One of the most peculiar aspects of the post-industrial era is the fact that, as time goes on, a number of ‘developing’ nations that belong to the so-called ‘Second World’, continue to grow ever more influential, in the geopolitical sense of this word. The validity of this statement can be especially illustrated, in regards to China – a nation that, throughout the course of the last four decades, has undergone a remarkable economic transformation, which is now being commonly referred to in terms of the ‘Chinese economic miracle’. After all, through the mentioned historical period, China has been turned from being an essentially agrarian country into the world’s second (after the U.S) industrial power. Moreover, as many political observers believe, it is only the matter of time, before China leaves the U.S. behind, in this respect.
Nevertheless, even though there are indeed a number of the fully objective preconditions for China to continue growing ever more economically/geopolitically powerful in the near future, it would be wrong to assume that there may be no end to the process in question. The reason for this is quite apparent – China’s rise, as one of the world’s most economically powerful nations, is being ‘fueled’ by the country’s immense population of rural-dwellers/peasants, which even today is estimated to account for 65% of China’s overall population of 1.34 billion (Lanteigne 3). It is specifically these people that are being ‘burned’ in China’s ‘chimney of industrialization’, as we speak – hence, enabling the concerned country to remain on the pathway of a rapid economic/technological progress. However, there can be no rationale to believe that this will continue to be the case in the long-term future, especially in light of the governmentally enacted ‘one child per family’ policy. What it means is that, contrary to what many people assume, China’s rise to power is best discussed in terms of a spatially limited phenomenon. In this respect, we can only agree with Shambaugh, who noted that: “China’s global posture is beset by multiple weaknesses – not the least of which are domestic – and that the nation’s strengths are not as strong as they seem on face value” (7). Allegorically speaking, China can be well compared to the son of a ‘new rich’ – he has money and responsibility but does not quite understand how use its existential advantages over others to the fullest. In this paper, I will explore the validity of the above-stated at length, while exposing the socio-economic and political factors that enabled China to become nothing less of a ‘global power’ and elaborating on what may be considered the objective prerequisites for China’s eventual economic/geopolitical decline.
The initial phase of China’s rise can be traced back to the late seventies, when the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) top officials (headed by Deng Xiaoping), started to grow increasingly aware of the fact that the functioning of the country’s planned economy had to be reformed. The reason for this was that the realities of the late 20th century’s living continued to grow increasingly detached from the socio-economic conventions of Marxism.
Nineteen seventy-eight was the year that marked the time when China started to put away with these conventions. Nevertheless, as opposed to what was the strategy of implementing market-oriented reforms in the USSR, during the course of the late eighties, which eventually resulted in this country being wiped of the world map, Deng’s strategy of economic reforms never ceased being observant of the Chinese society’s geopolitical, demographic and cultural specifics.
Apparently, Deng proved himself wise enough to understand the simple fact that, in order for the implementation of the free-market economic reforms to be successful, they can never be ideologically driven. Instead, they should be concerned with establishing preconditions for the country’s economic potential to be exploited in the most effective manner. As Nathan and Scobell pointed out: “He (Deng) led the process of China’s immersion in globalization through a series of decisions first to open Special Economic Zones, then to open the entire coastal area to foreign investment and trade, and finally, in 1992, to place the policy of opening to the outside world beyond political debate” (43). During the course of the late seventies, China’s leaders concluded that their country had three dialectically predetermined economic advantages, which had to be put in practical use: an abundance of cheap labor, a commercially advantageous geographical location, and the fact that Chinese immigrants played an important role in the functioning of neighboring countries’ economies. This alone suggests the thoroughly pragmatic roots of what will later become known as the China’s ‘economic miracle’ and also the fact that, if Deng decided to implement economic reforms along with advancing the cause of ‘democracy’, they would be doomed to fail.
