Friday, 16 October 2020

How China Can Be “Great Again”

The economy of China is a mixed socialist market economy. State-owned enterprises, central planning and private businesses and investment permitted to flourish are the general characteristics of its economy.

The Government began reforms in 1978. As at end 2019, it is the second largest economy in the world in terms of nominal GDP (USD14.3 trillion). As of 2017, it is the largest economy in the world by purchasing power parity. Growth rates used to average 9-10% per annum over 30 years. The public sector accounts for 63% of total employment. China has an estimated worth of USD23 trillion in natural resources – coal and rare earth metals. China has world’s largest total banking sector assets of around USD40 trillion. It has the second highest number of billionaires with wealth of USD996 billion.

Historically, China was one of the largest economic powers in the world from 1st century to about the 19th century. China’s past has shaped its present, as Prof. Rana Mitter (University of Oxford) suggests:

(i)         Trade

China remembers a time when it was forced to trade against its will. Today it regards Western efforts to open its markets as a reminder of that unhappy period.

The US and China are currently in a dispute over whether China is selling into the US while closing its own markets to American goods. Yet the balance of trade hasn't always been in China's favour.

There are long memories of a period, nearly a century and a half ago, when China had little control over its own trade. Britain attacked China in a series of Opium Wars, starting in 1839. In the decades that followed, Britain founded an institution called the Imperial Maritime Customs Service to fix tariffs on goods imported into China. It was part of the Chinese government, but it was a very British institution, run not by a mandarin from Beijing, but a man from Portadown.

Sir Robert Hart ended up becoming inspector-general of the Customs of China, which became a fiefdom for Brits for a century afterwards. Hart was honest and helped to generate a great deal of income for China.

It was very different in the Ming dynasty, in the early 15th Century, when Admiral Zheng took seven great fleets to South East Asia, Sri Lanka and even the coast of East Africa to trade and show off China's might.

Zheng He's voyages were partly about making an impression. Few other empires could boast the massive fleets that it sent out across the oceans, and it was also an opportunity for strange and wonderful items be brought back to Beijing - such as China's first giraffe.

However, trade was also important, particularly in other parts of Asia. And Zheng could, and did, fight when he wanted to, defeating at least one ruler of Sri Lanka. Yet his voyages were a rare example of a state-driven maritime project. Most of China's overseas trade for the next few centuries would be unofficial.

(ii)        Trouble With the Neighbours

China has always been concerned to keep states on its borders pacified. That's part of the reason it deals so warily with an unpredictable North Korea today.

This is not the first time that China has had problems with those on its borders. In fact, history reveals it has had worse neighbours than North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

The shifting lines on the map show that the definition of China has changed over time. Chinese culture is associated with certain ideas such as language, history and ethical systems like Confucianism.

However, other peoples, including Manchus and Mongols from the north, have taken China's throne at various points, ruling the country using the same ideas and principles upon which their ethnic Chinese counterparts relied. These neighbours did not always stay put. But sometimes they embraced and exercised Chinese values just as effectively as the people from whom they took them.

(iii)       Information flow

Today China's internet censors politically sensitive material, and those who utter political truths deemed problematic by the authorities may be arrested or worse.

The difficulty of speaking truth to power has long been an issue. China's historians have often felt they had to write what the state wanted rather than what they thought was important.

The author of one of the most important works chronicling China's past, in the 1st Century BC, dared to defend a general who had lost a battle. In doing so he was held to have snubbed the emperor, and was sentenced to castration.

Yet he left behind a legacy which has shaped the writing of history in China to this day.

(iv)       Freedom of religion

Modern China is much more tolerant of religious practice than in the days of Chairman Mao's Cultural Revolution - but past experience makes it cautious about faith-driven movements which could potentially spiral out of control and pose a challenge to the government. Records show that openness to religion has long been part of Chinese history.

At the height of the Tang dynasty in the 7th Century, the Empress Wu Zetian embraced Buddhism as a way of pushing back against what she must have regarded as the stifling norms of China's Confucian traditions.

In the Ming dynasty, the Jesuit Matteo Ricci arrived at court and was treated as a respected interlocutor, although there was perhaps more interest in his knowledge of Western science than his attempts to convert his listeners.

But faith has always been a dangerous business.

In the late 19th Century, China was convulsed by a rebellion started by Hong Xiuquan, a man who claimed to be Jesus's younger brother.

The Taiping rebellion promised to bring a kingdom of heavenly peace to China but actually led to one of the bloodiest civil wars in history, killing as many as 20 million people, according to some accounts. Government troops initially failed to tame the rebels, and had to allow local soldiers to reform themselves before they eventually put down the Taiping with great cruelty in 1864.

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Christianity would be at the centre of another uprising decades later. In 1900, peasant rebels calling themselves Boxers would appear in north China, calling for death to Christian missionaries and converts, the latter being characterised as traitors to China.

At first, the Imperial Court backed them, which led to the death of many Chinese Christians, before the uprising was eventually put down.

Through much of the following century, and to the present day, the Chinese state has veered between tolerance of religion, and the fear that it may upend the state.

(v)        Technology

Today China seeks to become a world hub for new technology. A century ago it went through an earlier industrial revolution - and women were central to both.

China is a world leader when it comes to artificial intelligence (AI), voice recognition, and big data.

A large number of the smartphones around the world are built with Chinese-made chips. Many of the factories which manufacture them are staffed by young women who often endure difficult conditions of work, but who are also finding a place in the industrial market economy for the first time.

They have inherited the experience of the young women who came 100 years ago to the factories that sprang up in Shanghai and the Yangtze delta.

They were not making computer chips, but silk and cotton threads. Work was hard and likely to cause lung disease or physical injury, and conditions in the workers' dormitories spartan. Yet the women also recalled the pleasure of having their own wages, however, small, and the ability to visit a fair or theatre on a rare holiday.

Today, on Nanjing Road in that city, you can still see China's new working and middle class enjoying a wide range of consumer goods as part of China's contemporary tech-driven economy.

We are living through another significantly transformative era for China. Future historians will note that a country that was poor and inward-looking in 1978 became - within a quarter of a century - the second biggest economy in the world.

But to be “Great Again”, China needs to address or reform its:

·       Legislative (one-party state);

·       Executive (corruption and devolution of powers (local/central)

·       Judiciary (laws in line with international standards and independent judges)

·       Human rights;

·       Adherence or compliance to accepted global practices, including intellectual property and copyrights; and

·       Promote peaceful coexistence, cooperation and collaboration in science, technology and economy with its Asian neighbours.

One thing is almost certain - a century from now, China will still be a place of fascination for those who live there and those who live with it, and its rich history will continue to shape its present and future direction.


Five ways China’s past has shaped its present, Prof. Rana Mitter, University of Oxford,
20 April 2018 (




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