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Saturday, 31 March 2012

China three decades from now

CHINA in the Next 30 Years is a new collection of 17 essays published in October 2011 on the future of China, of which eight authors are foreigners. This is one of the few books published simultaneously in Chinese and English.

Reading the book in both the original and translatied versions gave me sometimes a complete different reading of the authors' sentiments, and I had to go back often to the original to find out what the author was really trying to get at.

This is a valuable book precisely because it reflected not only some of the leading thinkers in China but also a number of very original thinkers outside looking in.

The first essay by Michael Hudson of the Institute for Study of Long-term Economic Trends is nothing short of iconoclastic.

He sees the era of debt-driven consumption in the West (1945-2010) coming to an end, and China in the next 30 years must not only avoid the finance, insurance and real estate bubble (FIRE) trap, where China will be blamed by the West, but also go down a path in strengthening its real economy, solving the wealth gap and improving efficiency (subject to ecological constraints).

The future economic prospects are considered by three leading Chinese thinkers.

Prof Wu Jinglian, the most respected Chinese economist of his generation, argues that reforms have gone into deep waters due to the complex battle against vested interests and rent-seeking activities.

There is no alternative except to deepen reforms, particularly re-balancing the playing field between minyin (private) enterprises and the dominant state-owned enterprises.

Tsinghua University Prof Li Daokui regards the three great challenges facing sustainable development as an open mind, more inclusive and harmonious development and formulating China's role in global affairs as a major power.

Returned scholar Wang Huiyao examines the strengths and weakness of the “Chinese models of development”.

He clearly recognises that the pragmatic and adaptive models of the past may not work in the future as sustainable development faces a more complex, interactive and geo-politically fragile world, especially in the ecological, resources and energy issues.

The political challenges are considered by two thoughtful commentators.

In considering Chinese politics within the geo-political order, Peking University Prof Pan Wei argues that any bright prospects in the next 30 years would depend on three key conditions no economic vacillation, no political distraction and no international partiality.

He refutes the argument that there has been no political reform, since the massive economic reforms could not have been possible without significant changes in China's political system.

At the same time, the pillar of China's politics has been its civilisational constancy, based on its humanist democracy, meritocracy at all levels of government and a unified ruling group.

Fellow Peking University Prof Yu Keping identifies the challenges of governance reform as social inequality, corruption, social instability, crime, environmental degradation and ignorance of citizens' human rights.

He recognises the need for a realistic review of China's socialist democratic theories, but also a rethink of popular Western democratic theories.

On the new global order, Nobel laureate Robert Fogel's essay warns that China's future geo-political position may be stronger than estimated.

Taking a long historical and demographic view, he sees Chinese income per capita being double that of Europe by 2040 and accounting for nearly 40% of world GDP, significantly larger than the United States and Europe.

His higher estimates are due to currently favourable demographics, good education and resilience in the political system, overtaking aging population in the West with a different work and lifestyle.

Singapore diplomat Tommy Koh echoes the recognition that China will become more powerful in terms of soft and hard power, and wishes that China will continue to practice good neighbourliness, play a constructive role in global governance and embrace sustainable development.

Five out of the 17 essays are devoted to green growth, with the best article by Tsinghua Professor Hu Angang, who sees a Green Vision as China's third generation of modernisation.

He powerfully argues that the idea of greenness is essentially the ancient Chinese philosophy of harmony of man with nature and that innovation and realisation of green modernisation is a civilizational objective that has global benefits.

The message of cutting carbon emissions, clean energy, green technological innovation, and central importance of Chinese agriculture and rural development are reinforced by essays by Copenhagen Professor Bjorn Lomborg, Swiss agriculturalist Hans Herren, Worldwatch President Christopher Flavin and Shanghai Professor Li Wuwei.

The last and longest essay is an intriguing and wide-spanning exploration on China's “Civilization-State Model” by Malaysian-born, India-based scholar Tan Chung.

He argues that China is the longest surviving civilization-state that is actually a commonwealth of different tribes, languages and cultural communities that has lived within its borders for more than 2,000 years.

China has absorbed different cultures, particularly Buddhism from India, more recently Marxism from the West and has evolved its own concept of “grand universal harmony.

He actually laments the fact that many modern Chinese scholars have learnt “whole-hog Westernization of China” without drawing upon the inner cultural confidence of ancient China.

His suggestion that Chinese leadership is differentiating between the “kingly way versus the hegemonic way”, echoes an important book by Tsinghua political scientist Yan Xuetong, which I shall review shortly.

Professor Yan argues that modern statecraft depends on kingship, founded by humane authority and strong moral standing.

Hence, for China to be a superpower modeled on humane authority, she has to forge a harmonious society from which other states are willing to learn.

The fundamental contribution of this book is that it has pointed the way on how China intends to move towards a harmonious green economy through the recent 12th Five Year Plan (2011-2015).

This is a bold and arduous journey unprecedented in history in terms of scale and difficulties.

All hopeful global citizens must wish its success, because its failure could have geopolitical consequences beyond contemplation.

Andrew Sheng is president of Fung Global Institute.


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