The reason for this is quite apparent – the demographic fabric of the Chinese society back then made it impossible for the successful implementation of reforms to proceed in any other but in a thoroughly controlled (authoritarian) manner. It is important to understand that, as of this time, the rurally based Chinese were organized in the so-called ‘agricultural communes’ – in full accordance with how orthodox Marxism prescribes it to be. Nevertheless, the effectiveness of these communes’ functioning suffered from the fact that, while taking care of their agricultural duties, peasants have not been provided with any objective rationale to do it efficiently. At the same time, the enormous population of peasants could well ensure the successfulness of the process of China being set on the path of industrialization. After all, as it was mentioned in the Introduction, throughout the course of history, peasants have traditionally been referred to as the industrialization’s ‘fuel’.
In its turn, this led the Chinese Communist rulers to conclude that the implementation of economic reforms had to begin with the effort being applied to increase the efficiency of the economy’s agricultural sector. In its turn, this would result in both: ensuring the agricultural communes’ economic self-sustainability and providing the representatives of at least a half of China’s peasantry with incentives to consider becoming industrial workers. In this respect, the fact that throughout the course of Deng reforms’ implementation China remained a totalitarian state came in particularly handy. The reason for this is that this particular form of governing makes possible the most effective utilization of human resources. After all, even today, despite the fact that country’s Constitution declares citizens being absolutely equal, this is not the de facto state of affairs, because according to the country’s numerous bylaws, peasants are supposed to apply for a special permit, in order to be able to relocate to live in the city. Given the fact that the obtainment of this permit most commonly proves impossible, it does not come as a particular surprise that at least 30% of every Chinese city’s population account for ‘illegal’ peasants from the countryside. While understanding perfectly well that they are not supposed to live in cities, in the first place, these people have no option but to agree to work for a fraction of what their native-born urban counterparts are being paid. Consequently, this establishes the prerequisites for more and more Western companies to consider relocating their production lines to China, as a country where there is a plenty of hard working but utterly cheap laborers.
As the ultimate consequence, during the course of recent decades, the Chinese citizens’ living standards continued being improved gradually but consistently. In other words, it is specifically the fact that, while implementing its economic reforms, the Chinese government never ceased being in a full control of the demographic dynamics in the country, which contributed rather substantially to these reforms’ successfulness. It is needless to mention, of course, that had China been a ‘democracy’, in the classical sense of this word, this could hardly prove possible.
Another factor that contributed to the phenomenon of China’s ‘economic miracle’ is the fact that, while remaining in a full control of implementing economic reforms, the governmental officials never ceased paying a particularly close attention to what accounts for the culturally defined specifics of the Chinese mentality. As opposed to what it happened to be the case with the majority of Westerners, the majority of Chinese citizens professes the values of a communal living and hard-workiness, which in turn can be partially explained by the cultural legacy of Confucianism. This is the reason why Chinese people have been traditionally known for their tendency to exist in an essentially ‘networking’ manner, when the principle of a collective solidarity defines the way in which they tackle life’s challenges (Shambaugh 154). Therefore, there is nothing too odd about the fact that even today; Communist ideology continues to enjoy much of a popular support among the country’s ordinary citizens. Apparently, it is specifically their adherence to the virtue of a communal solidarity, which causes many Chinese to consider themselves Communists, and not the strength of their ideological commitment to Marxist dogmas. This is exactly the reason why, throughout the eighties and nineties, China’s leaders considered it fully appropriate to deviate from the ideological conventions of Communism, as the mean of helping citizens to get out of poverty.
