China as a world economy

Let me assert this as powerfully as I can: we do not need to fear the Chinese. China will not dominate the globe.

Getting our knickers in a twist over China

Quite often on a Wednesday lunchtime I find myself conferring with my friend Rudi the sandwich man about the madness of Ken Livingstone, and his latest monstrous scheme for London. Rudi blames the congestion charge for pushing up his costs. I can’t stand the evil frankfurter buses that crush cyclists to the kerb.

This week, however, the newt-fancier has exceeded our wildest fantasies. Do you know how he has chosen to spend £1 million of our congestion charge cash? That crazy old Trot has bought in 100,000 doses of anti chicken flu medication, to be distributed, presumably, so that his key workers can continue to clamp cars and impose their poxy charges while the rest of us are expiring during the approaching epidemic.

It is a ludicrous waste of taxpayers’ money, and before you dismiss it as another case of Red Ken-ery, you should know that the madness has infected the Department of Health. They have drawn up a list of “elite” figures, mainly government ministers and BBC high-ups, who would be required to keep the country going in the event of the chicken plague, and who must therefore receive free doses of the wonderdrug.


What drives me mad is not that I am excluded from this list (opposition politicians, you will not be surprised to learn, are thought to be dispensable to the running of Britain), but that we are getting in a flap about a chicken disease which has killed a grand total of 57 human beings since it was detected in 2003, most of them Asian owners of fighting-cocks who chose to give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to their spifflicated birds.

To get these figures in proportion, as Ross Clark does in the current Spectator, you should know that nine million people are suffering from tuberculosis, of which two million will die in the next year, and half a billion people are suffering from malaria. So why are we scaring ourselves witless about this Asian fowl pest? Because it is all part of our new phobia about the Far East, and China in particular.

China is becoming in our imaginations the fashionable new dread, the incubator of strange diseases, a vast polluted landscape of Victorian factories where coolies sit in expectorating rows, nourished on nothing but rice and the spleens of pangolins, producing whirling typhoons of cheap bras and lingerie that race across the seas and reduce the native industries of the West to matchwood.

It has become a cliché of geopolitical analysis to say that China is the next world superpower, that the 21st century will belong to Beijing, and that we had better get in tutors to teach our nippers Mandarin if they are to make it in the new world order.

It is all stark staring nonsense, and founded on the same misapprehension as Peter Mandelson’s demented decision to slap quotas on Chinese textiles, so that the mouths of the Scheldt and the Rhine are apparently silting up with 50 million pairs of cut-price Chinese trousers. It is idiocy, and not just because it is unlike Mandy to come between a British woman and her knickers.

Let me assert this as powerfully as I can: we do not need to fear the Chinese. China will not dominate the globe. We do not need to teach babies Mandarin. Our Sinophobia is misplaced. Even with 1.3 billion people, and fast export-led growth, the Chinese have an economy smaller than Italy’s, but that is not really the point. World domination – superpowerdom – is all about hard power and soft power, military might and cultural impact.

Well, compared with the old British Empire, and the new American imperium, Chinese cultural influence is virtually nil, and unlikely to increase. Far from spreading overseas, as the English language has spread, and Hollywood has spread, Chinese culture seems to stay firmly in China.

Indeed, high Chinese culture and art are almost all imitative of western forms: Chinese concert pianists are technically brilliant, but brilliant at Schubert and Rachmaninov. Chinese ballerinas dance to the scores of Diaghilev. The number of Chinese Nobel prizes won on home turf is zero, though there are of course legions of bright Chinese trying to escape to Stanford and Caltech.

There are Chinatowns and takeaways all over the world, but in Britain the culinary impact of China is dwarfed by the subcontinent. The turnover for Chinese restaurants is about £282 million, compared with £2 billion for Indian restaurants. It is hard to think of a single Chinese sport at the Olympics, compared with the umpteen invented by Britain, including ping-pong, I’ll have you know, which originated at upper-class dinner tables and was first called whiff-whaff.

