Tuesday, 15 April 2014

China - the Most Misunderstood Teenager in the History of the World

The title of this article is no exaggeration. If anything, it's an understatement. With just a brief tour of the internet, I realise no country in the history of the world is being misunderstood more than China, and in the most basic ways. It's like mistaken a kid for an adult.  Don't feel too bad, even high profile American TV show host David Letterman made the same mistake (will point it out later). This is because of her many contradictions, paradoxes and ironies. I feel the need to set the record straight, and clear up the distorted views.

{* The Economic Development *}

A Chinese teen girl
Think of developing economy like China as a developing person -  a teenager, if you like. Think of a developed economy like Australia, UK, USA, Japan as a fully grown person - an adult, in other words.

We don't understand teenagers, or tend to misunderstand them, for many reasons. Partly because they're changing so fast, partly because we're adults, not teenagers. We forgot what it was like. Now we think they're a different species.

Look! She's playing piano, she will grow up to be a musician. Next week, you'll see that she plays soccer with more enthusiasm than she did with piano. At this stage of development, don't jump to conclusion what she is going to be, the only constant is change. Just enjoy the ride.

China is full of paradoxes and breathtaking changes, not the least due to its modernisation / economic development. From the socio-economic standpoint she's still a teenager, not quite a mature adult.

The other source of the cause of its misunderstanding is her size if you see a teen whose size matches that of an adult. In fact, she appears larger than a typical adult, people will be easily mistaken her for a fully grown adult.

Size matters. Absolute size matters absolutely.

These 2 characteristics - fast paced economic development and size - are the main causes of why so many are confused about her.

Question: So who cares if we don't understand her?

We all need to care because of her size. Remember the saying, "When America sneezes, the world catches a cold"? This happened in 2007 with the financial crisis. Wall Street sneezed, and the rest of the world got a bit sick (as well as sick of it).

Soon, as China becomes the biggest economy in the world, you replace "America" with "China" in the above saying. We all like to keep an eye on those who might give us the sniffle.

Because of her size, there had never been a developing country who acted in so many way similar to a developed economy. This gives rise to many firsts for China.

Examples of the many historical firsts for China (not an exhaustive list),
  1. The 1st developing nation to be the 2nd biggest economy  in the world (soon to be the largest).
  2. The 1st developing nation where its currency isn't internationalised while being the 2nd biggest economy in the world.
  3. The 1st developing nation that sends economic aid to other developing countries. They're always - until now - the recipients.
  4. The 1st developing nation to be accused of colonisation of Africa.
  5. The 1st developing nation to be the largest foreign creditor of the largest economy.
  6. The 1st developing nation to be the largest trading nation.
  7. The 1st developing nation that has the biggest foreign reserves in the world.
  8. The 1st developing nation that sent a lunar rover to the moon. So far only 2 superpowers did this.

GDP Forecast of Top 10 economies of the world
GDP World Estimate Chart - 2050.
Estimate for the 10 largest economies in 2050.
Courtesy of Pricewaterhouse Coopers study on January 2011

Some economists would think the above forecast figure for China is too optimistic (me included). Few - very few - economists today would doubt that China will become the largest economy in the world by year 2050. In fact, it could come as soon as years 2020 and as late as 2030. According to World Bank, China will be the biggest economy in the world by the end of this year (2014) based on PPP model to remove foreign exchange rate's fluctuation (and some suggest currency manipulation).

All these firsts are due to the fact that while it's still a developing or industrialising country, it has the biggest population in the world. This single fact causes all kinds of contradictions, paradoxes, ironies, and thus confusions, of what China is about.

Also because of her size, people think she's an adult (in other words, a developed economy). Well, just because she's big doesn't make her an adult. Most kids are bigger than their parents these days.

A big economy tend to be a developed economy, but China is the first of such exception.

Just as a teen has many issues that are specific to teenager. When a teen grows up these issues usually disappear. They should.

chimney
Environmental degradation
And so people don't realise the following problems are characteristic of any developing economy (not an exhaustive list).

Typical issues of a developing economy
  1. Widespread copyright infringements.
  2. Severe environment degradation.
  3. Large income disparity.
  4. Rampant official corruptions.
  5. Frequent human rights violations.
  6. Lack of transparency and accountability.


