Whether or not one believes that the 21st century will see the rise of some sort of Chinese political, economic and even cultural hegemony, it is undeniable that the country will play a pivotal role in shaping the course of the next hundred years and beyond. In the thirty years since Deng Xiaoping ushered in the Reform and Opening Period, China has developed at simply ludicrous speeds, hauling hundreds of millions of people out of grinding poverty and transforming itself into the world’s third largest economy, behind only the United States and Japan. With an economy nimble enough to (mostly) avoid the snares of the worldwide recession, a massive and forward-thinking clean energy industry, and the patriotic feeling and unbridled optimism of a populace who all seem to be dreaming very big, clearly China is doing something right. We’ve talked before about things China should be better at, now we look at the areas where China excels.
A thirty-year sprint: Economy
Despite – or because of – an economy that is at once market-controlled and closely managed from the top-down, China has posted remarkable growth year after year since 1978 and the beginning of its major economic reforms. In 1983 the national poverty rate was 53%; by 2005 it had fallen to 2.5%. Though many of its resources remain undeveloped, China’s mineral resources are among the world’s most plentiful, with virtual monopolies on super-scarce, ultra-valuable elements like rare earths. China is also one of the largest international suppliers of agricultural products, with some 300 million Chinese farm workers now toiling away at feeding 20% of the world’s population using only 7% of the world’s arable land.
Counter to the popular and sometimes fitting image of the Chinese government as some impenetrable, unwieldy and entirely too top-heavy Kafka-esque bureaucracy, China’s economic stewards have proven surprisingly flexible at times. Of course, the one party system helps, but China has shown an increasing willingness to painlessly enact major reforms and stimulus programs; for example the economic stimulus package it pushed through in 2008 was comparable in size to the one that passed – with much gnashing of teeth – in the US, despite China’s economy being only one-third the size of that of the United States.
Then of course there is China’s oft-cited economic engine: the likely millions of factories spread throughout the land – though especially in its more highly-developed South – where modestly-paid workers manufacture the products, from cell phones to shoe soles to bra clasps, which have helped turn China into the third biggest trading partner in the world. But with the rest of the globe still hurting from the ongoing financial crisis, China’s next challenge will be to transition from its current export-oriented economy to one driven by consumer spending. And that will be no easy task, especially considering the culture of thriftiness in China that’s as ingrained as filial duty.
A tree grows in Beijing: Green tech
Despite the impression given by its smog-shrouded cities and over-exploited countryside, China is now poised to become a world leader in the production of green technology. The research and development of clean energy technology in China has been rapidly increasing since 2001, however the beginning of China’s technological modernization can be traced back to a program begun in 1986, when four of China’s top scientists recommended that China join what was seen as the “technological revolution.” The program, known as the “836 Program” (it was founded on March 3rd of that year), supports projects that are often too risky and expensive to secure private funding, but which may yield positive results. As one Chinese engineer benefiting from the program put it, “[the 836 Program] combines the will of the state with mass innovation.” As a result, research and development funding has grown faster in China than in any other country, at a rate of 20% per year over the past two decades. Seventy billion RMB was spent on such scientific ventures in 2008 alone.
Of course, as with any such large-scale governmental action, the motive has less to do with any sort of increased moral awareness or environmental consciousness than with the most basic pragmatism. Not only is the market for green technology likely to become among the world’s most profitable in this century of dwindling oil reserves and fears of global warming – no small enticement in itself – but China’s very future, or at least the possibility of sustaining its current rate of development, lie in significantly greening its industrial practices. 80% of China’s electricity is now coal-generated, much of its economic security rests on importing oil – thus the placating of Iran – and rising sea levels would displace even more people in China than in such low-lying countries as Bangladesh. Further, if emissions keep rising apace – and with China’s increasing prosperity one suspects they will – China could emit more over the next thirty years than the United States has over its entire history.
What this means for green technology is that the government is willing to give millions in subsidies and cheap land to promising companies with good ideas. The result of these investments has been an increasing technological mastery, which combined with China’s abundant cheap labor – both skilled and unskilled – has helped it become one of the world’s primary manufacturers for both foreign and domestically developed green technologies. As the head of one electric car company whose batteries are produced in China put it, China has “the will to spend on infrastructure and do it at high speed.” Thus you have China’s solar industry, which in 2003 was practically nonexistent, but now produces more solar cells than any other country. As for wind power, China’s development of wind farms has outstripped its ability to distribute the energy they generate, and China has stated that in the next decade it hopes to develop wind power technology that can generate five times the power of the Three Gorges Dam. On a more local level, China has also begun to subsidize more innocuous energy savers, such as high efficiency light bulbs, electric radiators and solar heaters. The price of coal, long kept at an artificially low rate to spur development, has begun to rise, forcing factories and power plants to raise their efficiency standards. There are also plans to open “Green Gen”, the world’s most high-tech, low-emissions coal-fired plant in 2011 – a project that the United States was once engaged in but abandoned.
China add gas! Patriotism
Having lived in China for a little over a year now, I’ve only met one Chinese person with a distinctly negative view of his country, and he was most likely a crazy man. The simple fact is that Chinese these days are highly patriotic, and why shouldn’t they be? From the farmer laboring in the countryside to the businessman atop his glass and steel tower, they have each been a part and beneficiary – to differing extents – of one of the most rapid economic transformations in history, a miracle as the truism goes. This is not to say that China is by any stretch of the imagination problem-free, but rather it is only natural that, as the possibility of unprecedented levels of prosperity becomes available to children whose grandparents’ and even parents’ lives were a constant struggle, a spirit of optimism should be in the air. Whether due to its long history, the shared cultural heritage that is so aggressively promoted in its schools or simply the near racial homogeneity of its people, there is a very strong sense of national unity and pride in China. These two factors, unabashed patriotism and a strong hope for the future and its promise, are a big part of the reason why China is on such a roll, and why it’s not going to be stopped any time soon. Well, that and the pragmatic authoritarianism (an authoritarianism that is, crucially, mostly accepted) of its leaders.
By Gabriel Ascher
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