Thu, Oct 20, 2011 - Page 8 News List

China: the inevitable superpower?

By Sushil Seth

For instance, China’s rise is subject to two important qualifications. First is social and political stability, which does not seem entirely likely considering the growing popular unrest in different parts of the country.

Indeed, the government has been so nervous about the ripple effect of the Arab Spring that it went on a hurried round up of political dissidents and human rights activists, as well as further tightening Internet censorship, to preempt any spontaneous uprising.

It does not say much about China’s capacity to manage political transition and change that is overdue. Beijing cannot pretend that the country will keep growing economically in the medium term without a corresponding political change toward greater political openness and popular participation.

At present, there is a serious disconnect between China’s partially capitalist economy and authoritarian and Leninist polity. Recent history shows that after a point, political authoritarianism becomes counter-productive and destructive if there is no necessary transition to democracy — Taiwan and South Korea illustrate this point. Political oxygen is imperative to continued economic growth. Otherwise, the entire edifice might collapse.

Second, and putting politics aside, China’s economy is facing serious problems. Statistical economic growth is not the single true indicator of economic health: There are other important factors. China’s growth is lopsided, creating and widening income disparities, the urban-rural divide and regional imbalances.

Economic growth, at any cost, has elevated greed into an overriding compulsion, creating an endemic culture of corruption at all levels, with the Chinese Communist Party functionaries and bureaucrats riding roughshod over the people, acquiring their land and property in the name of development.

The obsession with statistical growth has created terrible environmental problems, with polluted rivers and degraded landscape. In a word, economic growth has become an end in itself, not a tool for social uplift.

This is untenable and unsustainable, as even Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) admitted recently. For instance, asset bubbles are already developing in the economy, particularly in the property and stock markets, as happened in Japan during the 1990s and is continuing to plague its economy to this day.

The difference between China and Japan, though, is that Japan’s stagnation started from a much higher base and its democratic polity acts as a necessary safety valve for the system.

With inflation rearing its head, China’s political system is a closed shop with little or no safety valve. If too much steam, caused by wider social unrest, builds up in China’s pressure cooker-like society, there is a danger of spontaneous combustion destroying the entire edifice.

So whether China’s status as a superpower really is “inevitable” is subject to far more variables than just the country’s high economic growth.

Sushil Seth is a commentator based in Australia.

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