This list of issues can also be called growing pains or teething problem of any developing body or economy. Except for human rights issue, all countries that are in this stage of economic development - Britain, USA, Japan, South Korea, any country - all confronted the same issues. Since these countries were in this stage of economic development in the last, or last few generations, folks of this generation aren't aware of it.

In the early 1800s, the Brits whined that US companies copied their product ideas; In 1843, Britain sent Robert Fortune to China to steal the secret of tea (for those who's interested, I wrote an article about this); in 1950s, US companies complained the Japanese ripped off their designs; in the 1970s, the South Korean knocked off the Japanese patents regularly; today China is doing the stealing of copyrights from other countries. Tomorrow, other countries - like Vietnam for example -  will copy Chinese product ideas (they already followed the Chinese Opening-Up policy closely. Almost to the letters).

Because of the size of China, and the ignorance of the stages of economic development, when people compare China with other developed economies like USA, Japan, Germany, etc, they're comparing adults with teenagers. Not a fair or meaningful comparison. People can compare China with USA or Japan in at least 3 decades from now so we won't compare apples with oranges, or children with adults. Of course, such comparisons of China with USA today simply flatters PRC, but plain silly.

There're many developing economies in the world today, but they're never being compared with USA, Japan, or developed economies because all developing economies other than China looks poor, and so it's obvious that we shouldn't compare them.

China is poor, even if it's the 2nd largest economy in the world. Even when it's the largest economy in the world, she couldn't consider herself rich. She's quite poor. Not dirt poor as she once was 3 decades ago, but still quite poor relative to any developed economy. This is where most of the confusion comes from.

Folks are probably ignorant about the difference between GDP and GDP per capita.

I heard many people stated that China is the 2nd richest country in the world. They're the 2nd biggest, not the 2nd richest. Far from it.

Imagine there are 2 households. One is occupied by a Japanese called Mr. Honda. Honda is 50 years old and is a white collar worker. His weekly income is 3000 USD. The other household is occupied by 11 people, headed by Mr. Wang, and their combined weekly income is 3010 USD.

While I might say Mr. Honda is doing well, I wouldn't say the same for Mr. Wang's household. In fact, Mr. Wang household is pretty poor even if their combined income is larger than Mr. Honda.

China's population is approx 11 times larger than that of Japanese, but its GDP is only 10% larger.

Question: So why is it that we tend to focus on the GDP rather than per capita GDP?

Well outsiders looking into China only interested in GDP. Say, if you're an oil company, you're only interested in China's GDP, not GDP per capita. This is true for many other companies. The total GDP represents big total imports. Furthermore, this figure grabs attention. "China is going to overtake USA to be number one soon" grabs headline. On the other hand, "China's per capita GDP ranks 83th in the world in 2013" doesn't grab headline. We hardly pay attention to number 5. Why we care about 83th?

Within China, individual is only interested in per capita GDP because this reflects their standard of living. Absolute GDP means nothing to them, except maybe as an insult (like the poor citizen of America on the streets whom were being told that America's the world's richest. Quite a slap on the face, isn't it?).


Question: Does it matter if China is viewed as a developing or developed country?

Firstly, knowing China's stage of economic development will lead to less distorted views and confusions.

Secondly, if you're a developed country, like a teen grows up to be an adult, you'll have to take up responsibility that you wouldn't need to otherwise.

Some people - such as U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton - said China shouldn't call herself a developing country, and so she needs to take up many global responsibility of a developed country like USA or Japan.

Well, is China a developed (and not a developing) country like some say she is?

If you take a trip to first tier Chinese cities like Beijing, and Shanghai you will see more gleaming supertall skyscrapers than there're in New York, USA. Roads are choked with cars. The cars to bikes ratio is 9:1. The public transport here - especially trains - are far superior than those in any English speaking country (the low level of development of public transportation like high speed rail in English speaking countries of Australia, Canada, NZ, UK, and USA are due to their car culture). If you look at her military power and cutting edge hardware, it nearly matches those of USA, and in some cases, surpasses Russia's.

