planet is facing, the most important for at least the first quarter of the 21st century, in all likelihood extending to the first half, is the Chinese question.

Will China's peaceful rise succeed, or will it fail? How will Chinese society evolve? How will the world adapt to a China rising not only economically, but also geopolitically and militarily?

There is an understandable visceral desire to be optimistic. "Things will be okay"; "All that the Chinese really want is to be economically successful"; "Maoism has been metamorphosed into materialism". There is, of course, some of that, but complacency and wishful thinking are dangerous. There is an imperative to face reality with a hard, analytical look.

The first essential question is: What is China? Into what kind of conceptual framework does China fit? Getting one's bearings right is the sine qua non imperative for successful navigation. What continues to strike me is how often we seem to be getting it wrong.

How often does one read, even in supposedly respectable publications, phrases like "China and other emerging markets"? China is not an emerging market; or certainly, that is not the term that most usefully defines it at present. It is not in any way like "other" emerging markets, whatever that may mean. China is China.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

While all countries from tiny St Kitts & Nevis to giant China are sui generis, China is sui generis in capital letters. It is analytically misleading to put it into some artificial, even if handy, collective "genre". Terms such as "China and other emerging markets" distort: China is not just another emerging market.

The sloppiest categorisation of China is the catchy but meaningless term "the Brics". Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa have very little in common. In no way do they constitute a collective entity - whether culturally, politically, socially, economically, demographically or geopolitically. The Brics buzz word stuck because it was a substitute for thinking.

From a narrower Asian continental perspective, there was a (fortunately short-lived) fashion for the term "Chindia", to refer to China and India, aka the "two Asian giants". Though there are things China and India share, hardly surprising in the light of their huge common border, they are fundamentally two very different specimens with two very distinct histories - China became a unified centralised state in the 2nd century BC under the Qin Dynasty, India not until the Mughal Dynasty some 18 centuries later.

In the modern era, China was frequently attacked and invaded, but it did not become a Western (or Japanese) colony. British colonialism in India lasted close to two centuries. One could go on.

An interesting and insightful aside is that whereas China was heavily influenced by Buddhism, a religion that emanated from India, and that even today in "communist" China there are an estimated 250 million Chinese Buddhists, comprising some 18 per cent of the population, Buddhism has virtually disappeared from India, corresponding to a measly 1 per cent of the population. China and India do not share Buddhism.

The first essential question is: What is China? Into what kind of conceptual framework does China fit? Getting one's bearings right is the sine qua non imperative for successful navigation. What continues to strike me is how often we seem to be getting it wrong.

Furthermore, to underline Chinese diversity, there are an estimated 100 million Christians. This would make China the fourth biggest Christian country in the world, after the United States, Brazil and Russia! There are more Chinese Christians than there are members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)! But it would be a bit premature to refer to China as a "Christian country"!

POOR, CHINESE AND COMMUNIST?

Back in the early 1970s, when I was a university lecturer in Britain, a sinologist friend, Jack Grey, used to preface his presentations by saying that "to understand China it's important to remember that it is (a) poor, (b) communist and (c) Chinese".

It is certainly still Chinese! Though there is still poverty in China, as the world's first or second biggest economy, with the world's greatest number of billionaires, and a massive urban middle class of at least half a billion, it is certainly not poor.

Is it communist? There is the famous story that when negotiating the return of Hong Kong, Margaret Thatcher asked Deng Xiaoping, "Socialism with Chinese characteristics, what does that mean?", to which he replied, "Anything you want it to".

It may be apocryphal, but it captures the essence.

China is still a totalitarian dictatorship under the rule of the Communist Party. With tensions between the US and China, especially in the South China Sea, there is talk of a "new cold war".

But China not at all resembles the old Soviet Union. Remember all those millions and millions of Soviet tourists flocking to France, Italy, Japan, Hong Kong, South Korea …? Of course not. The only Soviet tourist destination was well behind the Iron Curtain: in Crimea!

What about all those sons and daughters of senior Politburo members going in droves to study in American Ivy League schools, as well as in Europe and Australia? Again, there was none: It was the Cold War! One might also mention those billions of US dollars (trillions of yuan) invested by Chinese firms and wealthy individuals throughout the planet in mines, plantations, manufacturing sites, real estate, railways, ports and so on. And, in passing, it is difficult to remember all those Soviet people buying European luxury goods and French premium wines like there were no tomorrows.

The "new cold war" scenario is widely amiss. So, what is China?

THE ESSENCE OF TODAY'S CHINA

The best (not suggesting it's perfect) way I can think of is to define China as a rising global power with great ambitions, but fragile in many ways.

A rising global power is beyond debate. It is present economically in virtually every nook and cranny of the planet. It has a growing military arsenal and expansionary ambitions - the South China Sea and increasingly the Indian Ocean. It is a nuclear power. It has a grand vision, recently articulated in the New Silk Road - inelegantly referred to as One Belt-One Road.

But it is fragile. Its power is almost exclusively hard; its soft power is weak. It has territorial disputes with virtually all its neighbours. The strained ties with Taiwan and Hong Kong are at the very least an irritant, possibly more. The country that it was counting most upon to be its gateway to the European Union - a bit like Hong Kong was in the past the gateway to China - was the United Kingdom and now it's gone and left the EU.

China is rich in gross domestic product, but poor in resources, compared to its needs.

To cite the most critical example: China has 18 per cent of the world's population, but 7 per cent of its arable land. Ensuring not just food supply but equally importantly food security is an obsession in Beijing that is absent in the capitals of the other global powers, notably Washington.

China has many internal contradictions. It may be relatively politically stable now. But how long can the CCP remain in power? No one dictatorial party has had a lifespan of more than 75 years, for example, the CCCP in the Soviet Union (74 years) or the PRI in Mexico (71 years).

There is internal factionalism. Probably the most important question about the CCP is whether it can sustain political power if it cannot sustain economic growth. The environmental disaster question cannot be ignored.

Then there are the generation gaps. A Chinese my age (70) has had a brutal existence: the end of the devastating war with Japan, then the Civil War, then the Liberation and all the purges that followed, then the Great Leap Forward, followed closely by the Cultural Revolution. So all that my Chinese contemporaries want is peace and stability.

The upcoming millennial generations, however, have experiences that are totally different in virtually every respect, and have different expectations.

The differences are notable in respect to siblings: A Chinese my generation is likely to have had seven or even eight brothers and sisters, half of whom, perhaps more, died young. China is witnessing the rise of a generation of which almost all were single children. (I strongly recommend an excellent book on this subject: Wish Lanterns: Young Lives In New China by Alec Ash.)

Whether these demographics make China more or less fragile remains to be seen, but it certainly makes it different, adding another layer to the sui generis identity.

China is complex. It will not become less so with time. Simplistic definitions or categorisations result in simplistic (and wrong) analysis.

I am not claiming mine is perfect, but I think the words "rising", "global", "fragile" and "power" seem to capture the essence of what China is today.


  • Jean-Pierre Lehmann is emeritus professor of international political economy at IMD business school with campuses in Lausanne and Singapore; and visiting professor at Hong Kong University.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 05, 2016, with the headline 'Defining China: A rising, fragile global power'. Print Edition | Subscribe