The Other Challenges
What Is A Superpower?
In comments on my site, and on the China Law Blog, Here and Here, several readers indicated it would be useful to define “superpower” when discussing China’s future propensity for achieving “superpower” status.
The debate about what defines a “superpower”, whether it is a high ranking on the Human Development index, whether it is equivalent or not to “hegemon”, whether it is “force projection”, or merely “military” or “economic” force, is quite expansive.
For the purposes of my post, I’ll take a simplified position. From what I gather, when the hoi polloi (common people… the laobaixing 老百姓) discuss “superpower” or what makes a nation great, they mean an entity that can project its force overwhelmingly and has the ability to influence geopolitical events on a worldwide scale. Other countries need to plan around this country’s policies. In that sense, the United States and the USSR were “superpowers”; to some degree, the economic Japanese juggernaut was a superpower in the late 1980s and 1990s. Increasingly, China is becoming an economic superpower.
While I acknowledge this definition can be debated, I hope to keep the definition simple so I can move into the point of the post.
Another issue perhaps worthy of consideration is that my article and Pomfret’s did not set a timetable on when China might achieve said “superpower” status. I assume Pomfret was taking Keidel’s statement of China surpassing the US in total GDP around 2030 as the date most people assume for China’s arrival at superpower status.
In listing possible challenges facing China, I’ve tried to base statements on the time horizon of 2020-2025, shortly after the sixth generation of PRC leaders comes to power. One inspirational source was the roundtable discussion of Cheng Li, Pieter Bottelier, Fenggang Yang, and David Lampton in “China in the Year 2020.”
To continue its rise to an economic and soft power status that can “shake the world” by 2025, China’s pressing challenges include a need to ensure energy supplies, tame inflation, confront environmental degredation, deal with dissent/protests/petitioning by instituting a rule of law and providing social services.
Below, I briefly cover these ideas. Eventually, I hope to deal with these challenges at length– a lot of good articles and books have been written on all of them and they are all large issues and deserve more treatment.
Energy Supply Maintenance
China will require 11.6 to 12.3 million barrels of oil a day, up from 6.9 million/day in 2005, and around 7.5 million/day in 2007, and allegedly 8 million/day in 2008 (according to IEA-2004 and DOE-2005 estimates, respectively (Kreft, 2) and more recent energy statistics.) Nearly 75% of this capacity will have to be imported since China can only produce around 3.7 million/day domestically.
China could also experience a deficit of 620-770Mt/a of coal in 2020 alone, according to He Youguo in a 2003 report by China Coal Industry Development Research and Consulting Co. Ltd. (7).
If current trends continue, Herculean efforts at ensuring an uninterrupted energy supply will need to be undergone to ensure that the lights stay on at China’s factories.
In 1989, part of the impetus for the protests was runaway inflation, rising unemployment and lowering standards of living. And as Pieter Botellier also argued; “the Communists’ defeat of the Nationalists in the Chinese civil war of 1945-1949 was greatly assisted by the run-away inflation of those years, which sharply reduced the popularity of Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China (ROC) government. “
China’s economic system today, however, is more sophisticated. Still, this is the highest inflation we’ve seen in China since the mid 1990s, with over 20% price hikes on food and double-digit growth in gas prices.
Currently, policy priorities appear to be toward promotion of economic growth rather than inflation containment. Arguably, maintaining growth could contribute more toward long-term stability. Still, if growth only goes to the middle and upper classes and the poor bear the brunt of inflationary increases, and their lives stop becoming noticably better- and their standard of living stagnates… there may be problems. Every year, China’s ranking on the GINI coefficient, which measures wealth distribution, becomes increasingly unequal. Currently, China’s GINI hovers between .37 and .46 (depending on measurement), either slightly more equal than the US’ GINI rating, or much less equal.
China faces severe environmental challenges. Pomfret, Economy, and other experts have discussed this in detail. For China to continue 10%+ yearly GDP growth, it will have to clean up its polluting industries. According to China’s Green GDP, in 2004, pollution cost China at least 3% potential growth. The Green GDP numbers for 2005 were never released, and arguably China’s pollution increases every year.
Energy efficiency per unit of GDP improved 3.66% in 2007, and arguably should improve this year as energy-intensive factories are shuttered. But, partially due to rising car ownership, pollution expanded significantly in the 21st Century. China hopes to reduce energy consumption per unit of GDP 20% by 2010, but it is a little behind its goal of yearly reduction percentages. Small coal mines and plants have been shut to ensure compliance, but to avoid power disruptions, many mines have recently been reopened.
Stability and the Rule of Law
China could arrest dissidents en masse, growing more repressive, but this will increase tensions in its relations to the outside world, and might stifle ideas and innovation.
However, as China’s economic influence becomes felt around the world, it is possible that it might set up its own international framework in competition to the West’s APEC, WTO, and IMF. (See the last section of my article on Maslow’s Hierarchy and Rule of Law- Not Human Rights for more info.)
With sovereign wealth holdings of over $1.7 trillion, China has extensive ability to affect the world… Unless of course, that wealth becomes tied down in foreign non-performing assets, declining currencies, and a need to invest in overpriced resource markets.
China is a giant in terms of wealth, so it can take quite a beating in economic losses from its funds, but poorly performing assets can lead to public opinion backlashes.
Without strong development of a domestic consumer economy, China will have difficulty in existing isolated from international economic forces.
Providing Social Services
Pomfret identified China’s demographics, its aging, and its peak of a working age population around 2015 as being a large problem. I rebutted that. However, with China’s GINI coefficient rising (at increases of 6%, the fastest in the world for the past decade), and with a degrading environment, and 350 million smokers, perhaps 1/3 of the world’s total smokers, health care costs will rise and create public tensions if the government fails to aid sick people.
Fear of these tensions could be a reason the Party prevents cross-provincial NGOs from organizing, and is cracking down on Sichuan post-earthquake support organizations and people who threaten to challenge the Government’s handling of the incident.*
Crafting an efficient social safety net, or preventing unrest in response to lack of said net, will be an important challenge for future Chinese administrators.
* Note: I realize this particular person, Huang Qi, has a history of challenging the state which might lead it to be more repressive. However, the point still stands; the state has harassed and/or paid off families not to complain about allegedly faulty construction that may have caused more schools to collapse than should have if codes were followed.
To solve its many challenges, China could turn inward and become repressive, or turn outward and allow development of civil society, or it could mix the practices. While some commentators might paint China’s future as that of a “negative” (closed-society) or a “positive” (democratic society), both I and the commentators in “China in the Year 2020” tend to see opportunities from many points along the choice continuum.
China could “succeed” in achieving superpower status even in spite of democratization. Or it could fail to achieve said status even despite democratization and liberalization.
Once again, I welcome your comments regarding challenges China’s development could confront in the coming 20 years.
* On August 25, 2008, The Wall Street Journal presented its own ideas about which challenges China faces. (Inequality, Resources, Population/Aging).