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China Might Never Become Number One


Eric Fish, a journalist living in China, has an interesting take on all the recent chatter and analysis on China’s economic slowdown. He quite rightly points out that a slowing economy is definitely a big problem facing China’s leaders, but it is hardly the only one, and perhaps not even the most serious.

“Right now China is barreling down the economic rapids trying to avoid crashing,” Fish writes on his blog, Sinostand, “but there’s already a hole in the bottom of the raft. Even if it avoids a crash, there are much worse things in store. And China doesn’t have just one big hole in its raft, it has (at least) four.” The four holes are an aging population, pollution, a water shortage, and a gender imbalance. These are each difficult challenges for China and its leadership and they are worth looking at more closely.

China’s aging population and one-child policy have created a huge economic and social problem, which Beijing has tried to address with only limited success by enacting a law to force young people to visit their parents more often. The great migration to the cities has left many families stretched, with a parent or two at home and a child or two working and living far away, trying to make a new life but also supporting the parents. “This leaves many migrants the choice of essentially straddling their hometown and work-destination in order to care for ailing parents,” Eric writes, “or paying to put them up in the city. Both options can cause huge financial strains, which is made worse by the fact that the one-child policy has left plenty of couples to solely support four parents.” There’s worse to come. An aging population means that young people and the state will soon have to care for more elderly citizens than they can afford.

The next problem, pollution, is obvious to anyone who has seen pictures of Beijing or read stories about thousands of dead pigs floating downstream through Shanghai. Over a million people died as a result of air pollution in 2010 and environmental problems cost China almost 6 percent of GDP each year. The authorities are trying to tackle this problem too, with a $277 million plan to clear smoggy skies in several major cities. Will it be enough? Probably not, writes Fish: “the most frightening implication of China’s pollution is what it’s doing to the food and water supply.” As the WSJ reported in a riveting essay last week: “Estimates from state-affiliated researchers say that anywhere between 8% and 20% of China’s arable land, some 25 to 60 million acres, may now be contaminated with heavy metals. A loss of even 5% could be disastrous, taking China below the ‘red line’ of 296 million acres of arable land that are currently needed, according to the government, to feed the country’s 1.35 billion people.”

China’s water problem is growing more serious every day. Half the rivers that flowed on Chinese soil in 1990 have disappeared. Many that remain are horribly polluted. The Tibetan glaciers that fuel China’s big three rivers are disappearing at a frightening rate. Much of China’s available water supply is diverted to industry. And it’s only going to get worse as time goes on.

Last but not least, China has too many men. The number of “bare branches”—hopelessly single men—is expected to reach 20 million by 2015 and more than double that by 2040. This could mean all sorts of problems, from a rise in crime to bachelor villages to a “swaggering, belligerent, provocative” foreign policy.

“I try to be an optimist,” Fish writes. “I have confidence that new technologies and targeted policies can mitigate some of these problems before they become catastrophic.” VM is also an optimist, but China’s problems might be too great for any government to handle. A temporary “hard landing” for the economy may be the least of China’s problems looking forward. Fish’s sobering summary points to some of the reasons why China may never achieve the superpower status it longs for, but is also a good guide to the obstacles China will have to overcome if it is to make the grade after all.

The bottom line? Nobody really knows where China is headed. It’s equally foolish to underestimate the severity of the trouble it faces or the determination of the government and the people to overcome its problems. No country in the history of the world has done what China is trying to do today, bringing more than a billion people into prosperous modernity in a few decades. The one thing we can be confident about: China’s future won’t be dull. The 21st century is going to be a roller coaster ride, not a quiet stroll through the park.

[Man wearing a mask in Beijing image courtesy of Getty]

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  • Corlyss

    “China Might Never Become Number One”

    I’ve thought this for years, not for the reasons cited (I’m not that smart and I don’t know enough about Chinese society to speak confidently). My reason for believing that is this: the oriental societies are authoritarian and paternalistic by thousands of years of culture. They are not innovative; they are imitative. They make fine copies, but they’ll never invent anything useful again (after their spurt during the middle ages when they invented toys and entertainments the West would later make into agents of revolutionary change). Still waiting for their first Nobel science/math winner to appear. I suppose it’s wrong to say ‘never,’ but I foresee China breaking up into constituent parts long before they become the kind of dominant society that justifies predictions that the East will eventually surpass the West.