The Chinese have a script so fiendishly complicated that they cannot produce a proper keyboard for it. And how many people do you know who can speak even a sentence of Chinese? If global domination means anything, it must mean the spread of culture, language and mores, in the way of the Romans, the British, and the Americans. The Chinese aren’t even out of the paddock.

As for military might – hard power – our fears are again overdone. The Chinese may have 2.5 million men in uniform, but of the long-range missiles you need to be a global power Beijing can wield only 20, which would make for a pretty brief fireworks display if they came up against the Americans.

None of this, of course, is in any way intended to be disrespectful to the glories of Chinese culture: only that they are not in any way global or – and this is the point – intended to be global. The Chinese have neither the ability nor the inclination to dominate the world. They merely want to trade freely, and they should be encouraged.

The emergence of China and its integration into the world economy has been a major spur to growth and a deterrent to inflation. It is an unalloyed good, and it is sad to see our politicians responding with such chicken-hearted paranoia.

20 thoughts on “China as a world economy”

  1. Boris is self-deluded by his usual Come Off It act. The cliche about China becoming a superpower may turn out to be true after all, whatever the insular view from Britain may be.

    According to a report by Morgan Stanley, China and India (the so-called new Asian tigers) account for 40 percent of the world population and 18 percent of the global economy. Soon their share of world trade could match their population share. Their economies have been growing twice as fast as those of the rest of the world over the past two decades.

    If this growth trend continues India’s economy should be bigger than Japan’s in a decade and China’s should leave that of the US way behind.

    Difficult therefore to see how the US will sustain the Pax Americana over the next century when it is already suffering from global military overcommitment. (See what’s happening in stricken New Orleans, where 35% of the Louisiana guardsmen are over in Iraq.)

    The legend Made In China may become much more ubiquitous, even on cultural products. For all Boris’s sophistication, his opinion on China’s cultural impact might not be so different from Phil the Greek’s opinion of people with slitty eyes?

    (Mr Webmeister: this post doesn’t appear on the home page at the moment. I only noticed it because of the link from the previous post.)

  2. I think Kevin is being hard on Boris’s assessemnt of Chinese culture – I am no economist so have nothing to say on that front. (Actually I’m not too good on culture but what the hell…).

    I went to the PR of C some years ago on business. Before I went I was given an briefing. Firstly I was cautioned not to worry about hte lack of democracy – ‘they see things differently and it’s not for us to say otherwise’ (Phil the Greek’s comments seem positively affable by comparison). Secondly, as if to make up of the L of D, I was told that if you drew a line around all four walls of a room to show the history of Chinese civilisation then a line across one half a wall would represent British civilisation. This was meant to impress. But I couldn’t help reflecting that if you spent eight times as long and ended up with imperial Oriental despotism, transformed into Marxist despotism and industrial slaughter, then maybe the work put in on the half wall, ending up with a democracy, which was a constitutional monarchy, a state religion, which apologised for itself all the time, a free press, lots of which publishes rubbish, warm beer, toleration, beyond reasonable limits, of general fatheadedness, a comparatively racially and socially tolerant society, despite the best efforts of the multicultural zealots etc. etc. wasn’t half bad.

    This is not to criticise the Chinese people. I was recently given a leaflet by Chinese demonstrators against the Communist Party. Several million are trying to leave the CP. The hideous history of this organisation, known in part to most Chinese people, is now being made public. Many are now going to Western universities. The ideas they come across there don’t need to be ‘superior’ in any way – given some of our ‘liberal’ dons even dear old K Marx might seem strikingly relevant by comparison – but new ideas can break intellectual logjams. The old men are dying. Don’t be surprised if they start really pulling ahead on the second lap of the room!

  3. If the Chinese were in fact to come to dominate the world markets, with clothing made from locally manufactured textiles,( just as one example),it should not surprise anyone.

    The fact that they are able, and easily so, to produce goods at a fraction of the cost of the same articles made in the EU , transport them, (also no cheap undertaking) , to EU ports, and still severely undercut European made goods, must make a mockery of the much vaunted ” superiority ” of the West, of which we hear so much.

