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Defining China:A rising, fragile global power


Jean-Pierre LehmannFor The Straits
JUL 5, 2016, 5:00 AM SGT


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


Among the many daunting questions theplanet is facing, the most important for at least the first quarter of the 21stcentury, in all likelihood extending to the first half, is the Chinesequestion.


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


There is an understandable visceral desireto be optimistic. "Things will be okay"; "All that the Chinesereally want is to be economically successful"; "Maoism has beenmetamorphosed into materialism". There is, of course, some of that, butcomplacency and wishful thinking are dangerous. There is an imperative to facereality with a hard, analytical look.


The first essential question is: What isChina? Into what kind of conceptual framework does China fit? Gettingone'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 oftendoes 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. Itis not in any way like "other" emerging markets, whatever that maymean. China is China.


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


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


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


In the modern era, China was frequentlyattacked 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 isthat whereas China was heavily influenced by Buddhism, a religion that emanatedfrom India, and that even today in "communist" China there are an estimated250 million Chinese Buddhists, comprising some 18 per cent of the population,Buddhism has virtually disappeared from India, corresponding to a measly 1 percent of the population. China and India do not share Buddhism.


The first essential question is: What isChina? Into what kind of conceptual framework does China fit? Getting one'sbearings right is the sine qua non imperative for successful navigation. Whatcontinues to strike me is how often we seem to be getting it wrong.
Furthermore, to underline Chinesediversity, there are an estimated 100 million Christians. This would make Chinathe fourth biggest Christian country in the world, after the United States,Brazil and Russia! There are more Chinese Christians than there are members ofthe Chinese Communist Party (CCP)! But it would be a bit premature to refer toChina as a "Christian country"!




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


It is certainly still Chinese! Thoughthere is still poverty in China, as the world's first or second biggesteconomy, with the world's greatest number of billionaires, and a massive urbanmiddle class of at least half a billion, it is certainly not poor.


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


It may be apocryphal, but it captures theessence.


China is still a totalitarian dictatorshipunder 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 oldSoviet Union. Remember all those millions and millions of Soviet touristsflocking to France, Italy, Japan, Hong Kong, South Korea …? Of course not. Theonly Soviet tourist destination was well behind the Iron Curtain: in Crimea!
What about all those sons and daughters ofsenior Politburo members going in droves to study in American Ivy Leagueschools, as well as in Europe and Australia? Again, there was none: It was theCold War! One might also mention those billions of US dollars (trillions ofyuan) invested by Chinese firms and wealthy individuals throughout the planetin mines, plantations, manufacturing sites, real estate, railways, ports and soon. And, in passing, it is difficult to remember all those Soviet people buyingEuropean luxury goods and French premium wines like there were no tomorrows.


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




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


A rising global power is beyond debate. Itis present economically in virtually every nook and cranny of the planet. Ithas a growing military arsenal and expansionary ambitions - the South China Seaand 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 OneBelt-One Road.


But it is fragile. Its power is almostexclusively hard; its soft power is weak. It has territorial disputes withvirtually all its neighbours. The strained ties with Taiwan and Hong Kong areat the very least an irritant, possibly more. The country that it was countingmost upon to be its gateway to the European Union - a bit like Hong Kong was inthe past the gateway to China - was the United Kingdom and now it's gone andleft the EU.


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


To cite the most critical example: Chinahas 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 anobsession in Beijing that is absent in the capitals of the other global powers,notably Washington.


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


The differences are notable in respect tosiblings: A Chinese my generation is likely to have had seven or even eightbrothers and sisters, half of whom, perhaps more, died young. China iswitnessing the rise of a generation of which almost all were single children.(I strongly recommend an excellent book on this subject: Wish Lanterns: YoungLives In New China by Alec Ash.)
Whether these demographics make China moreor less fragile remains to be seen, but it certainly makes it different, addinganother layer to the sui generis identity.


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


I am not claiming mine is perfect, but Ithink 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.