There're many more supertall skyscrappers in Shanghai than New York
NY built most of them in the early part of 20th century, when USA was in the
similar economic development stage as China today. With 21st century
technology, buildings can soar much higher.
Photo: Wikimedia

Any tourist who comes to the 1st tier Chinese cities will quickly conclude that if China is a developing country, then USA is an underdeveloped country. Nothing could be further than the truth.

Just take a trip to any 3rd tier cities -by the way only the 2 cities I mentioned above are 1st tiered - which are much more numerous, the ratios of cars to bikes are reverse. I.e. there're some 90% bikes, and only 10% cars on the road.

In fact, you don't even have to go to 3rd tier cities, simply travel about 50 km from Beijing, and you'll see villages in abject poverty.

But there's what you can see as tourists. What you can't see are the more important stuff in life like health care, social welfare, and education. Only the most basic of these structures exist in China. It's a very long way to catch up with any developed country.

In short, China caught up with USA in hardware like military weapons and infrastructure (in quite a number of cases, China surpasses USA's). As far as the more important software of social safety net, health care and education, China lags far behind USA. Yes, U.S.'s health care isn't good relative to other OECD countries, but still far ahead of China. That's how far behind China is in this important area. Health care, social welfare and education is really where a country should be measured if it's a developing country or not. After all, Thailand has an aircraft carrier. Nobody is calling Thailand a developed country. Many poor countries also have weapons that are too expensive for their economies.

High speed rail. This is one area of technical development where China is ahead of U.S.A.
As China can build many more taller buildings, they can build many more faster trains because both of
these  are built today, not yesterday. U.S.A built them yesterday. USA was ahead, that's why it's behind.
Source: wikimedia
Once again, this extreme of the well developed 1st tier cities compare to the underdeveloped areas of the 2nd and 3rd cities; the extreme of the relative well developed coastal economic zones compares to the underdeveloped hinterland, you get a very distorted picture of China if you look at the one extreme only.

If you add the lack of these 3 important social systems that I just mentioned to the list of typical issues of a developing country up the top, you're looking at an unquestionably a developing country.

Hilary Clinton once said, "How do you talk tough to your banker?”. This refers to the fact that China is the biggest buyer of U.S.'s treasury bonds. The fact that China is the creditor of one of the world's richest country, China is therefore must be richer. Seems to make sense. Only the rich is able to lend to the poor, and not the other way round.

Wrong!

A large group of thrifty blue collar workers (read China) will have enough saving to lend to a spendthrift white collar worker (read Uncle Sam). The problem is that Chinese save too much and American save too little.

The bottom line is that U.S. per capita income or average income per head ranks 9th in 2013 according to IMF. China ranks 83th. It's far below that of the debt-ridden Greece which ranks 36th, or Chile which ranks 46th, or Costa Rica which ranks 67th. Even the African country of Botswana's average income ranks higher than China's. I think that qualifies that the average Chinese is poor. This is one of the paradox I'm talking about. China is more than capable of sending financial aid to Botswana (they probably do).

The reports of Chinese wealth are greatly exaggerated (at least greatly misunderstood).

This is yet another irony that distorts the real picture of China's wealth. People who call China a developed country simply want her to take up global responsibility of a developed country. IMF lists China as a developing country for 2013 (status for 2014 isn't available as the year isn't over yet. But her developing country status should stay the same for at least a decade or two). China's leaders would of course repeatedly insisting that she's a developing country with much internal issues to take care of before the rest of the world. They're certainly not saying this without justifications. May I remind you of the (not an exhausting) list of internal issues that China faces today as a developing country.

These developing issues, while it's internal, will have impacts on the world because of her size. So China's taking care of herself isn't all her own business. One simple example, CO2 emissions.

Chinese lunar rover Yutu
Chinese lunar rover Yutu on the moon
Photo source: wikipedia
Chinese accomplishments in space exploration also adds yet another confusion that China is very modern and advanced. While USA blasted into space and landed on the moon in 1969, American society had many social issues from racism to gender inequality, to name just two, back on earth. When they say, "Houston we have a problem". They may very well have referred to social problems on the Land of the Brave. Except, it was not a problem. But problems aplenty.

U.S. astronaut on the moon
U.S. astronaut on the moon
Photo source: Wikimedia
China is very much like USA in the 1950s before the Lunar landing. I don't mean China has racism and gender inequality issues (history can't be studied so easily), I'm saying that China is similar to USA in the 1950s in at least 2 important fundamental ways. That science and technology is always moved ahead first because they're easy.

