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Can China build an economic high-rise without democratic foundations?

By Chin Jin - posted Monday, 17 November 2003


The British dominated the 19th. century; the Americans dominated the 20th. century and still hold an unchallengeable position as the sole superpower. Now the world has entered the 21st. century, will the Chinese catch up and replace America's dominance? The Chinese are obviously expecting this and some Westerners are willing to anticipate likewise.

A nation dominates the world via its superiority to other countries in the following aspects:- economic strength, advanced political system, military power and a healthy society that provides a sound base for long-term and steady development. The US, the world superpower of today, is superior in these aspects and no one is able to compete with it so far. But we all know the world is changeable and China has the potential to challenge US supremacy. We must take a good hard look at some of China’s main issues before making a judgment as to whether China might surpass the US in the 21st. century.

China has made rapid economic progress during the past 25 years of economic reform and its national capability has also advanced. People’s living standards have improved to some extent but not at any great pace; and not everyone has benefitted because of the uneven and unfair distribution of the fruits of economic growth. In fact, China’s economy is not as perfect as many Westerners imagine. The coastal regions, especially in the south-east have undergone rapid economic growth while the vast remote areas remain undeveloped. The obvious trappings of wealth - high-rise buildings in Shanghai, Beijing and some other major cities - are not the full picture of China’s economic development.

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China is still relatively poor despite being labelled a “superpower of tomorrow”. The latest available Gross National Product figures show China as the world’s sixth largest economy. But China is the world’s most populous nation, so its GNP per head of population is only US$780. There also appears to be a problem with the statistics China produces. Ken Davis, head of the OECD Directorate for Financial Affairs, says the euphoric claims in recent years that China is becoming an “economic superpower” are premature. China’s National Bureau of Statistics has revised downwards some figures based on provincial government figures that have exaggerated their local performance and do not reflect economic reality.

China’s science and technology still lag behind some other well-developed countries besides the USA. China’s huge population resulted from poor population policy during Mao’s era and has created an innate shortage of natural resources, denying it some of the fruit of economic growth. And the educational standards of the population at large are by no means first rate, with an increasingly uneducated populace reflecting the imperfection of China’s compulsory educational system. The Chinese government’s mismanagement of the environment poses a growing threat to people in the country. And there is doubt about the capacity of the PLA, China’s military power, to win even a regional war against India, despite boasting it might retake Taiwan by force if peaceful unification is completely denied by the renegade province.

Let’s also have a look at China’s society. A noticeable deterioration in social practice and a rapid decline of moral standards have coincided with the past 25 years of economic progress. This is not because of the economic advance, it is because of the loss of focus in people’s minds on keeping the society in good order.

The Chinese rulers deliberately misguided the people, emphasising getting rich at the expense of morality or conscience. However, less than five per cent of the population - those capable of combining power with capital - enjoy lion’s share of the wealth produced. The gap between rich and poor and has grown enormously. The rich don’t accumulate their wealth through hard work and intelligence but though their privilege and political power. This has given rise to resentment by the underprivileged and will lead to confrontation between the handful of the privileged and the mass of ever-marginalised people.

Judicial injustice has reached a level never known before, social justice is disappearing, faith in governments at all levels has reached an end and so has mutual trust among ordinary people.

Politically, one-party dictatorship prevails in China. This prevents China from advancing quickly, steadily and enduringly. The Chinese government possesses absolute political power that can only lead to corruption; and political stagnation has crippled the country. Chinese leaders believe that under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, following the high-handed dictum that “stability overrides everything”, the momentum of rapid economic growth can be kept in check. What they don’t understand is that rapid, steady and endurable economic growth needs to be sustained by an open and transparent democratic political system.

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The high pace of economic growth and superficial prosperity is illusive and it covers up a real crisis that may erupt at any time. The current political stability is maintained at the cost of human liberty but cannot remain forever because resentment and political unrest continue to grow. High-ranking Chinese officials are fully aware of the problems they are confronting, but lack the courage or will to address them. Many have already prepared their route of retreat by sending their children overseas and redirecting their wealth out of the country. This clearly shows their loss of confidence in the current regime.

China lacks a platform of steady performance from which to reach its peak. An undemocratic China can be regarded as an unhatched egg and it cannot be counted as a chicken. A democratic China must respect its people’s creativity, genius and human rights so that the power to create the strength and wealth of a nation can be unleashed. Let’s talk about whether the 21st. century belongs to the Chinese after China achieves democracy and its people enjoy the ensuing freedom.

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About the Author

Chin Jin is an M.A. graduate of the University of Western Sydney and Chair of the Federation For A Democratic China, Australia.

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