Reader response: China’s new dream
25 Feb 2014|

Shanghai Financial District as seen from the Oriental Pearl

David Hale’s ‘China’s new dream‘ offers a tremendously rich picture of China’s economic and financial situation at home and globally. It’s probably the fullest, most up-to-date account available on the ‘re-rise of China’, which affects us all.

Hale makes excellent suggestions, such as raising the retirement age, and makes important points about the growing relation between the Internet and financial services, and other matters. His tourism figures are stunning; Chinese will soon strut the global shopping stage as Americans did in the 1950s and 1960s, bringing both profits and resentment to cities on every continent.

Global markets permit a jump start for poor countries but the process comes to an end. Understandably, Hale isn’t sure China can become a high-income country, but regardless of per capita levels, China has become an economic giant. Not even political setbacks are going to change that reality. And Hale is surely correct to warn that even a democratic China would ‘still be vulnerable to populism and nationalism’.

But it would be a mistake to think China is just an economic animal. It has always been and will be more than that. It’s also a mistake to think China is simply recovering from a difficult past. The China Dream will unfold more ambitiously than that.

Hale takes the words from the 18th Party Congress and ensuing Plenum as equating with imminent changes; one hopes this is justified. Nation-wide implementation is the catch. Similar words on privatising state-owned enterprises and cleaning up banks were spoken after the 17th Congress in 2003 and not much happened. Beijing’s relation with far-flung localities is crucial. It’s tempting for a province to give untrue statistics to Beijing to sweeten its path. The new Shanghai free trade zone can’t go too far lest its freedoms contaminates other cities.

Xi Jinping may have ‘tremendous power,’ but it’s doubtful that translates into bold steps. Collective leadership, which Hale briefly weighs, won’t risk fundamental changes that could undermine Communist Party power. Bo Xilai didn’t fall simply from corruption—his takings were relatively minor—but from power struggle.

So questions arise in the reader’s mind about interactions and potential contradictions within China’s array of achievements and aspirations; interactions between economic rationality and social stability; between certain foreign policy decisions and minority restiveness near China’s borders; and between aims and means in further reforms (Chinese politicians won’t ‘report all of their assets’ until a free press arrives to verify). What’s good for Chinese consumers isn’t the same as what serves the glory of the Chinese party-state. Freeing capital movements, necessary to many desirable goals, can’t happen without other wider freedoms. Land-grabbing from farmers by towns can’t stop, because there are few fiscal rules to stop it.

Hale takes for granted the unity of China’s vast realm, but not all its leaders do. I also missed in ‘China’s New Dream’ a realisation of the tight atmosphere for mental freedom under Xi Jinping, or the uncertainty (as yet) as to what characteristics Premier Li will bring to the job. Li speaks of China benefiting from its environment, whereas Xi stresses China’s past tribulations. It’s a significant difference of emphasis.

Is China still feeling its way to the top table, or grabbing for the chair? No one knows, probably including Xi. The ‘new type of great power relationship’ he proposed to Obama isn’t in Beijing’s hands alone to achieve. China’s future could lie with globalising forces or with Chinese nationalism. Australia, for whom globalising forces are more important than either a regional niche or strong nationalism, must hope for the former.

Hale’s somewhat unsure of America’s future in Asia Pacific, and thus its ability to balance Chinese power, and under Obama that’s a reasonable doubt. But Washington’s many friends in the region can be formidable if united for free trade and free information. Not everyone will agree that ‘doctors and health insurance companies will determine whether America continues to be the world’s leading military power’—the America people might have a say in that. When led and unleashed they’re quite a force.

Hale gives a good picture of Australia’s position and choices. It’s true we’re a long way from northeast Asia. But it has always been the Australian way to seek friends on a global basis. That has led to sacrifices, but also great fruits for Australia. Still, Australia should also take China’s activity in the South Pacific seriously, for here we stand virtually alone with mighty China.

Ross Terrill is an associate of Harvard’s Fairbank Centre for Chinese Studies. Image courtesy of Flickr user Sjekster.