China in five minutes?

Is it really possible to understand China in five minutes or less?  Of course not.  I just wanted to get your attention.

I’m not sure anyone on the planet truly understands China, even those who devote their entire lives to it.

What this blog WILL do is help you do is improve your understanding of 21st century China, five minutes at a time.  Let’s start with three key facts:   

1. China’s economy has grown faster than any in history

Over the last few decades China has grown from a backward economy mired in poverty to the second largest economy in the world. 

The total size of an economy is often measured by its Gross Domestic Product (or GDP, the total value of all goods and services produced within a country’s borders).  According to the World Bank, in 1980, China’s GDP ($.19 billion) was only 6% the size of US GDP ($3,200 billion).  By 2018, China’s GDP had grown to be 66% as large as the US ($13.6 trillion vs $20.5 trillion). 

In the fastest period of US growth (the late 19th and early 20th century), US GDP grew by about 4% a year, and America passed Great Britain as the largest economy in the world.  By contrast, according to another World Bank report “Since initiating market reforms in 1978, China’s…  GDP growth has averaged nearly 10% a year—the fastest sustained expansion by a major economy in history—and more than 850 million people have lifted themselves out of poverty… Although China’s GDP growth has gradually slowed since 2012, as needed for a transition to more balanced and sustainable growth, it is still relatively high by current global standards.”

Some experts predict that China’s GDP will pass the US within the next ten years.  By many economic measures, China has already passed the US.  It is already the world’s largest producer of computers, cell phones, ships, steel, aluminum, furniture, and clothing, among other things.

However, as noted by the World Economic Forum even when China’s GDP is the largest in the world “In order to surpass the US’s highly diversified economy…there’s more to do: China still needs to make the all-important transition from a resource-intensive manufacturing hub to a modern, consumer-driven economy.”

The details of this remarkable growth, including the question of whether China can maintain this pace, will be discussed in a number of future posts.  For now it is worth noting the result of its remarkable growth, according to Harvard Professor Graham Wilson in his ominously titled book Destined for War, (p. 6):  “The world has never seen anything like the rapid, tectonic shift in the global balance of power created by the rise of China.”

2. The Chinese Communist Party seems firmly in control

China has 5,000 year history dominated by “one person” or “one party” rule.  As Confucius said:  “There cannot be two suns in the sky, nor two emperors on the earth.”

The current leader, Xi Jinping, became the general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and President of the People’s Republic of China in 2012.  Xi is scheduled to turn power over in 2022 after two five year terms, but some wonder whether he will.

The CPC has control over daily life in a way that would be unthinkable in the US, including where people live, the work they do, where they travel, what they are allowed to read, and even when or if they can become pregnant.

There is strict censorship of books, magazines, newspapers, and even the internet.  Nearly a million people are employed to maintain China’s “Great Firewall” which controls what its citizens can see on the internet, and what they can’t. 

For example, if anyone within China searches the internet for “Tiananmen Square” they will see pictures of happy tourists visiting such sites as the Great Hall of the People and the Memorial Hall of Chairman Mao, where Mao Zedong’s body lies in a crystal coffin surrounded by fresh flowers.  What they will NOT see is any mention of the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square.   

Behind the Great Firewall, searching the internet will also uncover nothing at all about how Mao’s Great Leap Forward in the late 50s and early 60s caused the largest famine in human history, and the deaths of 36 million men, women, and children.   Nor will they find any mention of other events or ideas which censors deem to be contrary to the Party’s interests.

To cite another example of the CPC’s power, its Organization Department appoints Party members to almost every important post in China.  It does this behind closed doors, with no explanation of their process or criteria.  As Richard McGregor summarized the Organization Department’s impact in his excellent book The Party (p. 72): “ A similar department in the US would oversee the appointment of the entire US cabinet, state governors and their deputies, the mayors of major cities, the heads of all federal regulatory agencies, the chief executives of GE, Exxon-Mobil, Walmart, and about 50 of the remaining largest US companies, the justices on the Supreme Court, the editors of the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, the bosses of the TV networks and cable stations, and the presidents of Yale and Harvard and other big universities.”

While China experimented with a variety of reforms to loosen control in the last few decades, since 2012 when Xi Jinping took over, many reforms have been reversed, and new ways of controlling the population are being developed.  For example, “[China is currently making…] vast investments in big data and facial recognition technology to build a nationwide social credit monitoring system by 2020 to allow Beijing to keep tabs on jaywalkers, insolvent debtors, and political dissidents alike.”  (End of an Era, p. 10.)

Wait a minute.  This system will enable the government to track the day to day movements of every one of the 22 million residents of Beijing?  That makes 1984 sound like a safe haven for privacy seekers.

However, note that my bullet point above says “the CPC seems firmly in control.” Some experts believe that the combination of the challenges of slowing economic growth, combined with the Chairman Xi Jinping’s reversal of many reforms, will lead to change.  More on this in future posts.  (If you can’t wait, start with Carl Minzner’s book “End of an era: How China’s authoritarian revival is undermining its rise.”)

3. The cultural differences between China and America are so great that they can easily lead to profound misunderstandings and even to war

Samuel Huntington was the director of security planning for the National Security Council in the Carter administration and a Harvard Professor.  In his influential book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, he argued that “Culture and cultural identities… are shaping the patterns of cohesion, disintegration and conflict in the post-Cold War world” (p. 20).  The book includes many examples of critical differences between Western, Chinese, Islamic and other civilizations.

For a starting point, consider this table (adapted from Destined for War, p 140):

America China
Self-perception “Number one” “Center of universe”
Core value Freedom Order
View of government Necessary evil Necessary good
Form of government Democratic republic Responsive authoritarianism
Promotion of values Missionary No need to export values; other nations should look up to them
Foreigners Inclusive Exclusive
Solve problems Now In years, decades, or longer
Mechanisms of change Invention Restoration and evolution
Foreign policy International order Harmonious hierarchy

Examples and implications of these and other differences will be discussed in many future posts.  But it is important to note that Huntington’s book ends with this central conclusion:  “In the emerging era, the greatest threat to world peace… [will be] clashes of civilizations.”

I’d say more, but my five minutes are up.  I’ll use another five minutes in my next post.

6 thoughts on “China in five minutes?

  1. Another serious issue in Chinese society is the treatment of the Uighurs. And there is Tibet. The long term Chinese strategy in both cases seems to be ethnocide – dismantle the culture.


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