UK Telegraph: “China past and present: review
By Rana Mitter7:00AM BST 10 Sep 2012Comment
Two books on China explain why the country’s rise to superpower status is still far from inevitable
A vision of the Chinese future in a 1982 propaganda poster Photo: Alamy
Some time this autumn, the Chinese Communist Party will announce the date of the 18th Party Congress. Among the Party’s priorities will be two major issues: the need to project Chinese power more widely in the world, and the consolidation of a system of welfare that will prevent the country’s social discontent from spilling over into outright rebellion. These themes are at the centre of these two important books which, taken together, illustrate why the rise of China is far from inexorable.
Odd Arne Westad’s Restless Empire has two main purposes. The first is to provide an overview of China’s engagement with the world over the past three centuries. Westad starts with an important piece of myth-busting, arguing strongly against the idea that China has been an inward-looking society closed to the rest of the world. Whether it was the trade in silks and porcelains that made China part of a global trading network during the Ming and Qing dynasties that lasted from the 14th century to the 20th, or the forced engagement with the West that came with imperialism, China has always been connected with the wider world. Westad is particularly acute on the Cold War period, using impressive documentation to argue that China’s relationship to the rest of East Asia was not just communist, but Confucian in the ties that Mao nurtured with his ideological “younger brothers” such as Kim Il-sung and Ho Chi Minh (even if the family quickly became dysfunctional).
The second aim emerges in the last two chapters, which concern the foreign policy crises facing China today. Westad firmly rejects the received wisdom that China is set to become a global superpower, dominating policy on everything from international intervention to energy resources. Despite its rhetoric, China has in practice been almost entirely passive or reactive in the past few decades. China shows pleasure in being treated as a global player, but shows little sign of knowing what to do with that power other than criticising the United States. “China has to learn,” he says drily, “that sticking it in the eye of the world’s hyperpower may bring short-term gratification, but it does not amount to a grand strategy in international politics.”
Some of the reasons that China’s leadership may be distracted from visions of world domination are made clear in Gerard Lemos’s The End of the Chinese Dream. Lemos spent four years working in Chongqing, the city that has become notorious for the Bo Xilai murder scandal, but his account is of a less lurid but equally troubling failing in Chinese government. He examines the model of welfarist authoritarianism with which the Chinese Communist Party is attempting to gain the “performance legitimacy” that might keep it in power, and finds it seriously wanting. When the Maoist “iron rice bowl” of guaranteed employment, pensions and health care broke down as China privatised its economy in the Nineties, millions of urban and rural Chinese found themselves left behind as others got rich. Figures tell part of the story: food inflation ran at over 18 per cent in 2008, and some analysts expect that health care costs will rise by 11 per cent annually into the middle of the next decade. But the participants in the surveys that Lemos organised add human voices to the statistics: one among the hundreds he records is the 39-year-old woman who declares “Losing my job [changed my life]. I have no money to see the doctor.” She tells Lemos that she fears she’ll be unable to find “the education fee for my children’s education”. The “Chinese dream” of a middle-class existence with a flat, car, and high-quality education for the next generation has only become a reality in the last decade or two. Now it looks as if it may be slipping out of the grasp of millions even before they have had a chance to aspire to it.
Both writers make poignantly clear the obstacles to China becoming a global leader. At bottom, China does not have a vision of what a Chinese-led world would look like. Nor does its domestic political model of party-led authoritarianism export well to the rest of the world. African and Latin American nations may welcome Chinese investment and on occasion find it expedient to use the threat of Beijing to squeeze concessions from Washington. But however shaky these countries’ engagement with democratisation, they do not seriously tout the “Chinese model” as an alternative, because it is clear that China has not solved its most pressing problems: a demographic crisis exacerbated by the one-child policy, a creaking welfare system, and slowing growth.”
via China past and present: review – Telegraph.