When most people look at China's course over the last decade or so, they are struck by four things. First is dramatic economic growth. Second is a huge increase in military power. Yet another is an ever more prominent role in diplomacy and international organizations. And fourth is the continuation, unmodified, of the Communist Party dictatorship.
These four characteristics add up not simply to China, but to the cliche "a rising China." I do not have time today to qualify that phrase, though I would like to. Thus, had I time I would say something about the hidden weaknesses of China's current economic growth: its reliance on foreign rather than domestic entrepreneurs and markets, and on cheap labor rather than skills and creativity; its domination by the government rather than society; and the corruption and growing inequality associated with it.
Let me suggest, however, that everyone read the chapters on Singapore's economy in Chee Soon Juan's Your Future My Faith Our Freedom (Singapore: Open Singapore Centre, 2001). They apply very well to China, except that China is incomparably more corrupt.
With respect to China's headlong military buildup, I would develop the argument that it is the product not of any real external threat, but rather of an internal need to invoke security to justify autocratic rule. I would note how the buildup is increasing tension and distrust in the region, which harms China not least, and note that a democratic China would be a far better neighbor.
On the last point, dictatorship, I would stress the reality that in spite of economic and technical progress, the People's Republic still remains dictatorial and repressive. Hopeful observers talk of more and more openness, of increased respect for law, greater institutionalization and transparency of government processes, and so forth.
And while it is certainly true that the average urban Chinese today has a lot more personal space and many more options than a few decades ago, he or she is still a subject of Party rule, not a citizen having any say in governance. In certain ways repression is actually getting worse.
Consider, for example, the extent to which the Internet in China has been turned from a liberating technology into a means of surveillance and oppression, with the indispensable help of foreign companies.
As for political institutionalization, consider this: If we asked Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) just how he got his job, and when and how his successor was going to be chosen, he would not honestly be able to answer. Neither he nor any of his predecessors have been chosen by any rule-governed process, not even by Party rules, and unless something changes dramatically, that will be the case for whoever follows him.
I stress that China is a dictatorship because, as will be seen, a general reluctance exists to state this fact. If it remains such, Asia's future will be blighted. If it changes, then all will benefit.
When analysts look at international behavior, some start on the outside, and some start on the inside. Those who start on the outside interpret a country's actions as above all reactions to what others have done. Germany, for example, adopted the course of rearmament in the 1930s because of the intolerable terms of the Versailles treaty imposed by the victors. Similarly many observers argue that today China does this or that not by choice, but in unavoidable reaction to something someone else has done: a misstep by Washington, a provocation from Tokyo, etc.