Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Chinese Pride or Western Prejudice

At the end of this month (31 January 2014), the Year of the Horse begins. The media around the world will undoubtedly take the opportunity once again to make as many sweeping comments about China and Chinese people as they can.

This year we can turn it into a little game and check the accuracy of what’s confidently proclaimed by commentators, with the help of a new book by Ben Chu (The Independent’s Economics Editor) called Chinese Whispers: why everything you heard about China is wrong (Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2013). The book brings together an array of generalisations about all things Chinese, and with wit and considerable analytical prowess exposes old myths and new exaggerations alike.

Two of my favourites are: ‘the Chinese don’t want freedom’ and ‘the Chinese live to work’. Apparently, Chinese people are so obsessed with working hard that they neither mind getting paid a pittance nor being denied the freedom to express their concerns about how they are treated. That would be a convenient excuse for the exploitation of Chinese migrant workers in Britain and America in late 19th/early 20th centuries, and of lowly paid workers in China today. But the reality is that when economically one is given no other option but to take what little is on offer, and politically one can see no real opportunity to challenge the prevailing arrangements, one has no choice but to toil in silence – like billions of non-Chinese around the world.

But have not ‘the Chinese reinvented capitalism’? Have they not come up with a new economic system that, guided by far-sighted planning, and fuelled by congenitally diligent workers, is propelling China to surpass the US to become the largest national economy by 2017? According to Chu, China has merely removed the barriers in a way that countries in Europe and America have done in previous centuries (and in East Asia more recently). It has allowed its workforce to engage in producing what there is a worldwide demand for. But it is already making similar mistakes to other more advanced economies in fuelling investment bubbles; allowing a tiny elite to amass an ever increasing share of the wealth generated by the whole nation; and curtailing the purchasing power of the vast majority of its own population through a combination of low wages and minimalist welfare spending. As people save up in case they are sick and for their old age, the demand needed to sustain domestic manufacturing fails to materialise, and the same old capitalist problems will hit China.

Needless to say, Chu does not care for the claim ‘China will rule the world’. He has good reasons. Economically, the country’s per capita GDP is two and a half times smaller than that of Greece. Technologically, it is a long way from the top of the league for innovations. In 2009, it registered 1,600 patents in the US, while Spain registered 4 times that with 6,500, not to mention Japan’s 35,000. Culturally, its influence in terms of arts and entertainment is negligible outside its own frontiers. Militarily, it spent in 2012 eight times less than the US on the armed services. Its troops are confined to its own borders, unlike the US which has 500,000 troops stationed abroad. It also has 20 times fewer nuclear warheads than the US.

To the wider world, China neither poses a threat nor offers a special salvation. The Chinese people have their customs, but they also adapt to changing circumstances. In seeking peace and prosperity, they are not that different from anyone else. If anyone thinks they have a snappy phrase to capture the diverse mindsets and inclinations of a billion Chinese people, they should take a look at ‘Chinese Whispers’ first.

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