JFK said USA went to the moon not because it's easy, but because it's hard. Well, it's hard in the 1960s. Much more importantly, while it's hard, scientific and technological development is always easier than economic development. And social and social programs development is harder still. So China today is USA in the 1960s both in terms of space exploration and the social aspects. Well, Chinese still hasn't landed on he moon, but its technology relatively isn't far behind that of USA.

Chinese social and economic development is at a similar stage as USA in the 1950s, Japan in the late 1960s, South Korea in the late 1980s, and Taiwan in the 1990s. In 3 or 4 decades, China should catch up with them all (of course, none of these countries are standing still).

All societies change over time. They differ in speed of change. At this stage, China is a growing teenage while OECD countries, for example, are evolving.

This aspect where scientific and technological progress leads economic and political progress, and with social and cultural progress finishes last is not a story of China, but a story of Humankind. Not all things move at the same pace. People always move slower than machines. I guess because we're more clever than we're wise. In science and technology, we have precise questions and answers, in the human areas, we're usually faced with many answers with a single question.

Military and/or technological developments are the worst indicator of a nation's progress and prosperity. Take DPRK, where majority of her citizens don't even own televisions, and yet her nuclear weapon development is more advanced than Australia's. India is capable of sending spacecraft to Mars. Australia isn't even remotely possess such capability right now. The world doesn't envy the technological achievements of DPRK or India in this area, but they envy the success of Australia in almost every other area of human enterprise.

Having said that China's social and economic development is similar to the U.S. in the 1950s, but China also has extensive development in the IT technological developments of internet and smart phones. There're more internet and smart phone users in China than there're people in USA. Information technology is something that's part of the industrialisation of the manufacturing industry. To put it in another way, when the West in the same stage of economic development, they didn't have internet and smart phone. In China both of these development occurred concurrently. So China's development is quite unique. More confusion for one to try to understand China's development.

In other words, when the West industrialised, nobody there to tell the West to take up global responsibilities (and they didn't. They acted like unruly children during the Industrial Revolution. Waged wars at the drop of a hat).



Like any teenager, China learns by imitating, copy from adults. Only when she becomes an adult that she knows how to lead, innovate and provide example for other teens. Just as the 1st stage of our learning is the acquiring of easy "hard skills" like tying shoelaces, shaving (face or legs depending on gender. Ok, doesn't depend on sex), riding a bike, etc. The 2nd stage is the mastering of difficult "soft skills" of winning friends, job hunting, dating, etc. So too a country's development is divided into 2 stages.

The 1st part of a typical economic industrialisation / modernisation is the development of a country's "hardware" like infrastructures, technology and hard power of national defence, and the 2nd stage is the development of the country's "software" of social programs and soft power of cultural and political influence. China is nearing the completion of the 1st stage and is embarking on the 2nd stage. The 1st stage took some 30 years, the 2nd stage will take at least that long, if not longer. I suspect longer - sorry if I repeat - because we're more clever than we're wise. Because human affairs are much more messy than science and technology.

Even David Letterman was confused about China when he joked in his show on the news that when China sent her first man to walk in space, USA had done so decades ago. I'm sure that Letterman wouldn't make the same joke if the country in question is, say Thailand or Botswana or even India. Of course, China being the 2nd biggest economy did give him an excuse to make the joke. Once again, China's size trumps her developing status.

All that silver lining hides a cloud.

Michelin Man in Ghostbusters
Giant Michelin Man terrorises ordinary folks
There's good consensus that the Scandinavian societies are the most developed in the world. They're certainly don't top the world in scientific, technological, or military developments. It's their social developments that made them the most developed countries in the world as it should be. This advanced status is ultimately measured by their citizens' content, and they have the highest happiness index in the world.

Having said that, because of her size, while China is without a doubt a developing country (according to IMF and other similar organisations), but she's an exceptional one (I'm not talking about China exceptionalism). The long list of China's historical firsts above stated that clearly.

The people want her to take up the global responsibility should say that she is an exceptional developing country. She is big enough to shoulder some of the responsibility, which she has. For example, China has a largest UN peacekeeping force, and sending aid to Africa.