    No use screaming ” inferior quality” when that bastion of quality control; Marks amd Sparks routinely sell goods; made in all areas of the Far East; including that bogeyman of tomorrow , China. Japanese manufactured goods were decried as inferior when they first started exporting to the West: different story now , isn’t it?

    On top of all that; gangsters abounds in China, despite the practice of executing criminals, and although there is , at least on the surface , no apparent wholesale bribery of officials, it seems that the criminal fraternity have a strong foothold in the hierarchy of big business. It seems that we have Hobson’s Choice, particularly when it might seem, certainly to some,as if Mandelson could be moonlighting as a rep for the Chinese rag trade. He could , of course just be naive: couldn’t he?

    Call China a Paper Tiger at your peril: allowed enough leeway; all Morning Land economies will swamp the West. I am starting to learn Mandarin.

  4. Boris: “The Chinese have neither the ability nor the inclination to dominate the world. They merely want to trade freely, and they should be encouraged. The emergence of China and its integration into the world economy has been a major spur to growth and a deterrent to inflation. . . .”

    I agree with the core of Boris’s argument. The Chinese may be determined to defend what they see as the integrity of their borders (including Taiwan, Tibet and Chinese central Asia), but have little interest in dominating other areas of the world. They have a huge economic project underway and little interest in foreign adventures. China must be the most difficult country in the world to manage, because of over-population, limited infrastructure, environmental pressure, political instability etc. and they don’t need additional problems.

    However Boris has left out our number one problem with regard to China: climate change. China is dependent on coal for its energy. About 80 per cent of its electricity comes from coal (twice the global average). There are now plans for more than 500 new coal-fired power stations in China. This raises the prospect of massively increased CO2 emissions.

    (See http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/newsnight/4330469.stm )

    There is an urgent need to try to persuade the Chinese to change to other energy sources, or rather, since the Chinese are well aware of the issues, to help them find the best, most practical and economic alternatives.

    Some corrections of statements in Boris’s article:

    1. “Even with 1.3 billion people, and fast export-led growth, the Chinese have an economy smaller than Italy’s”

    This is only true in nominal terms. Using the more accurate and realistic PPP (purchasing power parity) GDP method by by the World Bank, China is the second largest economy in the world after the USA, about double the size of Japan in third place. (India follows, then Germany, then the UK.) China will become the world’s largest economy in the next 20 or 30 years – if it remains stable.

    (See http://www.worldbank.org/data/databytopic/GDP_PPP.pdf )

    2. “Far from spreading overseas, as the English language has spread, . . Chinese culture seems to stay firmly in China.”

    In fact, the Chinese diaspora extends all over SE Asia (where 20 million Chinese live) and there are Chinese communities spread around the globe (perhaps another 5 million). (Fortunately Chinese culture is fundamentally secular!)

    Far from ‘staying in China’, Chinese culture has been the basis of historical development in Japan, Korea and Vietnam. Chinese influence remains deep in the three countries. During the 20th century the normal pattern of Chinese dominance was reversed and China became (arguably) the weakest part of the region, but obviously China is already becoming much stronger in the 21st century.

    3. “high Chinese culture and art are almost all imitative of western forms . . . .”

    Strong objection. ‘High Chinese culture’ is expressed in Chinese literature, philosophy, history etc. The Chinese literary tradition is far longer and richer in its production than anything produced in any other part of the world. (A claim could be made for Chinese poetry being one of the greatest cultural achievements of mankind.)

    Young Chinese do also want to play classical music, study in western universities etc. This is a sign of the dynamic nature of the culture, it doesn’t mean that (like the States for example) there is a cultural void to be filled.

    4. “The Chinese have a script so fiendishly complicated that they cannot produce a proper keyboard for it.”

    This is a myth. Computerization has been a boon for the Chinese and Japanese (who use the same script plus syllabries). Input with an ordinary qwerty keyboard (with predictive programmes) is rapid. Keyboards can be re-mapped, though many people, maybe most people in east Asia, use American keyboards with the original mapping. My wife can key in Japanese on a qwerty keyboard considerably faster than I can key English!)

