Economic development, political stability and international respect.

Author:Jia Qinngguo
Position:Contemporary China: The Consequences of Change

My assignment for this essay is to present the official Chinese perspective on issues related to China's domestic politics and U.S.-China relations in a Western academic style. This is a thankless task because it runs a high risk of displeasing both American readers for giving a sympathetic account of the Chinese official position and the Chinese government for failing to present its views accurately and effectively. I accepted the challenge because, as one who has lived extended periods in both countries, I feel a duty to narrow the perceptual gap between them, one that, unfortunately, has become wider in recent years. The Chinese official view has a large and sympathetic audience in China; Western readers should take it seriously, not merely as propaganda.

This paper will first present the official perception of the difficulties which confront China and the achievements it has made in overcoming them. An outline of the Chinese government's views on some important domestic issues follows. The final section describes its view on recent developments in U.S.-China relations.

Understanding China

Western public opinion has been very critical of China in recent years. The Western press is full of stories about China's problems with human rights, arms sales, environment, trade and corruption. Many people in the West especially in the United States have painted China as a totalitarian country making little progress towards democracy. The Chinese government regards this situation as most unfortunate, believing that this view greatly distorts China's situation and creates harmful suspicions and hostility toward China. It genuinely hopes that people in the West will take a realistic attitude toward China and begin to make efforts to understand its situation. While admitting that various mistakes have been made in its administration, the government believes that such mistakes are dwarfed by its achievements. Though China is still confronted with numerous problems, the government is confident that, with the assistance of the Chinese people, they can be overcome. In this process, the Chinese government hopes that people in the West will be understanding and supportive.

Understanding China should begin with an appreciation of the tremendous difficulties with which China is faced. To begin with, China has a huge population, according to a recent census close to 1.2 billion.(1) This presents a great problem in governing China. The most important task of any government is to insure that its people have enough food, housing and other essentials for survival. Such a large population complicates this task enormously This difficulty is compounded by China's low per capita endowment of natural resources. For example, while China has 22 percent of the world's population, it only has about 7 percent of the world's arable land. In per capita terms, that is about one-tenth of that of the United States and about one-third of the world average.(2) Moreover, despite the tremendous economic progress achieved since the founding of the People's Republic in 1949, especially since the adoption of the policy of reform and opening (gaige kaifang) in 1978, China is still a poor country. According to World Bank statistics, China's per capita GDP in 1993 was only $490.(3) Even when measured with the newly fashionable Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) method, China's per capita GDP is still quite low in comparison to other states. According to a September 1995 World Bank report on distribution of assets in 192 states and regions, China's assets per capita rank was 161.(4)

Furthermore, despite China's modernization efforts, China is still a relatively backward developing country Many of its factories are equipped with old fashioned machines. Its infrastructure is inadequate, and its financial structure is weak. The legal system is relatively immature. Most bureaucrats are inexperienced with management of a market economy, while over 70 percent of its population still live and work in the countryside. In short, much of its economy is still underdeveloped.

Finally, China is in the middle of drastic and fundamental socioeconomic changes. The economy is both growing rapidly and transforming as market reforms take hold. Many new opportunities have cropped up, while many old dreams have collapsed. In the process, people have found it difficult to cope with both the pace and nature of change. Historically, such changes have been accompanied by political turmoil and economic calamities.

These basic facts have profound implications for China's political and economic development and present many irreconcilable problems. For instance, the population is too large to be ecologically and politically sustainable.(5) However, controlling population growth requires competent administrative staff, as well as a system of punishments and rewards (such as pensions and cash rewards for the aged) backed up by sufficient resources. China has neither the qualified staff nor the necessary resources to accomplish these tasks. It is therefore confronted with a hard choice: It can continue with the present population control policy and face strong resistance from those who want more children and mismanagement of the policy by the unqualified administrative staffs; alternatively, it can give up the policy and face a range of problems resulting from excessive growth of population. Choice of the first course may lead to complaints about human rights. With the latter, ensuing problems may be attributed to its poor judgment and ineffective leadership.

As another example, all Chinese wish to catch up with the advanced countries so that they can live as comfortably as others and enjoy equal respect in international society. However, at present, China does not have the requisite resources, capital or technology to realize this dream. The sheer size of the country determines that foreign assistance will never be enough, nor have the rich countries historically been generous in providing China with such assistance. Nevertheless, any Chinese government hoping to enlist the support of the people must produce substantial results in narrowing the economic gap wit the West. Under the circumstances, it finds that it must ask and often compel the Chinese people to forego some current consumption so as to invest for the future. Such efforts make the already difficult lives of the Chinese people more unbearable and thus create frustration and political instability. Since political instability undermines economic development as well as government, Beijing is confronted with some hard choices: It can increase consumption and personal freedoms at the expense of development; alternatively, it can insist on development at the price of lower consumption and more political control. If the former option is taken, people will complain that it does not offer much of a future. If it resorts to the latter option, people will complain that it is unkind and undemocratic.

These are just two of the many catch-22s with which the Chinese government has been confronted. Under present circumstances, It is difficult for China to provide food, housing and other essentials for survival much less engage in meaningful economic development. In the future, it will be extremely difficult for it to catch up with the West especially with little external assistance. To do all this in a highly democratic and humane manner would be next to impossible. Democratic and humane government is preferable in theory though hard to put into practice. Take population planning for example. Under current circumstances, the government does not have the financial capability to provide adequate pensions for a large portion of the population and the traditional idea of securing one male child dies hard. Given a choice, many people are unlikely to limit child birth, even with much persuasion.(6) Some coercive measures have to be taken to control the population growth so as to avoid more serious ecological as well as developmental problems.

Similarly, on the question of capital accumulation for economic development versus short-term consumption, a hard choice has to be made. The Chinese government, acting in the best interest of the people, needs to give priority to accumulation while trying to attend to people's current consumption needs. However, given current harsh living conditions, political demagogues can easily incite popular opposition against the government and demand for higher consumption levels, jeopardizing China's economic development and creating political instability. If the Chinese government does not take firm measures to ensure political stability, China will never become modernized and the Chinese people will never see the day when...

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