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The myth of the rise of China

By Ross Terrill - posted Tuesday, 27 September 2005

China’s rise is glamorous and generally welcome for Australia. Chinese civilisation is respected for its longevity, arts and ancient yet enduring philosophies. After China's troubles from the Opium War in the mid-19th century to the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, many Chinese and non-Chinese feel China finally deserves a place at the top table. "China's progress is good for China and good for the world," said John Howard in New York last week. Yet let's be clear-eyed about Beijing's varied goals and its chance of success.

China's gross domestic product increases by between 8 and 9 per cent (by Beijing's figures) each year. Recent foreign trade volume has been up 25 per cent a year. This economic growth has led to a quest for markets, enhanced capacity to import, military expansion, diplomatic clout, rising oil consumption (China has become the world's second-largest oil consumer), global involvement well beyond Asia and swelling national ambition.

China's armed forces are undergoing modernisation that brings substantial weapons imports from Russia, big money into information technology, more complex and lower-cost scenarios for taking Taiwan, and better co-ordination of the services to mount land, sea, air, space and electronic warfare all at once.


China's trade with Africa has tripled in the past five years to $US30 billion ($A39 billion). Last year saw large resources investment in South America. Increased Chinese fishing, investment and tourism in the South Pacific seeks not only to eject Taiwan but to secure a long-term position in this sub-region where Australia, so far, is big boy on the block.

Some see China on the verge of taking over the world.

Amid speculation about how big the Chinese economy will be in 2020 or 2050 ("surpassing the US"), you seldom hear that the Japanese economy today is three times the size of China's. Japan is the biggest aid donor to South Pacific states, but that too is overlooked in articles about China's largesse beneath the palm trees. In fact, it is completely unknown whether the Chinese economy will roar on to eclipse the US.

Some in Europe, Australia and even within the US exaggerate China's rise as a stick with which to beat the Bush administration. Any "rise" with the potential to take George Bush down a peg or two should be maximised, say those for whom the US would not be first choice as sole superpower. This is risky. Whether China's rise will be a solution to all the problems thrown up by American evils remains to be seen.

Beijing's foreign policy seeks to maximise stability at home and sustain China's impressive economic growth. A third goal is to maintain a peaceful environment in China's complicated geographic situation (the People's Republic has 14 abutting neighbours). So far so good.

Beijing also has two more distant goals. To replace the US as the chief influence in East Asia; hence Chinese hints to Australia that Canberra would be better off looking only to Asia and not across the Pacific. Also, Beijing wants to "regain" territories it feels rightfully belong within the PRC: Taiwan; a large number of islands east and south of China; portions of Russia's far east.


Reaching these foreign policy goals depends, I believe, on the future of the Chinese political system and on how other powers react to China's ambitions.

At home, a middle-class push for property rights, rural discontent, use of the Internet, 150 million wanderers hovering between village and city, a suddenly ageing population bringing financial and social strains, all dramatise some contradictions of "market Leninism". Travelling one road in economics and another in politics makes it difficult to arrive at a set destination.

China may gain lasting prosperity. China may retain its Leninist party-state. But both will not occur; either the economic or the political logic will soon gain the upper hand.

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First published in The Australian on September 19, 2005.

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About the Author

Ross Terrill is associate in research at Harvard University's Fairbank Centre and author of Mao: A Biography, Madame Mao, China in our Time and, most recently, The New Chinese Empire (University of NSW Press, 2003).

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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