Unfortunately, people’s adherence to the values of a communal living also makes them prone to corruption. What it means is that had China’s free-market reforms been accompanied by the process of ‘democratization’, as it was the case in the USSR, during the course of the late eighties, these reforms would only result in plunging China in the chaos of ‘primeval Capitalism’, when favoritism would become the main principle of this country’s political/economic life. Therefore, it was the matter of a crucial importance for the government to ensure that the implementation of economic reforms would always be thoroughly supervised, so that the corrupted governmental officials would never be able to take over the whole country, as it happened in the Soviet Union – much to the satisfaction of the representatives of the International Monetary Fund. Even today, it represents a commonplace practice for China’s top-ranking bureaucrats to be punished by death for committing a vast number of even seemingly ‘innocent’ economic crimes. This, however, is not due to the China’s Communist government being particularly ‘bloodthirsty’ – the very specifics of implementing economic reforms in this country require officials, in charge of the process, to be strongly intolerable towards even the smallest outbreaks of corruption. We can only imagine what would happen to China, had its leaders allowed Western advisors to take an active part in the process of the country’s economy being reformed.
Apparently, while pursuing with the reform-policy, Deng remained thoroughly aware of what amount to three major purposes of just about every country’s existence – economic/geopolitical expansion, protection of internal stability, impairment of the internal stability of competing countries. This is exactly the reason why he strongly opposed the perspective of China being set on the path of ‘democratization’. After all, while waging the so-called Opium Wars on China in the 19th century, with the actual purpose of these wars having been the preservation of China’s quasi-colonial status, Western countries were justifying their military intervention by pointing out to the fact that Chinese citizens simply needed to be introduced to the ‘values of civilization (democracy)’. Apparently, the Chinese remember this very well.
Being a truly remarkable politician, Deng did not allow his country to become a pawn in the geopolitical confrontation between the superpowers of the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Quite on the opposite, he was able to take advantage of this confrontation, while anticipating the time when, due to the demise of either of two of the mentioned geopolitical competitors (which happened to be USSR), China would take its place. This explains why, ever since the early eighties, China began to cooperate with the U.S. economically and politically. As Tucker pointed out: “Beijing needed the U.S. as a market and a source of technology… So much did Deng require U.S. economic and security cooperation, that he grudgingly acquiesced in the resumption of (American) arms sales to Taiwan… and did not disrupt relations when Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act in 1979” (37). The U.S. had much to win from entering into the economic partnership with China, as well.
The reason for this is that, after President Nixon terminated gold/dollar convertibility in 1971, billions of the U.S. dollars in the domestic and international circulation have ceased to represent any objective worth, while being turned into essentially the tons of a devalued green paper. In order to prevent its economic system from collapsing, America had to ‘invest’ this green paper abroad. With the world’s largest population, consisting of people who do not mind working for ‘peanuts’, China came in particularly handy, in this respect. This explains why ever since the late seventies, China became one of the America’s most important economic partners. Nevertheless, after having gotten rid of much of its devalued dollars, by the mean of investing them in China, the U.S. acquired another problem – the fact that it was only the matter of time, before China would rise to the position of competing with America economically and even challenging the ‘beacon of democracy’ geopolitically. This is exactly the reason why China had to be destroyed from within by ‘internal’ forces – just as it happened with the Soviet Union in 1991. Hence, the true significance of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, orchestrated by the agents of foreign influence (just as was the case with the ‘orange’ revolutions of more recent times), in order to prevent China from growing ever more powerful.
While believing that China was lagging behind the Soviet Union on the way of ‘democratization’, protesting students demanded the banning of the Communist Party, a complete privatization of the economy, an abandonment of the Socialist form of governing, and the country’s federalization (Tucker 38). Had they succeeded, China would have been destroyed within the matter of a few years. The example of what happened to the USSR in 1991 leaves very little doubt, as to the full legitimacy of this suggestion. After all, the earlier mentioned demands were well consistent with how the Soviet first and last President Gorbachev proceeded with ‘modernizing’ the USSR. This once again substantiates the validity of the initial suggestion that the foremost reason why the implementation of economic reforms in China proved amazingly effective, is that they were well thought-through and that the officials, in charge of their design/enactment, never had any illusions, as to the actual purposes of ‘democracy’.