Call her an exceptional developing country, don't call her a developed country, that's just plain wrong on many levels.

Like the story of the Blind Men and the Elephant. When one of the 5 blind men touches the ear of an elephant, he says the elephant is soft and feels like a fan or a lotus leaf. Another touches his tusk and says an elephant is smooth and hard like marble. The other three touches different parts of the elephant and come back with different views of an elephant.

To see the whole of China, one just needs to look at all parts of it. A single view - like China is the largest foreign creditor of USA - gives a false picture because China can lend a lot of money to USA and therefore the average individual Chinese must be very rich. This conclusion is like only looking at only the elephant's tusk, and think this is what the whole of elephant looks like.

People live outside see only China's hardware and judge her accordingly. They don't see her software (or the lack of it).

Don't judge a country by its cover (of hardware).


{* Ideology *}

This is another source of confusion. Some people say China is a capitalist country that pretends to be a socialist while others call China a totalitarian dictatorship. Well, it's neither but has elements of these extremes.

It's true that Mao was a dictator like Kims of DPRK where the paramount leader rules for life, and even passed that rule to their kid. Maybe that's where the confusion comes from. China is no longer the case since Deng Xiaoping took charge and reformed the system.

Deng Xiaoping
"Doesn't matter if a cat is black or white,
if it catches mice, it's a good cat"

Since Deng Xiaoping, Chinese presidents were elected every 5 years, and a maximum of 2 terms in office. China had 4 leaders in the last 3 decades since Opening-up and Reform in 1978.

PRC likes to think that the way leaders of CCP (Chinese Communist Party) move up the rank according to meritocracy (as supposed to democracy where national leaders are chosen according to popularity, not ability). CEO is appointed by the board of directors, which is an elite group in a company. The Chinese president is more like a company CEO than a democratic president.

Many political campaigns during elections in the West like to see itself run their countries as like a company, and calling it This Inc or That Inc. In reality, they can't. Corporations aren't democracies. That's why companies are so ruthlessly efficient and competitive - the only way to stay in business.

Because China also has market economy where many aspects of it aren't under its total control, so China is neither a totalitarian nor a dictatorship state. However, it's an authoritarian state, but not a totalitarian state (with emphasis being total control).

Question:  Is PRC just a capitalist country with Communism in name only?

First of all, since Deng Xiaoping, China has direct election at the village level.

Second, while the CCP is at the helm, it understands overwhelmingly that its legitimacy lies at the heart of delivering economic prosperity. Or to put it another way, Chinese people, because of its Confucian culture, as a whole, they don't demand democracy (nor understands it as the West does). CCP offers something far more similar to Confucianism, which is collectivism (as supposed to democracy, which is individualism). Chinese people is much more interested in the rule of law (as supposed to rule by law, aka rule of man or rule by decree).

Judge Bao
Judge Bao (包青天)

There're many remakes, adaptations, and re-runs of period dramas based on Judge Bao, who's a very popular Chinese historical figure. Magistrate Bao Zheng (包拯) lived during the Song dynasty (can be seen in his official headgear and costume). He's better known as Bao Qing Tian (包青天), meaning Bao The Clear Sky. So called because he put justice above all else. He even placed the Imperial Court family members who broke the law under the guillotine in his court. This idea of the rule of law already had taken root in the Song dynasty during 10th to 12th century China. Chinese audience love to see powerful corrupted officials go under the guillotine. Who doesn't?

Scenes from Judge Bao executes Prince Consort Chen Shimei. Turn on caption for English subtitles.



The Chinese popularity of Justice Bao was the appeal of the ideal of the rule of law. Chinese popular mass has no issue of having an emperor as long as he's a good one (for this reason, they have even less issue with a one-party system. The Western educated would - I should say, may - have a very different opinion). And the only thing to ensure that happens is rule of law where nobody - not even the emperor - is above it. Dictatorship is above the law by definition in whatever form it takes.

