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China’s Journey to the West

Danny Quah - 2nd February 2013
China’s Journey to the West

China – You have a serious public relations challenge.

Most of the world finds economic relations with China a complete puzzle. No one really understands “peaceful rise”. Or, worse, they judge it empty rhetoric, inconsistent with many of China’s actions on foreign policy. Many Westerners fret that China’s economic growth endangers their livelihoods. And, even if, compared to the risk to their jobs, the notion of a globalized world is abstract and remote, ordinary citizens everywhere are routinely told that the rise of China has destabilized that thing known as the global economy.

On global imbalance, for instance, no matter how often Chairman Ben Bernanke says “The United States must increase its national saving rate [...while at the same time] surplus countries, including most Asian economies, must act [...] to raise domestic demand”, what grabs attention instead is when Western newspaper headlines shrilly announce “Bernanke says foreign investors fuelled crisis”, or when Niall Ferguson proclaims “The Asian savings glut was thus the underlying cause of the surge in bank lending, bond issuance, [...] new derivative contracts [...], and the hedge-fund population explosion.”

If I were watching all this from within China, my reaction might well be puzzled incomprehension. After all, my first thoughts must be that China is the economy that since 1979 has grown an average of 9% annually; has lifted over 600mn of its people out of extreme poverty—more than 100% of what the world as a whole has done in total; has single-handedly pulled the world’s economic center of gravity 5,000km eastwards, yanking that economic center off its moorings held firm throughout the 1980s in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and placing it on a trajectory hurtling towards East Asia.

I would be thinking that those involved in the study and practice of economic development must know how tough it is to grow even small- or medium-sized economies. But for three decades now China, the world’s most populous economy, has racked up the world’s most rapid growth rates and delivered out of extreme poverty one and half times the population of the US: to paraphrase Kishore Mahbubani, that is like seeing the fattest kid in school just win the 110m hurdles and the marathon.

Sure, there are sceptics, both foreign and domestic. Dramatic changes such as in China since 1979 couldn’t occur without detractors and doubters and unintended dislocations. Naysayers—from Nobel Prize-winners in the West through China’s own very vocal domestic critics through small-town fortune-tellers in the East—forebodingly predict China’s imminent slowdown. They have been doing so every single year for the last three decades. One day, they might even be right.

But naysaying is quite different from actively blaming China’s economic development for global economic instability in general and for one’s economic insecurity in particular. The German Marshall Foundation’s Survey on Transatlantic Trends recently reported that while 76% of Americans aged 18-24 say Asia is the most important region for their national interest, 63% of Americans say that China represents economic threat—double the number who say China is more an economic opportunity. Stop for a moment to think how strange this is: If any nation state had within it a region that was single-handedly reducing national poverty, by itself helping stabilize the nation against economic downturn, and on average accounting for half the nation’s growth, that region would be celebrated for its economic leadership, not viewed with suspicion for distorting and unbalancing the national economy. Yet, change “national” to “global” and “a region” to “China”, and the perspective completely changes.

Even the charge that this is because China artificially keeps its currency under-valued rings hollow when a 2011 IMF study finds that a 20% appreciation of the RMB would lead to a fall in China’s GDP of 2-3% in the short term and of 9% in the medium term, with only about a 0.1% improvement in US or Euro area GDP throughout: A lot of pain, with hardly any gain.

China’s continued economic progress depends not only on China’s correcting its internal imbalances but on China honestly and accurately telling the world what China is about. If not, US lawmakers, appealing to the worst populist sentiment and brandishing global hegemony credentials, will arm-twist international policy institutions into the worst possible protectionist outcome for the world.

China has to convince the world that in the global economy China is committed stakeholder, not innocent bystander. China’s leadership well understands that although the nation invests more than 50% of its GDP—a rate many international critics suggest unsustainable—more than 200mn Chinese citizens, half the population of either the US or the European Union, continue to live in absolute poverty: these people still need technology and machines to become productive.

China’s leadership well understands that China’s income inequality is high because east-west, rural-urban income differences are so large. China’s inequality will fall dramatically when China invests more in transportation infrastructure, bringing the poorest western parts of the country into greater engagement with the global economy and, indeed, with the rest of China. That investment will also relieve the pressures along the east coast of over-crowding, excessively high wages, and pollution; and counter-balance the political strength of east coast manufacturing and exporting interests.

China’s leadership well understands that on the demographic challenge in China’s aging population, having 340mn more pensioners practising taiji in the park is perfectly OK, compared to having 100mn young men unable to find gainful employment, angry at the West and potentially seeking refuge in religious fundamentalism.

China’s leadership well understands that just as US domestic shale gas and oil have now removed any pretence of a US green priority, it will be good for business, good for China, and indeed good for the world, that China powers ahead on its own renewable energy and frugal technology agenda.

But what China’s leadership seems not to grasp fully is that what the world wants from China is not only “peaceful rise” but global leadership. In the eyes of the world the opposite of “peaceful rise” is not “dominating hegemony” but “responsible stakeholder”. So, if the US and the rest of the West practice protectionism against your sovereign wealth funds and those of other eastern nations, driving you away from real investment and towards buying risky government paper, well, raise a stink about it. Appeal to the court of world opinion: You improve your credibility, and others will be grateful for how you help everyone by making sure the global economy remains open and transparent. When Western criticism of your economic policy is misdirected, explain why, don’t just publicly agree but then privately do something else. Continue to show us you are serious on foreign relations by having your nation’s elites communicate openly with the rest of the world, not just provide technocratic, engineering solutions to economic problems. The rigor, care, and orderliness with which you now train and select future generations of your national leaders is unmatched anywhere else, except perhaps in some of the world’s most successful, longest-running institutions: But a strong foreign relations presence in China’s top leadership has not, for decades now, figured prominently, the same way that Western governments frontline a UK Foreign Secretary or a US Secretary of State.

Convince the world that your vision is credible of a peaceful growing world economy, free from global hegemony, open to trade that will benefit all, rich and poor worldwide.

Spend more time telling us, because the world wants to know.

A Chinese language version of this was published in the International Forum, China People’s Daily, Wednesday 30 January 2013. Image from