China 2011

Written by Ilhan Niaz  •  January 2011 PDF Print E-mail

China is a statistician’s paradise. Articles about China typically include figures relating to the country’s awe-inspiring economic growth, international trade, currency reserves and growing international clout as the new “Workshop of the world” – a phrase once proudly used to describe the United Kingdom. Suffice it to say that barring extraordinary events, the year to come will produce another set of impressive statistics. However, China is much more than economic statistics. It is a society in a delicate and potentially dangerous phase of modernization that is grappling with severe environmental problems, socioeconomic inequalities and the proximate possibility of political and strategic destabilization. 2011 is likely to be a difficult year for China though the problems likely to be encountered are not beyond the ability of the Chinese leadership to handle.

The most pressing problem seems to be growing tensions on the Korean peninsula. The bellicose and autocratic North Korean regime is intent on demonstrating its nuisance value to its far wealthier neighbors and is jealous of growing mutually beneficial trade and investment ties between its Chinese ally and South Korean nemesis. China’s handling of this situation will require all the depth and dexterity that its 2200 years old diplomatic tradition can muster. Clearly, China does not want war on the Korean peninsula for that would disrupt economic growth and probably result in the defeat of its North Korean ally. At the same time, the Chinese leadership is visibly reluctant to push North Korea completely into a corner and start knocking heads in Pyongyang, which is what the United States of America would like China to do. Thus far Chinese efforts to get the Six Party talks going again have failed owing to U.S. and South Korean unwillingness to talk to North Korea until it improves its behavior. The Chinese position is that modifying North Korea behavior without talking to it is unlikely to happen. To put the situation in more cultural-historical terms, the barbarian hermit kingdom of North Korea is demanding attention and tribute from the civilized world and paying a little tribute, disguised as aid for face-saving purposes, could save a lot of bloodshed and destruction.

While the Korean crisis is capturing headlines, China has to manage its leadership transition in 2012. Assuming Hollywood is wrong and the world does not end in 2012, the present Chinese leadership will be replaced by a younger crop of leaders. China is perhaps the only communist regime that has managed (in 2002) a peaceful and legitimate leadership transition. There were plenty of Sino-skeptics back in 2001 hoping that the leadership change would result in political crisis and/or violence (as had happened in 1989 and before that in 1976-78). However, in 2002 it didn’t and it seems unlikely that the 2012 transition will be problematic.

Then there are more long-term issues and of these environmental pollution and Chinese policies to combat it locally and globally is one of the most important. China is facing an environmental catastrophe in terms of desertification and water and air pollution. China’s own vice minister for the environment warned back in 2005 that China’s rapid economic growth could fall apart due to pressing environmental problems. Given that the central government prioritizes economic growth and rewards local governments and civil servants who attain development objectives, it is unlikely that the ‘Economics first’ approach of its government machinery is going to be replaced anytime soon by the saving-fuzzy creatures from extinction approach. By the time environmentalism becomes the primary goal it may well be too late to retrieve the situation. With a per capita income of about U.S.$ 3700 in 2009 (World Bank estimate) China is much wealthier than India (U.S. $1134) but still far behind the developed countries. The economic growth of the past 30 years has pulled hundreds of millions of Chinese out of absolute poverty but expectations and inequalities are rising and changing at the same time leading to a greater perception of deprivation. Managing growth with equity while protecting the local environment is a challenge that cannot and must not be underestimated.

While the World Wild Fund (WWF) may be eager to save China’s iconic Panda bear from extinction, China’s spiraling energy needs and dependence on fossil fuels has made it a leading contributor to global environmental problems even though its per capita income is in nominal terms about 1/10th of most developed countries. Even at far lower standards of living, China’s billion plus population represents a global environmental hazard. By 2020 China is likely to overtake the United States of America as the single largest producer of Carbon dioxide emissions, one of the major greenhouse gases. This is a problem for everybody and even though the Chinese leadership has announced green technology initiatives that will reduce the rate of increase in green house gas emissions these emissions are likely to continue growing even though they are already too high. While this is an issue on which China can capture a leadership role for the sake of humanity’s common future, the Chinese government has stuck to the well-worn position that the developed countries should take the lead and convert to green technologies first rather than asking developing countries to bear an even share of the load. This argument does make a short-term and medium-term economic sense but it spells disaster for everybody in the long-term.

From Pakistan’s perspective, issues such as the global environmental impact of China’s economic growth are of little consequence compared to China’s relations with South Asia. Leaving on one side the clichés about Pakistan-China friendship, a shared rival in the form of India and long-standing economic and military cooperation are likely to ensure that there are few surprises in store for 2011. A prosperous, well-governed and strong Pakistan is in the Chinese national interest even as expanded trade and investment opportunities in India are likely to be exploited by China.

For 2011 one can hope that China will make wise, well-considered decisions in its enlightened self-interest and deal pragmatically with problems at home and abroad. Clearly, China needs to play a more active role in defusing tensions on the Korean peninsula even as it grapples with a leadership transition at home and growing environmental concerns domestically and internationally. Pakistan is one country that wishes China well on all fronts but there are plenty who would love to see China stumble and falter. If the past is any guide to the future it seems unlikely that China will lose its way in 2011 but with war clouds gathering over the Korean peninsula, a leadership transition at home and pressing environmental problems making themselves felt, there is trouble brewing under heaven.

Ilhan Niaz is the author of ‘The Culture of Power and Governance of Pakistan, 1947-2008’ and ‘An Inquiry into the Culture of Power of the Subcontinent’ He is currently an Assistant Professor of History at the Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

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