China Comment

Energy, Environment, and Economy

A Weak China?

In the Washington Post, John Pomfret, former WP Beijing Bureau Chief and author of Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of New China (2006), argues that China is not going to become a superpower. His argument is a bit misleading, however. He demonstrates that China faces challenges, but he admits China’s GDP will outpace the United States’ in size. 

Pomfret’s four challenges, while intriguing, appear to be the wrong challenges to address. Despite them, China will still become a superpower. In this article, I explain why his challenges are not the most apt. Then I suggest four different challenges to China’s growth.

Pomfret calls attention to four challenges; “dire demographics, an overrated economy, an environment under siege and an ideology that doesn’t travel well.”

Dire Demographics… But Room for Expansion

Pomfret successfully argues “that as the working-age population shrinks, labor costs will rise.” In China’s coastal provinces, labor costs have already risen, partially due to reduced migrant labor flows. It is also true that after 2013, China’s labor force will peak at 900 million and subsequently the elderly will be more numerous than adolescents and children. And there are nearly 119 males born for every 100 females, which will create tensions.  

But, it is also true that despite decades of posting productivity gains, China is still underutilizing its human capital. Its workers have not yet realized the full potential of productivity gains that workers in other countries have realized- which means that China still has a vast, untapped potential for growth.

Chinese labor productivity has grown from (in 1995 RMB values) around 5000RMB per worker in 1979 to 21,500 RMB per worker in 2005 (or roughly $3100). (Holz, 166 and He & Kuijs, 6) And productivity grew at around 8.7% per year from 2000-2006. (The OECD defines Labor Productivity as GDP per hour worked) The US Labor Productivity value-added per worker is currently ranked sixth in the world by the OECD, behind Luxemborg, Norway, the Netherlands, Ireland, and Belgium.) 

Japan and South Korea, which similar to China started at a low base for productivity, are currently at 71% and 41% of US productivity ratings. Regrettably, it appears these OECD numbers have not been adjusted for PPP (Purchasing Power Parity). However, the point remains, South Korea had low productivity and a majority of citizens employed in agriculture back in the 1960s. Now, only 7.5% of its population works in agriculture.

China still has up to 43% of its population employed in agriculture (due to the nearly 200 million migrant workers who retain rural residencies, the number is probably more like 30%, but that is still an overly-high number). This underutilization and underemployment of workers demonstrates China still has much room to grow, and many more productivity gains to realize– its rise is not yet finished.

Overrated Economy… But Massive Purchasing Power

Pomfret rightfully criticises Keidel at the Carnegie Foundation for a July 2008 extremely pro-China growth article. Keidel assumes China will maintain over 7% yearly growth rates through 2030. These estimates may prove to be overly optimistic. However, China’s economy is still deregulating and expanding. It may not grow as fast as Keidel assumes, but barring massive inflation and energy shortages, the sheer amount of human capital and potential for development will allow it to expand at a healthy clip.

Pomfret wanders a bit into strange territory when he argues China cannot become a superpower simply because GDP per capita is so low. But why does low per capita GDP preclude development of a strong country? If GDP is high enough, China can finance a modern military, and its state-owned businesses can purchase overseas energy and mineral resources.

With even modest GDP growth, the domestic market can serve a middle class of perhaps 400 million (or 100 million, depending on the estimate), which is larger than almost all Western countries’ populations! If China is a giant in terms of worldwide trade, it can have greater influence in trade contracts with countries like Brazil and the Central Asian nations, marginalizing the United States.

Note: In later articles I hope to explore China’s middle class, its productivity in detail, and how China’s aging might effect domestic policies. I would love to go into greater detail on these items here, but then this post might become thesis-length. 

Environmental Problems… A Legitimate Challenge; But It Can Be Overcome

Pomfret is correct that China faces environmental problems. Elizabeth Economy and other scholars have detailed this in numerous books and articles. And environmental pressures can cause societies to implode, as Jared Diamond famously argued in Collapse.

However, China may be able to make fighting its pollution an opportunity for societal and technological development. China could allow NGOs and private groups greater chances to challenge local development and expose corrupt practices. Or, China could continue to suppress cross-provincial border NGOs, and could fail to develop technological innovation. The future of China and its environment could be dire, as Pomfret believes, or it could be positive should Chinese invent innovative environmental solutions (See Prospects for China’s NGOs for more info on Chinese NGOs).

Bankrupt Ideology… But The Country Is Just Now Developing Its “Mission” (See Maslow’s Hierarchy)

Pomfret’s argument about China’s ideological intellectual bankruptcy is interesting. He makes a good point about how China’s one-party system can stifle innovative thoughts. But China is still developing its mission, and there may come a time when China’s ideology can be successfully exported. (Please see the last section of my article on Maslow’s Hierarchy).

In contrast to the United States’ private think tank minds, and European NGO leaders, China has yet to produce many world-respected political theorists to propogate its philosophy. Its famous discursive-thinking thinkers and personalities; Wu Jinglian (economist), Bao Tong (politician), and Gao Xingjian (author) are either retired, marginalized, or living in exile.

(Note: This is not to say China lacks independent thinkers; CASS (The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences) has been known for producing innovative thought. And University scholars such as Shi Yinhong have done innovative work in regards to foreign policy. But in one example of stifling creativity, the State closed the innovative Journal “Strategy and Management” when they felt its authors strayed too far from the party line; Other thinkers contribute valuable intra-China thoughts on nationalism and how China should relate to the rest of the world, but Chinese views on how the world should be ordered internationally are less often elucidated, and have less of a world-wide impact. China has also long taken a non-voting and non-leadership position on the UN Security Council.)


Pomfret is right, China faces challenges. But these challenges are not dire enough to hobble its rise to global superpower status. Only the environmental challenge appears to be a potentially growth-derailing problem, and it could yet be overcome.

In response to Pomfret’s proposal, I suggest a few different problems China is facing that may delay its rise. To succeed as a superpower, China most needs to ensure energy supplies, tame inflation, deal with dissent/protests/petitioning by instituting a rule of law, and provide social services. (If the last two items are combined, then I would list Pomfret’s “environmental” challenge).

I hope to explore these problems in a future article and would like to hear your opinions on what four problems you believe are most important for China to overcome.

(My further response, based on your feedback, is here).

30 July, 2008 Posted by | China Economy, China Future | , , , , , , , | 11 Comments