China, the pretend superpower

The Baltimore Sun

PARIS -- Washington and the European capitals are all preoccupied with China's economic growth and expanding international influence and activities, taken as evidence that in the not-too-distant future China will become a superpower.

Washington thinks about China's becoming a military as well as economic superpower. The Europeans think about trade and economic competition. Both underestimate what it takes to become a modern industrial superpower. It requires a very high level of autonomous technological capacity, to begin with, as well as sophisticated and innovative industry to make use of it - both of which China today lacks.

The country is urgently educating the generation of scientists and technicians essential to its development, but they come back from studies abroad to an industrial base too limited to put them to proper use. China is a manufacturer of unsophisticated goods designed abroad. Its technology is derivative. Will this continue to be so? Possibly (see below).

Lester Thurow of MIT has recently published an analysis of official Chinese claims to 10 percent or higher annual industrial growth rates. He finds these claims incompatible with the objective evidence of such indices as electricity consumption, as well as with the historical evidence of development elsewhere. He estimates that the real growth rate is between 4.5 percent and 6 percent, neither of which will give China a superpower economy in this century.

And this is to take no account of the ecological devastation produced in China by uncontrolled and corrupt industrialization and development. Corruption tends to be the engine of development in China and essential to it.

Such growth forecasts also tend to ignore the massive, backward, impoverished and socially and politically restless Chinese agricultural population, and the likelihood - I would say the certainty - of a major and possibly revolutionary political crisis in China in the foreseeable future. This would derive from the inadequacies, corruption and ideological/political illegitimacy of a self-perpetuating ruling class, whose only claim to authority is its bureaucratic descent from the catastrophic Chinese Communist regime of Mao Tse-tung.

On the other hand, the Chinese government is seeking economic influence wherever it can find it, whether through foreign investments in advanced countries (financed from the overflowing funds furnished China by the trade indebtedness of the United States), or by its massive purchases of raw materials in resource-rich countries, preferably in places underdeveloped and generally unregulated.

This creates influence but also dependence and resentment, and eventual backlash - as is apparent already in some African countries, exploited and then abandoned by the Chinese, where local industry has also been destroyed by the cheap Chinese imports that were part of the Chinese economic embrace and program of resource exploitation.

What does this globalization reveal about China itself? A remarkable series of articles by a senior correspondent of Le Figaro newspaper in Paris, Francois Hauter, formerly stationed in that country, attempts to answer that question (among others). He writes about the two Chinas that coexist - the modern China displayed to foreigners and the hidden China where, he writes: "Nothing has changed in a quarter-century."

Mr. Hauter adds, "Where it lacks foreign partners, China seems fossilized. It remains Mao's China." He argues that this "aggressive passivity" is a poor augury. Where, he asks, "is the China that gave mankind paper, printing, the compass, gunpowder?"

How can China dream of rivaling the West without its lost creativity? Mr. Hauter writes: "Is China's genius now imprisoned in its current role of copyist for the West? Or is that the role we have forced upon it? This clearly is the important question about its future."

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist. His Web site is

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