    Chinese is an uninflected, monosyllabic language. It is concrete and concise. Computerization has given people greater confidence in using the written language because active knowledge (the ability to write characters by hand) is now less important than passive knowledge (the ability to recognize characters). It’s rather like our use of spell checkers to cover up our bad spelling – but much, much more so.

    [P.S. China is a special ‘interest’ of mine as I have visited the country regularly since the late 1970s, have lived and worked there, and speak the language.]

  5. Kevin B

    Well spotted from the previous post! Movable Type does have an unexplainable time lag occasionally…not too frequently I hope

  6. Here’s my hunch. The Chinese will grow in economic power for a good while yet. They may overtake the West, just like the Japanese did in their day.

    Then their lifestyles will catch up with their enthusiasm. Wages will rise, productivity will slow down.

    Everything will level off for a bit until someone else comes along who can produce all our rubbish cheap enough.

    Who knows? By mid-century Africa might even get a chance.

  7. China and India lack oil. I read an argument that Bush’s main reason for invading Iraq was not so much to get hold of Iraq’s oil, but to prevent China and India doing so, because without it they can’t become Superpowers.

    They have, however, signed trading alliances with Russia and Brazil, and IIRC, Venezuela. All based on oil.

  8. MarkGamon: “The Chinese will grow in economic power for a good while yet. They may overtake the West, just like the Japanese did in their day. . . . Then their lifestyles will catch up . . . Wages will rise, productivity will slow down. . .”

    The problem with this scenario is that China has an immense hinterland. Unlike Japan, which is equivalent, very roughly, to two major European countries combined, China has 1.3 billion people. Compare this to Europe which has about 730 million (47 countries according to UN figures).

    Production can be shifted from one area to another as China industrializes (in practice from the eastern seaboard to the western interior), but still within China. This is in fact already happening.

    If the whole country ever does achieve European levels of productivity, consumption, living standards etc. – as Japan did – our world will be a different place.

  9. Boris is wrong about bird flu – dead wrong. Most major outbreaks of pandemic flu have started when a bird strain crosses into humans, including the Spanish flu of 1918 that killed more people than WW1.

    And no, it’s not just the elderly with only a couple more years to go that die – Spanish flu preferentially took out the young and fit, most likely due to transmission in barracks.

    The lethality of H5N1 flu is currently higher than any previous strain of flu including the Spanish flu. If it alters to become human/human transmissible (and it’s moving that way: look at the incidence graph over time), then there will be a worldwide pandemic, and many many people will die.

    We are looking down the muzzle of a gun, with the chance to try and disarm it by stockpiling antivirals and vaccines, and Boris wants to ignore it because hey, it’s only a few foreigners that have died so far.

  10. “it is unlike Mandy to come between a British woman and her knickers” – careful now B, that is likely to draw comparison with your own skills in that department.

  11. Boris’s article is interesting as usual, and i am always fascinated at the humourless element permitting themselves to get all upset about his comments. Boris is similar to Brian Sewell in that respect – a few strategically-placed, controversial [but playful] words, then waiting for the fuse to burn. [I suppose someone, somewhere, will find that distasteful].
    Amongst all those very serious issues, the only objection i can raise is about the trifling matter of calling the sport of table-tennis ‘ping-pong’. How does that grab you?

  12. I thought spifflicate was a word from the Goons but I found the following on Michael Quinion’s World Wide Words. Could be a hoax. I’m always making up stores about words

    http://worldwidewords.org/weirdwords/ww-spi1.htm

    The dictionary senses given for this now rather rare word hardly do justice to a slang term that has had several meanings. Its origins lie in the eighteenth century in Britain, though where its first users got it from remains a mystery. The experts hazard a guess that it was probably a fanciful conflation

  13. Since one of the original slang meanings was
    “To smash” , the american use of spiflicated, instead of that same word to convey a state of drunkenness ,was not too far a leap.

  14. Talking of smash ; I hear that Boris , in the company of one of his sons, did a fair job of spiflicating a valuable vehicle which he was ” test driving”. Not really news, but interesting nontheless.

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