China's economic threat is overblown

Colby Cosh on some familiar Soviet themes that will hold the country back

Rows of identical houses with a playground seen in the middle in the city of Jiangyin.

A little while ago, Richard Dawkins got in trouble when he pointed out on Twitter that “All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge.” One wonders if the cheeky professor has ever seen the Wikipedia page headed “List of Chinese Nobel laureates.”

There are 15 names on that list. Two of the “Chinese” Nobelists are white American scientists born to foreigners in pre-Communist China. One is a Japanese chemist born in Japanese-controlled Manchuria, on present-day Chinese soil, in 1935. Another is the Dalai Lama, technically a Chinese national. Setting aside these edge cases leaves 11 Nobel prizewinners of Han Chinese descent: two literature honorees, peace prize recipient and democratic dissident Liu Xiaobo, and eight men of achievement in the basic sciences.

All eight won their Nobels for work outside China, which almost goes without saying. Yet it does go without saying whenever someone writes a panicky piece about the supposedly rising Chinese role in scientific research. The hundred million or so Han outside China have, when it comes to first-class scientific discovery, mopped the floor with the 1.2 billion left behind.

Diane Francis, celebrity business columnist for the National Post, is currently in the very awkward position of flogging a book favouring North American political union in order to defend the continent against the white-hot economies of the developing BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China). I say “awkward” because she is rolling out this thesis after a month of headlines about crashing growth rates in the BRICs. China is still above six per cent and India above four per cent, and if trends continue, Francis frets, the leading industrial nations, including Canada, could still be “overtaken” in overall size within a few decades.

But “if trends continue” is a whale of an “if.” Developing countries eventually polish off the low-hanging fruit of growth and become developed, at which point maintaining supersized growth rates becomes a bit trickier.

Her real worry, one senses from the opening of her book, isn’t really Brazil and Russia. She complains of “foreign governments and their vassal entities . . . nibbling away at resource assets” in Canada and the U.S. It’s a “non-reciprocal and sly strategy,” certain to succeed because “the free-market/free-trade/free-enterprise model does not work as well as controlled and planned economic models such as China’s.” Here we have the “Yellow Peril” updated for the 21st century—apparently, judging from that last quote, by a person who was not paying much attention during the 20th.

What I always wonder when I encounter a China bull or a Chinaphobe—for they are two sides of the same coin—is this: Even if they think “socialism with Chinese characteristics” is economically superior to ordinary capitalism, where in China are the parallel cultural institutions to support prolonged capitalist-style growth? Maybe China doesn’t need reciprocal free trade to blow our doors off in the race to utopia. Maybe it doesn’t need untidy democratic quarrelling. One presumes it won’t need a high level of achievement in basic science, either, judging by the Nobels: It is well-documented that the Chinese civilian research establishment is awash in fraud and plagiarism, to say nothing of the destructive favouritism inherent to a one-party state.

Rowan Callick’s new book The Party Forever: Inside China’s Modern Communist Party makes a simple, compact judgment on the general state of Chinese higher education: Just look where the Party leadership sends its own children to university: the U.S. Another important leading indicator of cultural progress is press freedom, which, if history has anything to say on the matter at all, appears to be utterly integral to sustained prosperity. But Mainland China has no newspapers as we understand them; it is not even clear that the regimented, spoon-fed “reporters” there could assemble one, even if the Party would allow it.

The Diane Francises of the world would have us reject the relevance of the Soviet experience to China’s future, to the point of ignoring familiar Soviet themes that are increasingly apparent in China: the vast infrastructure projects standing unused in the middle of nowhere, the blind environmental despoliation, the dodgy economic statistics. Beyond mastery of trading, interior China has simply never possessed much of the cultural technique upon which the advanced stages of economic development would seem to depend. Hong Kong is the exception, but having taken it over, China shows little appetite so far for imitating its social openness and individuality—or for those of Taiwan or Japan or South Korea. It still requires a strange leap of faith to believe it possible for China to economically surpass these neighbours, and ourselves, without becoming a great deal more like us.

On the web: For more Colby Cosh, visit his blog at macleans.ca/colbycosh

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