To save China from deterioration into oblivion, Deng replaced market economy with the very inefficient communist central planning economy. Karl Marx was out, Adam Smith was in. In the early 1980s, when I arrived in the relatively empty and spacious (made more so by its emptiness) Tiananmen Square. There were only a handful of tour coaches there. The 2 giant portraits of Marx and Engels hung high in the sparse square. In the 1990s, when I visited there again, they were was gone. Only portrait of Sun Yat-Sen remained. That's telling, isn't it? I think they should put portrait of Deng in place of Marx and Engels. I suspect that Deng instruct the communist party not to do it. He was the man of low profile and high achievement (the exact opposite of Mao when he attached huge historical importance to himself). Mao portrait is still there. I'm looking forward to a day when his portrait comes down. Why not? The Russian had reverted the city name of Leningrad back to St. Petersburg.


Portraits of Marx and Engels, Tiananmen Square
Portraits of Marx and Engels in Tiananmen Square during National Day Parade
Photo Source: University of Southern California

The question of CCP's legitimacy based on economic results, which in terms based on capitalism. So in that sense, Chinese Communism and Capitalism are so totally intertwine that you can't separate the two.

While politically, Communism claims Chinese government to be a socialist state; ideologically, socialism is about a classless society. China today is anything but a classless society. Economically, China has huge income gaps, meaning not only there're classes, they're a wide gulf between the rich ad poor. Socially and culturally, Chinese is the most class conscious society in the world bar none. So in that sense, Chinese is the as opposite of socialism as any country can get.

Even America, which has a large income disparity - meaning a large gap between social classes - is more classless than China, culturally speaking. Because in USA, while social classes exist, they aren't proud of that fact. Equality is encouraged. In China, people are proud of class distinction like that of Britain in the Victorian Era. This ties in with the important face culture. Hopefully, this ugly face (pun intended) of China is also a passing phase. Places like Hong Kong shows this too be the case. In the younger generation, the face thing has less importance in the HK people's lives.


the beverly Hillbillies


This extreme face phenomenon is probably prevalent among the first couple of generations of parvenu (newly rich) in any culture/society where they move from rags to riches overnight. The U.S. sitcom Beverly Hillbillies was about the that. This sitcom was originally aired in 1962 to depict the unique socioeconomic class of its days. China's economic success story today is not unlike the 1950s and 60s in America as I mentioned before. And so we see the rise of this similar socioeconomic class today.

The more things change the more it stays the same.

Also, in a drive to be competitive economically and win overseas investments, Chinese sweatshops are well known. This occurs because of the very weak - practically non-existent - trade unions, which fight for the workers' rights. This weak worker unions run counter to the very heart of socialism. In this and many other respects, China is much less socialist than many Western countries, especially what happened to USA in 2008.

In the class struggle of the socialist utopian, the workers are the winner. In the post-Mao China, workers have little powers. The alternative to these sweatshop was starvations in the millions under Mao. This is the lesser of the 2 evils.

At least, this is a transition phase as Chinese economy moves up the value-added chain. The sweatshops would gradually move to countries of S.E. Asia like those in Indochina as China moves into the more middle income economy.


Chinese sweatshop
Chinese sweatshop

So socialism, as a political ideology, is dead in China. Communism, as a political governing body, is very much alive in China.

Once again, China sits between dictatorship and democracy. It's the first communist country with a very successful market economy. It's an authoritarian government with grass-root democracy. It's a socialist system that rooted in traditional class structure. All these are oxymoron that makes China such a bewildering entity. When you think about it, how can anyone understand China?

Once again, China is changing very fast. Take for example, when Jim Rogers wanted to ride his motorcycle across China in the early 1980s, he had to ask for permission from the government. But that's not too bad. During the Mao Era before 1980s, if you wanted to travel in China, you will be "accompanied" by a communist cadre at all time. Today, the government doesn't give a damn about such travel. In fact, many Chinese people travel overseas. They're the largest group of tourists.

Everything I say in this article won't be true tomorrow. Of course, every country changes, and just speed up that change about 8 times, and you get an idea of the changes in China.

Chairman Mao was quite fanatical in pursuing what he believed was an socialist utopian. He ended up in creating a hellish dystopia where its economic implosion killed millions. If Mao succeeded, it would be a world of equality of poverty. Not just poverty in material, but in intellectual, spiritual faculty.

Mao was so fanatical about ideology that he wasn't just risk the economy of China, but also his relationship with the red comrades of Soviet Union.

