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The China Superpower Hoax

How is a country with a lower per capita income than Mexico hailed by so many as the next global superpower?
 
 
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This article first appeared on TruthDig.

China must have the best public relations maestros in the world. How else would a country with a lower per capita income than Iran, Mexico and Kazakhstan, one of the worst environmental records of any major nation, endemic corruption, jails stuffed with dissenters, and a dictatorship, besides, be hailed by so many as the next global superpower?

Certainly China is big—1.3 billion people big, a fifth of the global population. As Forbes’ columnist John Lee has written, China has long been the place for the world’s biggest anything: the Great Wall, the 2008 Olympics, Tiananmen Square, the South China Mall in Dongguan, dams, consumption of cement and production of automobiles; most recently, China even had the world’s biggest traffic jam—an incredible 60 miles long—which lasted a month and during which drivers were stuck in their cars for days at a time.

The world has never see anything like mega-nations the size of China (or India for that matter), and no one even knows if populations of this magnitude ultimately are sustainable. China’s voracious need to supply its population and avoid the social explosions that have plagued its history has made it one of the world’s largest consumers of natural resources, especially timber and energy, extracted from places like Africa, Southeast Asia and South America. With such large appetites, China has the ability to drive global markets, and, consequently, has become the new frontier where “get rich quick” investors and Western businesses go panning for gold by speculating in some hot Chinese start-up.

Unfortunately, the hype ignores a starker reality—that China is barely holding it together. Contrarian voices like Hu Ping, the chief editor of Beijing Spring, a pro-human rights and democracy journal, try to humanize the conventional wisdom of economic statistics and facts that obscure reality. “With China portrayed in the news every day as an economic and political powerhouse, the rest of the world, at least those parts that treasure freedom and peace, should pay attention to the real China,” says Hu.

The Paradox of China

To understand the “real” China, it is necessary to see it through the double lens of its paradoxical condition as both a major economy and a still-developing country. China is filled with contradictions and serious challenges. When I visited China in August and September of 2008, after the Olympics, the country that I saw, whether in Shanghai, Beijing or the rural areas, was a long, long way from being a global leader in any meaningful sense. Two hundred million people out of a working population of nearly 800 million are migrants, chafing at their lowly status and rotten wages. Inequality is rampant. Returning from the rural areas—where the vast majority of Chinese still live—to cities is like a form of time travel, moving from feudal conditions where plowing is still done by water buffalo to a land of impressively jutting skyscrapers. Corruption is epidemic, whether in banks, the legal system or the political leadership at national, provincial and local levels, causing an estimated annual economic loss of approximately 15 percent of GDP, according to economist Hu Angang.

Even China’s much-touted economic power has been misunderstood. Recently it was announced around the world that China had surpassed Japan to become the second-largest national economy. But compared to the United States and Europe, China is still an economic mini-me. Europe’s gross domestic product is $17.5 trillion, according to the latest IMF figures, while the U.S. figure is $14.8 trillion and China’s is $5.4 trillion (by Europe, I mean the EU 27 plus Norway, Switzerland and Iceland).

 
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