Therefore, the Chinese government’s decision to use a military force, in order to disperse protesters, appears fully appropriate. Of course, this decision resulted in a number of casualties among protesters. At the same time, however, it allowed China to remain on the course of a continual progress, and consequently resulted in the creation of preconditions for the 21st century’s China to acquire the status of the world’s second most powerful and economically advanced country.
The above-provided introspective into what can be considered the objective prerequisites of China’s rise, makes it easier for us to elaborate on the would-be-impending factors of this rise’s continuation in the future. These factors can be outlined as follows:
- The continually improved standards of living in China. As it was mentioned earlier, the main reason why, throughout the course of recent decades, this country became the world’s largest manufacturer of industrial goods, is that even today, the living standards of the majority of the rurally based Chinese remain rather inadequate. This is exactly what prompts many of these people to ‘immigrate’ to the country’s urbanized areas in search of a job – hence, creating the world’s largest market of ‘cheap labor’ and consequentially motivating Western companies to continue to invest in China’s economy. Nevertheless, the ongoing process of industrialization, which is being enabled by the mentioned migration of Chinese rural-dwellers into the country’s large cities and which thrives on Western investments, naturally results in the continual improvement of the quality of these people’s lives. The most immediate consequence of this is that, as time goes on, the costs of China’s ‘cheap labor’ continue to increase, which in turn makes this country progressively less attractive for potential investors. Moreover, the industrialization-induced process of urbanization naturally results in reducing the population of the country’s peasants. What it means is that it is only the matter of time, before China becomes deprived of the necessary human resources, which up until this date used to enable this country to remain on the path of a rapid industrialization – something enabled China to ‘rise’, in the first place.
- The continual enactment of the ‘one child per family’ policy. As it appears from above, the current demographic dynamics inside of China have a largely negative effect on this country’s hypothetical ability to ensure its geopolitical-economic rise in the future. This effect is being made even more acute by the enactment of the ‘one child per family’ policy in China, which was meant to motivate Chinese citizens to exercise an extreme caution, while in the process of ‘baby-making’. Even though the introduction of this policy did help the Chinese government to address the problem of overpopulation, it will nevertheless have a number of counter-beneficiary effects on how the country will fare in decades to come. The most important of them is that, because of this policy, the country’s overall population will soon begin growing reduced in numbers. According to Nathan and Scobell: “Even if the government were now to relax the one-child policy, as it has begun to do, the shortage of people in the reproductive ages will continue to create a shortage of children, causing the population to peak at about 1.5 billion around 2030 and then decline” (9). What is even more – it will create the situation when, in 20-30 years from now, the ratio between the representatives of the country’s younger and older generations will take a sharp move towards the latter. In its turn, this will significantly undermine the effectiveness of China’s economy.
- The fact that the Chinese grow progressively disillusioned in the ideas of Communism (equality). One of the reasons why up until recently, the Communist Party of China (CCP) used to enjoy much popularity among the country’s ordinary citizens, is that it did succeed in implementing a number of the equality-inducing Socialist initiatives. As Lawrence and Martin noted: “The CCP waged a successful revolution and established the People’s Republic of China with the promise that it would help farmers and workers overthrow their ‘exploiters,’ the landlords and capitalists, and establish socialism and ultimately Communism” (11). However, the government’s successfulness in deploying the policy of economic liberalization was closely followed by the fact that, due to this policy’s enactment, the degree of a social stratification between citizens became grossly disproportionate. What it means is that, as time goes on, it will be increasingly difficult for the CCP to maintain the legitimacy of its positioning as the country’s only ruling political party, which exercises a unilateral control over just about all the aspects of the Chinese society’s functioning. Yet, as it was pointed out in the paper’s previous sub-chapter, the reason why the CCP succeed in implementing the economic reforms in question, in the first place, is that throughout the process’s entirety, its ruling legitimacy remained undisputed. Thus, the government’s continual pursuance of the policy of economic liberalization will be associated with the rise of the decentralization tendencies, within the society. In its turn, this will result in increasing the likelihood for the Chinese society to be affected by social tribulations in the future – as the best-case scenario.
