No guarantee that China is the next world superpower
I was a nineteen-year-old student, not yet a journalist, when I travelled through China during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. I was visiting my father, then the British Ambassador to Outer Mongolia, and there were no international flights.
The only way to get to the Mongolian capital Ulan Bator in those days - it was 1971 - was to fly to Hong Kong, then go by train through China.
It was an intimidating journey for a young man: the train from Hong Kong took me only to the Chinese border, where I had to disembark and lug my enormous suitcase (I had packed for a two-month stay) about three hundred metres in the tropical summer heat, to the frontier itself.
I sweated my way past a phalanx of stone-faced guards in olive-drab People’s Liberation Army uniforms, guns at the ready, to the customs and passport check.
Eventually, after interminable formalities, I was allowed on to another train where I met my travelling companions. I was not permitted to travel alone, but had to go in the company of two retired military men, serving as diplomatic couriers, or ‘Queen’s Messengers’ as they were called, whose job it was to carry the sealed diplomatic bags from London to Britain’s Embassies abroad.
This might have been reassuring, except that they were both old hands at this trip, and had some horror stories. One had been in the British Embassy in Beijing when it was sacked by a Red Guard mob in 1967; both were friends of Colonel Constantine, a Queen’s Messenger who had been severely beaten by another crowd while carrying the sacrosanct diplomatic bags.
I remember the train journey from the border to Guangzhou as a series of vistas of paddy-fields, dotted with bent figures in conical hats, like an unrolling Chinese scroll. It’s pretty much all one vast city now of concrete, steel and glass. Guangzhou itself was then still in essence not very different from a nineteenth-century city; I remember watching, from my hotel room, the junks threading their way through smoke-belching tugs on the Pearl River.
We arrived by plane in Beijing after nightfall. The car journey into the city was almost completely unimpeded by traffic, apart from a few bicycles. The greatest danger was that of running over the people who sat on the road under the street-lights, playing Mah Jong or reading, because they had no electric light at home.
I spent four days in Beijing before taking the next train to Ulan Bator; long enough to be a tourist, visiting the almost-deserted Forbidden City, which had only recently been re-opened to foreigners, and walking on the Great Wall. Two scenes remain especially vivid: the Summer Palace, with its long covered walkways in which the imperial and aristocratic figures in the beautiful painted decorations had all had their faces and heads systematically scratched out; and the crowds of gaping onlookers who followed me when I was briefly allowed to go shopping in the street of antique shops.
This was a society which had deliberately exiled, imprisoned, “re-educated” or killed a huge percentage of its most cultured and educated population. Mao’s revolution, aimed at lifting the country out of peasantry, had instead made a cult out of peasant ignorance. It was impossible, at the beginning of the nineteen-seventies, to imagine China as the emerging superpower of the twenty-first century.
Sometimes, where you begin a journey determines your destination. Martin Jacques, the British New Labour intellectual whose new book is called ‘When China Rules The World’ first went to China in 1993. He also arrived in Guangzhou, then in the process of transformation.
“Played out before my eyes was the most extraordinary juxtaposition of eras: women walking with their animals and carrying their produce, farmers riding bicycles and driving pedicabs, the new urban rich speeding by in black Mercedes and Lexuses, anonymous behind darkened windows, a constant stream of vans, pickups, lorries and minibuses, and in the fields by the side of the road peasants working their small paddy fields with water buffalo”.
This, he says, is how the British Industrial Revolution must have been: “speculative, dynamic - and a complete bloody mess”. But the clincher comes when he goes back, just over two years later, to revisit these scenes for a TV documentary: “There was not a single familiar sight I could find”. Local officials shrugged when he described what he wanted to film. “For me it was just two years ago; for them it could have been a different century”.
I do not mean to oversimplify Martin Jacques’ thesis in this large, comprehensive, solidly researched and carefully argued book. For a summary of his arguments, you can do no better than read this column in The Guardian, in which he lays them out in brief.
I agree with him – it’s undeniable – that China’s rise in the last three decades has been simply astonishing. I am sceptical, though, about the inevitability of its consequences. He is right to identify China as a “civilisation-state” rather than a “nation-state”, but it’s possible to draw a different conclusion from this: that China’s special conception of itself as the celestial kingdom has always held it back from wider domination rather than fuelled expansion. He is right, too, to identify the unity of China’s gigantic territory as a key to its history, but he may be underplaying the degree to which that sheer size makes it unwieldy and always in fear of fracture.
Two different points of view can yield such radically different conclusions. The American political scientist George Friedman has written a book with an equally ambitious title: ‘The Next 100 Years’. Interviewed recently by the ABC’s Richard Fidler, Friedman predicted continued hegemony for the USA and said he believed China’s growth would be severely limited. The reason – the already enormous and growing gap in China between rich and poor, which Friedman believes holds the seeds of real trouble for the regime.
The American-based China expert Minxin Pei, author of ‘China’s Trapped Transition, told me some time ago that he saw a danger that China will become, like Russia, a kleptocracy, with damaging results for the country’s longer-term prospects.
And there is, for China no less than America, the problem of demographics. In fifteen to twenty years time, the country will have to cope with an aging population, and because of the One Child Policy, there will be little left of the traditional family structures which have looked after the Chinese throughout history in their old age.
As for me, I think predicting a year into the future is hard enough, let alone a hundred. I no more have a crystal ball now than I did on that train 38 years ago. I think it quite possible that in fifty years time, we will be reading books on how India, not China, became the world’s next superpower; but I wouldn’t bet the farm against Brazil, either.
I do know this: that no political scientist in 1909 foresaw even a fraction of what was going to happen in the next decade, and the world of 2009 would seem unimaginably strange to an observer from the first decade of the nineteenth century.. The reason is that politics, international relations and human affairs in general are unpredictable by their very nature. As the British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan remarked, “Events, dear boy, events”, change everything.
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