China’s role in world history?

People sometimes want to make large statements about China’s future in the coming fifty years. These range from a Sinocentric paen — “The twenty-first century will be marked by a hegemonic China on the world stage”, to the dubious — “China’s polity will ultimately shatter under the pressures of regional inequalities and competing political interests among elites.” Generally speaking all these large claims seem a bit Hegelian to me; I don’t think we can make large predictions about the course of world history. So I don’t think that China’s role is pre-ordained.

That said, a few things seem fairly clear in China’s present, and these features have some implications for the future as well.

One is that China has embarked an a remarkable expansion of its university system in the past twenty years, and these efforts have turned the corner when it comes to the production of talented young people and significant, original innovations in science and technology. There are now something like 15 million university students in China, including a significant percentage in the elite national universities. This is something like a 15-fold increase in the past 30 years. China’s research centers in many areas of technology and engineering are world-class today, and they are getting better every year. This means that China will have the talent needed to confront almost any large technological problem. Think of the Great Wall, planned and implemented by a million talented new engineering graduates. For example, the concentration on optoelectronics in Wuhan in universities, research centers, and private companies seems to make it highly likely that China will be a leader in this field in the future. So the idea that many in the West have that the universities in Europe, Australia, or North America are of higher quality, or that the research that takes place in the West is more innovative, seem to be based on wishful thinking rather than sober factual analysis. If the West has an edge in any of these areas today, it is one that is likely enough to disappear in the medium-term future.

It is also worth noting that there is a very high degree of exchange of talent between China and the West. Many of the scientists and leaders one meets in universities and research institutes have done some or all of their advanced training in the United States or the UK or have spent time there as post-doctoral students. I’m sure there are “styles” of Chinese research organization that are distinct from Western models. But there seems to be no reason at all to expect that the rate of new discovery in the future will be substantially different in the West and in China. And given that China is establishing a larger base of research resources, this seems to imply that the production of innovation will shift to China.

Second, and related to this first idea, China’s leaders and guiding ministries are very deliberately seeking to steer China’s economic activities up the value chain. Much of China’s growth in the past thirty years was based on low-wage manufacturing. But China’s leaders inside and outside of government are very explicit in their goals of shifting to higher-level goods and services — exactly the areas where European and American leaders hope to dominate. Moreover, China seems to be much more deliberate than Western governments about the need to invest in the infrastructure that will provide the basis of this transformation. China has invested massively in transportation, research centers, and universities throughout the country. These investments are synergistic: they make the next steps of high-end development multiplicative rather than additive. The coordination and cooperation that are facilitated by high-speed rail and air connections amplify the ability of researchers, planners, and entrepreneurs to bring their projects to completion. And the investment funds made available by further economic growth success in turn amplify the state’s ability, and the growing private sector’s ability, to make expanded investment in the following periods.

These factors would point us in the direction of expecting China to move to a position of global economic preeminence in a fairly short period of time. However, contemporary China has obstacles to further progress that are fairly large as well.

One of these handicaps is the governing party’s fundamental view of the appropriate flow of information within society. The government seems to take the position that it needs to carefully manage the access to information that the public is able to gain. Its willingness to censor the Internet for its citizens is a symptom of this view. Chinese society would be stronger if there were a fundamental rethinking of openness about information. And eventually China’s leaders will need to recognize that Chinese society is stronger, not weaker, when citizens can freely express their views and interests.

Second is the fact of persistent inequalities in Chinese society, by sector (rural-urban), by status (resident and well educated / migrant and poorly educated), and by region (coastal-western regions). These inequalities will eventually hold China back — they reduce the talent pool and they stimulate resentment and disassociation among the disadvantaged groups.

Third, government non-accountability and its cousin, corruption, create serious obstacles to effective forward progress. The apparent problems of accountability and perhaps corruption that came to light in the railroad ministry a few months ago cast a shadow about the integrity of the rapid expansion of high speed rail — from safety procedures to construction standards to administrative effectiveness. So more accountability and transparency will be needed in the future, or else China’s major aspirations will be frustrated by ineffective implementation.

These are fairly systemic factors that seem likely to impede China’s progress in the future. Here is a fact that will seem trivial by comparison, but I think it is not. It is the factor of traffic and pedestrian safety. Each city I’ve visited has a traffic environment that can only be described as barely constrained anarchy. Drivers cross four lanes of traffic to make an abrupt right turn; motor bikes roar up the inner lane in the wrong direction; traffic snarls to a stop when a bus gets sideways at an intersection; pedestrians try to make their way across eight lanes of non-stop vehicles; drivers hurtle towards pedestrians and bicyclists until they scatter. This sounds trivial (until you’re caught in the middle of those eight lanes of traffic), but it seems to reflect a more basic and important fact. Doesn’t sound urban planning involve careful design of a traffic system that keeps vehicles moving in the same direction; where pedestrians are largely separated from vehicles; and where signals and road design permit safe pedestrian crossing? And yet those rational plans seem not to have been developed in China’s cities. One possible reason is that China’s planners have simply not given sufficient priority to creating rules and structures that protect the public’s interests — whether in traffic control or in food safety. Build the buildings, stimulate the economic growth, and don’t worry too much about the consequences. If this is correct, it too indicates a feature that will interfere with China’s future development.

In brief, contemporary China seems to display dynamic properties that point in contradictory directions. On the one hand, any visitor can see the dynamic, fast-moving creativity and intelligence that are transforming China and its universities and businesses. On the other hand, there are barriers to “business as usual” development that perhaps set limits to how much further China can go without some important reforms. And it’s possible that the governing party may find those reforms to be unacceptable for one reason or another.

So the Owl of Minerva still has its wings quietly folded when it comes to China’s role in future world history. It remains for China’s people and its governing institutions to write the story.



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