- The fact that the current geopolitical situation in the world makes it increasingly harder for China to enjoy the benefits of its currently deployed ‘free maneuver’ foreign policy. What contributed rather substantially to China’s rise, is that ever since the early nineties, this country used to be at liberty to periodically switch the situational alliances between the U.S. and Russia, while addressing the issues of its geopolitical interest. This explains why, as Nathan and Scobell mentioned: “China did not seek to overcome its isolation by joining existing blocks or constructing its own. It instead sought to encourage fluidity and multipolarity wherever it could” (14). Nevertheless, as of today, this effectively ceased to be the case – the essence of the world’s current geological dynamics prompts China to grow increasingly aligned with Russia. The main reason for this is that, while holding billions and billions in the U.S. ‘treasury bonds’ and knowing that the American economy is about to collapse under the weight of its budget-deficit, China needs its national currency yuan to be provided with the status of the world’s most stable ‘reserve currency’. Because the U.S. and the European Union are not interested in this to happen, it leaves China with only the option of aligning itself with the Russian agenda in the arena of international politics. There are two most important preconditions that presuppose the issuance of this particular scenario: the policy of cooperating with Russia will allow China the tariff-relaxed entrance into the Eurasian market of 200 million, and will also provide this country with the essentially unrestricted access to Russia’s natural resources of oil and natural gas, which the Chinese rapidly growing economy demands in ever larger quantities. Nevertheless, China’s growing affiliation with Russia is being potentially capable to backfire, in the sense that it deprives the Chinese of the mentioned ‘freedom of maneuver’. What makes the situation even worse, in this respect, is that while having a number of the territorial disputes with China, Russia can hardly be considered a strategically reliable partner – especially in light of Russia’s recent annexation of Crimea. This, of course, will undermine China’s ability to enjoy a geopolitical stability in the area of its vital interests.
I believe that the earlier provided introspective into the causes of China’s current greatness and the deployed line argumentation, as to what can be deemed the main reasons why this country will eventually cease being discussed in terms of a ‘rising power’, is fully consistent with the paper’s initial thesis. Apparently, there is indeed a number of reasons for China’s ongoing economic/political rise to prove short-lived. Probably the main of them is that, as it was implied in the paper’s previous sub-chapters, the Chinese society’s qualitative (societal, ethno-cultural and economic) specifics and the geopolitical realities of post-modernity make it quite impossible for the Chinese government to adopt a methodologically flexible approach, while ensuring China’s continual rise to power in the world. The fact that the CCP has no other choice but to proceed with proclaiming its formal allegiance to the ideals of Communism only worsens this situation. To use another allegory – China has a strong body, but not overly bright ‘mind’, which makes it highly unlikely for the concerned country to expect that it will be able to win a competition with its geopolitical rivalries on a long-term basis. This, of course, once again illustrates the validity of the initially mentioned allegorical comparison between China and the son of a ‘new rich’ – after having been provided with a powerful ‘boost’ (which in theory could have turned China into the world’s only super-power), this country was little too quick to use all of the affiliated benefits. In its turn, this can be considered the ultimate consequence of the fact that, unlike what it happened to be the case with its main rivalries, China simply lacks the expense of a being a ‘long-established player’ in the arena of international politics.
Lanteigne, Marc. Chinese Foreign Policy: An Introduction. 2nd Edition. London: Routledge, 2013. Print.
Lawrence, Susan and Michael Martin 2013, Understanding China’s Political System. PDF file. Web.
Nathan, Andrew and Andrew Scobell. China’s Search for Security. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012. Print.
Shambaugh, David. China Goes Global: The Partial Power. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. Print.
Tucker, Nancy Bernkopf. “The Evolution of U.S.-China Relations.” Tangled Titans: The New Context of U.S.-China Relations. Ed. David Shambaugh. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield. 29-53. 2012. Print.