    • crocodilechuck

      @ Corlyss: read Joseph Needham’s ‘Science and Civilisation in China’?

      There’s a reason it consists of twenty seven volumes:

      The series is included in the Modern Library Board’s 100 Best Nonfiction books of the 20th century.

      • Corlyss

        IS there a cliff notes version somewhere?

    • bpuharic

      I’ve worked with Chinese scientists in the semiconductor industry for 30 years. If they ever get their govt right they’re going to kick our butts.

      • Bruce

        How are they going to get their government right? They are Communists.

        • Corlyss

          Yeah, agreed, but that’s one of those imitative grafts from the West. They’re Chinese first, foremost, and forever.

    • cubanbob

      Don’t be so cocky. There is a big lag between when a Nobel laureate does their work and when the work gets them a prize. The top schools in this country are full of Asians who are majoring or have graduated with honors in the hard sciences. Lets see what happens in the next thirty years.

      • Corlyss

        Even if what you say is true, and I don’t doubt it, still waiting. The kind of science rewarded by Nobel depends on a raft of social characteristics the Orientals have yet to master. On the scale of social and cultural development important to the success of the West, I put them somewhere around the period just after the printing press was invented and began pumping tracts and research into the West’s intellectual bloodstream and the 30 years war. They’ve got a lot of ground to cover before I become concerned. Most likely I’ll be dead before I have to start worrying.

  • f1b0nacc1

    I remember this debate from the 80s, when I established my (lifelong) rep as a crank by rejecting the conventional wisdom that Japan was going to take over the world. Neither Japan nor China are ever going to be anything more than second-tier powers with unfulfilled aspirations to much, much more…

    • bpuharic

      Until the mid 19th century, the world’s largest economy was China’s.

      • Atanu Maulik

        Then the Industrial revolution made its effect felt.

  • Pete

    “An aging population means that young people and the state will soon have to care for more elderly citizens than they can afford.”

    Oh, the state will take care of its aging population, alright, especially a state like China’s that murdered tens of millions of its own people within living memory.

    If the aged in China get in the way of ‘progress,’ watch out. After all, China is not constrained by a a Christian ethic that would preclude a ‘practical’ solution to the problem

  • bpuharic

    THe American right has tried to gut environmental legislation and shut down the EPA for years. Yet here is demonstrable and real proof of the costs of pollution. I guess pollution only hurts if it’s communist pollution

    • cubanbob

      As if there is any difference between a communist and a progresive.

      • bpuharic

        As if there’s any difference between a conservative and a nazi.

        Want to play games?

        • cubanbob

          A Nazi is simply a racial-nationalist Communist. But go ahead and play your game.

          • bpuharic

            Which, I suppose, is why Hitler was backed by IG Farben, Krupp, etc. and killed every communist

            You guys have anything besides cliches?

          • cubanbob

            So a bunch of crony’s backed Hitler? Thats your case? I suppose those bastards preferred letting Adolph own the companies in all but name and letting the owners keep some of the money in exchange for management services rather than having their companies formally nationalized. Stalin was best buds with Adolph when it suited him. And Adolph was best buds with Joe when it suited him. Gangsters all. Nothing personal, just business.

          • bpuharic

            How many companies backed Stalin?

            Oh. None.

            And Stalin wasn’t ‘best buds’. He signed a non aggression pact in the delusional hope thatHitler WASN”T anti communist

            Hitler treated commies the way he treated Jews.

            Your conclusion about his love of Jews?

  • 21tigermike

    Even if China hits astronomical GDP levels (at this point we’re literally pushing the limits of gold/cash/value on Earth to get China’s GDP/Cap up to OECD levels), it is STILL meaningless if most people in the country are impoverished.

    If you go to Shanghai most people still leave hand-to-mouth, making about 600-800 dollars a month. Most of the money goes to apartment rental. And that’s IF you have a college education, etc.

    China’s problems truly are unique. No country, other than India, can truly understand what China’s burdened with.

    • Atanu Maulik

      Yes you are right. Westerners will find it difficult to understand. But I am from India and I know that China and India will NEVER be able to deliver the quality of life to their citizens that the west managed.

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