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.