Deng had no time for ideology that experimented with the lives of 1/5 of the world population. He cared more about China than some untested political experiment, which clearly failed (not just in China). He wanted China to recover from that nightmarish dystopia that Mao created with whatever means necessary. If he needed his enemy's tool of capitalism to achieve it, he wasn't going to let the political bullshit to stop him.

His result was a combination chowmein of what China it's today. If there's a name to call the "ideology" or "ism" that China is undergoing today, it's Pragmatism or Whatever-Work-Ism.

Most of all, China is a Work-In-Progress. So whatever view we've formed today of China should be ready to change at a moment notice. One should expect that from any teen.

Of course, all countries undergoing process of change. For example, the U.S. democracy is seemingly evolving into plutocracy. It's just in China, changes occurs at a breakneck pace.

While we don't know what our kids are growing up to be, the kids themselves however have their own aspirations like becoming an astronaut, police, cook, DJ, scientists, janitor, window cleaner, etc. There's no secret that China is aspiring to be the next Singapore right now. A system that the West calls Benevolent Dictatorship.  For me, a different oxymoron that I coin, Confucian Democracy, describes Singapore system more closely.


{* The National Self Image *}

One of the thing of being a teenager is how big a deal their identity is. And China is wrestling with that issue as any growing teen. Who Am I? That question couldn't be answered without looking at the past. Indeed, for teen, nothing looms larger in their psyche than their past. Well, that's also true for adult, but much more so for teen because their past, by its very nature, is very recent.

Martin Jacques hit the nail on the head when he repeatedly emphasizes the idea of China being a victim of the history in the 19th and 20th century, especially those of WW2 because it's closer in time. One might say that WW2 occurred some 7 decades ago. Wound takes time to heal, but it shouldn't take that long.

Sometimes the healing process was ignored, or skipped over. Ask any psychologist, they will tell you that if you neglect to deal with the issue right away, it will come back to bite you later.

With China's closing herself off from the rest of the world in the decades of 1950s to 1970s while Chairman Mao was on the helm, she didn't have the opportunity to work on this emotional issue, and so it's healing just being delayed. In fact, in an effort to reduce diplomatic isolation, there was an effort on the part of Mao to minimise the historical scar of Sino-Japanese War.

With the Opening-Up in 1978, China is in contact with the rest of the world, and is once again giving the chance to deal with the issue of victimhood. In fact, it didn't really deal with that issue in the first decade of Opening-Up because the economic engagement was the most urgent issue. Make money before dealing with psychological issue seems like a appropriate priority. She didn't really started to seriously tackle this issue until the 1990s. So China really only begun to deal with the scar of WW2 from the 1990s while the rest of the world had dealt with it immediately afterwards. And it took the world a few decades to get over the pains of WW2.

A teen who was victimised will feel very insecure, and becomes quite defensive of any criticism. being defensive or have neurosis is characteristic of any teen being bullied by others. This feeling of victimhood is particularly strong if you considered yourself the most powerful country in the world. The higher you're, the harder the fall. So the shame of victimhood that she feels is particularly intense.

Many teen angst she feels today had roots that going back to this shame of victimhood. This is evident from the territorial disputes with many neighbours, especially Japan, the absolutely uncompromising attitude that Taiwan is part of her, and the building of military might.

The Diaoyu Island is nothing but a small rock in the ocean, like a small piece of rock in her shoe, it can be very uncomfortable, and hard to ignore.

The territorial disputes bring up humiliated memories of territories (Manchuria, Taiwan, HK, Macau) being taken away by foreign powers, especially that of Japan. The arm build-up is simply a way of saying to the world, no more invasion of China by foreign forces. You can't bully me any more.

Of course, no country in the world today would be crazy enough to do so, but the shadow of the past looms large. Try to tell people who have issues in the past to see things clearly. It isn't always easy. It takes time.

This also led to a large amount of anti-Japanese war movies being made in Mainland China. Instead of making movies that are tastefully done to address these issues, most were of ridiculous quality that were done to simply cash in on those sentiment. The low standard of these qualities were made to appeal certain section of the Chinese audience. Devils on the Doorstep (2000) is one of the better one that addressed the issue in a fairer way.

To grow, one needs to learn to deal with the pain of the past.

