Monday, December 05, 2005

Jeremy Hall and Robert Patman: China has a long way to go for superpower status

Some 10 days ago there was a huge explosion at an industrial plant in the northern Chinese city of Jilin. Toxic chemicals spilled into the adjoining Songhua river and choked off water supplies in downstream Harbin before continuing across the Russian border.

Days later came the news that an underground explosion in the province of Heilongjiang had killed at least 134 miners.

These disasters have reminded the world that behind the rapid development and modernisation, China still faces serious social, environmental, and political challenges on its journey to great power status. Above all, such events highlight the basic tension between one-party rule and rampant economic liberalism, a tension that is likely to sharpen as China's economic prosperity increases.

The facts of the Chinese economic miracle are incontestable, and its effects have touched most Westerners, including New Zealanders.

Beijing began to move away from a Soviet-style command economy in the late 1970s, and by the mid-1990s economic reform had transformed the country. Consistent economic growth - it is now over 9 per cent a year - and the rise of Chinese manufactured products on the world market became key features of this rapid turnaround.

Status projects such as the launching of Chinese astronauts into orbit in 2003, and the 2008 Olympic bid, have largely gone off without a hitch. Similarly, China's major cities have been redefined by legions of new skyscrapers and other striking architectural developments. Foreign investors are champing at the bit to get access to a surging Chinese market of 1.7 billion people.

Not surprisingly, the rising economic power of China promises to reshape geo-politics in the 21st century. Already, there are signs that Beijing is seeking an international role that it considers to be more commensurate with its growing capabilities.

In the Asia-Pacific region, China has begun to assert itself in relations with its biggest trading partner, Japan. Angered by Japanese textbooks that gloss over wartime atrocities against Chinese citizens and Tokyo's solidarity with the Bush Administration's policy of support for Taiwan, Beijing has sanctioned angry popular demonstrations against Japanese interests.

At the same time, China continues to invest heavily in new military hardware, and the Bush Administration has regularly sounded alarm bells about the growing Chinese threat in the international arena.

In August, China conducted its first military exercises with Russia. While these manoeuvres added some substance to the political rhetoric of a strategic partnership between Beijing and Moscow, they reflected, more than anything else, common opposition to the Bush doctrine and its stated determination to maintain the global primacy of the US.

Interestingly, China's international emergence has coincided with a downturn in the global standing of the US. A survey conducted earlier in the year in 16 countries by the Washington-based Pew Global Attitudes Project showed that China is actually ahead of the US in public esteem in many countries.

But it would be premature to read too much into such surveys. China faces some formidable challenges in the era of globalisation. Its increasing integration into the global market economy, symbolised by membership of the WTO, is generating new pressures for political reform within the country.

At present, the communist regime retains strict control of the domestic media, right down to a "Great Firewall of China" that blocks websites deemed to be threatening to the political order.

Nevertheless, reports of unrest have periodically surfaced in the Western media. A glimpse of the sort of convulsions that may follow was provided by the Tiananmen Square student demonstrations of 1989 that saw 3000 people - predominantly pro-democracy activists - killed by the Chinese military in the centre of Beijing.

Another act of defiance captured in footage obtained by the Washington Post in June showed a gang of paramilitary toughs attacking farmers who were resisting the seizure of their property for a Government power project in the province of Hebei, just north of Beijing. Six farmers were killed and as many as 100 injured in the clash.

With growing prosperity and the dissemination of personal communication devices such as fax machines, mobile phones and internet access, China is steadily becoming more difficult to control.

Moreover, the greater number of younger Chinese citizens who now have the ability to travel beyond the country's borders will increasingly stretch tolerance for authoritarian rule at home.

The implicit contract between the Chinese Government and the population, which sees the latter acquiesce to the absence of social and political freedoms in exchange for material prosperity, will be difficult to sustain in the rapidly changing circumstances of the 21st century.

So while China is certainly growing in power, it would be a mistake to overstate its interest or its capacity to supplant America's position as the world's sole superpower in the foreseeable future.

Many of America's problems may be solved by a change of administration, whereas China's looming difficulties may yet require a change in its political system.

Understanding a nation as vast and secretive as China is difficult, but absolutely necessary for every nation of the world, not least those of the Asia-Pacific region, who are likely to feel its expanding presence in the economic, and perhaps even military, sphere sooner rather than later.

* Jeremy Hall completed an MA thesis at the Department of Political Studies, University of Otago. Robert G. Patman is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Studies, University of Otago.

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