A teen who remembers being bullied many time before will feel safer with a weapon in her hand even if she isn't going to use it. This military build-up also serves the double purpose of restoring the feeling of superiority that was lost during the Qing dynasty in the 19th century. Sometimes you see the term "re-emergence" of China used in the media, rather than "emergence" of China to remind us about her dominant past. This re-emergence is the rebirth, restart or reboot of China in the modern history.

What is not misunderstood is the authoritarian government of PRC, and its human rights records (not that USA is free of it). But even that is changing like everything else in China, albeit not as fast as one would like. Many under-developed and developing countries do have human rights issues while developed countries have much less.


{* The New China *}

Let's add yet another layer of confusion. While she is a young industrial nation, and from this standpoint, Australia - only few hundred years old - is an industrial granny. In fact, it's a post industrial, meaning it has died and reincarnated in a different form. China on the other hand is still on the middle phase of industrialisation / modernisation.

China is both very young and very old

Ancient civilisation will try to modernise themselves in the last 2 centuries. Turkey had Mustafa Kemal Atatürk to give Turkey a new leaf from the moribund Ottoman Empire, given its citizen the Roman alphabets, and separating State from Religion. China had Dr. Sun Yat-Sen who brought China into republicanism. Turkey's path to modernity wasn't as rocky as China, who had several early teetering steps as most toddler learn to walk. With May 4th Movement, Maoist Communism, and the Opening-Up in 1978, China is in Modern Reboot Version 3.0. Modern China had been reborn in the May 4th Movement, and currently, it had grown into a teenager -  a nation younger than nearly all countries in the West.

We love to lecture teenager because of their many shortcomings, because she's an easy target for pot-shots. Before we do that, remember we adults were like that once when we were kids.

Before the modern world arrived - marked by the Industrial Revolution - Chinese culture venerated everything old and traditional. And so she couldn't adapt to modernity, and died of old age. The China's Old Way is clearly reflected in her language (read my article about the New vs Old, Chinese vs English).

In the modern world, this modus operandi just doesn't cut the mustard. The "ruthless" Modern Age is rejuvenated by innovation, renewal and progress.  Without this rejuvenation - the veneration of the old while nostalgic for the old schooled, and old fashioned -by any society will be left behind in the 21st century. In our times, constant is as welcoming as stagnant water. China could either reborn as a new civilisation, or died of an old one, which she already had.

Having said that, an extreme abrupt total disconnect to the old ways is also a disaster. This could be seen with the many revolutions brought about by Mao. Nothing in those revolution borne any resemblance to the Chinese culture. In fact, it was supposed to overthrow Chinese culture. We want change, but not a wholesale uprooting of a civilisation with some externally imported, untested, experimental ideology. This shock therapy is insane (pun intended). The experiment failed miserably.

Japan, on the other hand, is a pretty successful marriage of the Old and New, East and West. This amalgamation of both worlds makes Japanese culture rather weird and wonderful to the gaijin.

So China is both very old, and very young the same time. This also creates more paradoxes and contradictions (as if it's not enough already) for how people want to understand China. And because China is still growing, even China doesn't know where she's going herself. How do the rest of us expect to know what she becomes in the future when we don't even know who she is now?

There's another good reason to study China as a developing/ industrialising country because in the next few decades, many countries - especially the BRIC countries - will move ahead in a similar way as China, exerting their influence on the world stage, creating a new world order (don't you love these 3 words?). By then China won't be an exception. But it's still an exception because it's the biggest of the march of several important teenagers growing up, and taking charge.

This century is the Century of the Developing Countries (some call the 21st century the Asian Century because most of the largest of these developing nations are in Asia). For the first time in modern history, some of the world's largest economies are going to be developing economies. In the top 10 list of the largest economies, half will be developing nations, The world economic prosperity would be more balanced, and more sane. Instead of the lopsided situation where 10% of the world's population own 90% of the world's wealth.

Despite all the developing issues or growing pains of China, we glue our attention to China because we don't live for the past, we live for the future. As much as the impact China has on the world right now, her impact will be more (for better or worse) in the future that's proportional to her growing economic size. And so we have to be keen to find out what China is going to be like when it grows up in a few decades, in our next one or two generations.

In summary, if you think you know China very well, then you don't. If you say you don't understand China at all, then you do. Understand?



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