Did a post earlier today, entitled, “China As Superpower. Yes Or No” on a “debate” between John Pomfret and China Comment regarding whether or not China will become a superpower. Got a comment to that post from Mark Anthony Jones, author of the book, Flowing Waters Never Stale, that is too long and too well thought out to remain as a comment. So I am taking that comment and putting it in a post here. Please note that all of the following is in Mr. Jones’s words, not mine:

Pomfret says that he isn’t a “China-basher” but one of his constantly reoccuring themes is that China will not become a “superpower” for a very long time, and so Americans need not live in fear of losing their global hegemonic status. I have a lot of problems with this kind of silly discourse.

Firstly, what is a “superpower”? The former Soviet Union was always described as a “superpower”, as one of the world’s “two great superpowers”, etc. Yet overall living standards there never reached the levels currently enjoyed by China’s growing middle classes. Consumer choice was always extremely limited, people enjoyed no free press, no parliamentary democracy, no real rule of law, etc. The Soviet Union was considered a “superpower” because of the threatening size of its military might, and because it used this might to spread its influence around the globe in direct competition with the United States, which also used its military might to spread its influence globally.

The United States, likewise, is “the” world’s “superpower” today because it maintains its global economic hegemony of the world – or at least it appears to. It is not, and never has been, as “superpower” based on its general living standards. If this were the only criteria used, then the United States would currently be ranked 12th down the list – and Norway would be the world’s “superpower” – that’s if we were to use the UN Human Development Index as our performance indicator.

Yet Pomfret argues that China will not only be any time soon emerging as the next world’s “superpower”, but that is even faces a possible collapse – because, he says, it faces too many internal contradictions that will act as fetters on its ability to further develop economically. A China “trapped in transition”, as Minxin Pei has similarly argued. Will Hutton also pushes this line of reasoning. Once the economy collapses, the population will rise and the CCP will be forced out of power – this is the scenario they constantly enterntain and clearly hope for.

Pomfret is right to point out these weaknesses, and it may be the case that they will be difficult to overcome – that they will prevent China from maintaining a speedy development, though China continues to climb up the UN Human Development Index, which is a positive sign.

Although Pomfret, Pei, and Hutton all get their facts correct, the picture they paint does not amount to a balanced one of China’s condition. Any purely negative account of China overlooks a lot of things that China is getting right, as Andrew Nathan explains: “the government has announced the abolition of both the household registration system, which blocked job-seeking peasants from enjoying full resident status in cities, and the ‘custody and repatriation’ procedure, under which the police randomly swept up and abused peasants and others who were living in cities illegally. It ended the grain tax, which contributed to the widening income gap between the countryside and urban areas. It is trying to shift more of the impetus for economic growth from export sectors to domestic consumer demand, partly by shifting more income to farmers and partly by improving the social safety net. In addition, Wen recently announced plans to provide free education nationwide through the ninth grade, improve health care in rural areas, and strengthen the protection of rural residents’ property rights” – though these last three objectives have yet to come to any real fruition.

Likewise, as Andrew Nathan also points out, Pei’s and Pomfret’s evidence that Chinese society has become more turbulent is not proof that the regime is in danger of collapse:
“An array of actors – nongovenmental organizations pressing for official action on issues such as HIV/AIDS and the environment, legal-aid offices helping migrant workers sue companies and the government, pensioners and laid-off workers petitioning for back wages and pensions, journalists embarrassing local officials with investigations of mining accidents and land grabs – pose challenges for various levels of the party and the government. It is an open question, however, whether these forces threaten the regime or strengthen it. The interests of the central authorities are not always aligned with those of corrupt or incompetent local (or even high-level) officials. Social contention may be frightening when it boils up from beneath the surface after having been repressed for a long time, but it may still serve the survival interests of the regime if it is managed well.”
The central government is not managing this situation well at present, as it is preventing petitioners from entering Beijing during the lead-up to the Olympics, and that is causing strong resentment from those who want to do just that. But what percentage of the overall population is up in arms in this way? The answer; only a minute percentage.

Minxin Pei’s own research itself, ironically, testifies to the regime’s proactive posture. His information on corruption and institutional weakness comes from internal party reports, state- and party-controlled newspapers, officially sponsored scholarly journals, State Planning Commission reports, state statistical yearbooks, surveys of public opinion conducted by Chinese social science institutes (whose sampling techniques, Pei should have warned readers, are seldom up to scientific standards), and Web sites such as the official Xinhua News Agency’s xinhuanet.com. As Andrew Nathan has pointed out:

“The fact that institutions owned by the state and the CCP are such a rich source of information on the regime’s pathologies is revealing, because although Chinese media and research institutes operate with increasing autonomy, the party still guides their work. When its guidelines are disregarded or flaunted, reporters and scholars are fired, sometimes jailed, and their publications or institutes risk being closed. It is doubtful that so many reporters and academics are evading such strictures that the regime can no longer censor them fast enough. More likely, the authorities use this stream of reporting and research to collect information on emerging problems, warn party cadres to improve their performance, and show the public that the party is acting on its concerns. It remains to be seen whether the strategy will succeed. But at least the regime is addressing the problems Pei sees, because it sees them itself.”

The fact of the matter, is that China is a developing country, currently in the lower middle income range. Of course it is going to have more problems than developed countries like the United States, Britain, Australia, Canada, and so on. People like Pomfret fear China, which is why they constantly look for signs of its impending collapse. The idea that a country might be able to succeed without modelling itself on Western-style Enlightenment institutions is seen as an ideological threat. The fact however, is that China is indeed developing these very institutions: the rule of law is of particular importance, and China actually performs comparitvely very well on the World Bank’s measurement of Good Governance in this area, as Randall Peerenboom has noted.

Who cares whether or not China ever becomes the world’s next military “superpower”? Is is really important for a country to do so? Of course not. What matters is that it continues to develop economically and socially, so that per capita living standards can continue to improve. Better to be ranked No.1 on the UN Human Development Index, than to be ranked world’s No.1 “superpower”. The two NEED NOT go hand in hand.

What do you think?

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Dan Harris

I am a founder of Harris Bricken, an international law firm with lawyers in Los Angeles, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, China and Spain.

I mostly represent companies doing business in emerging market countries. It has taken me many years to build my network and it takes constant communication and travel to maintain it. My work has been as varied as securing the release of two improperly held helicopters in Papua New Guinea, setting up a legal framework to move slag from Canada to Poland’s interior, overseeing hundreds of litigation and arbitration matters in Korea, helping someone avoid terrorism charges in Japan, and seizing fish product in China to collect on a debt.

I was named as one of only three Washington State Amazing Lawyers in International Law, I am AV rated by Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory (its highest rating), I am rated 10.0 by AVVO.com (its highest rating), and I am a SuperLawyer.

I am a frequent writer and public speaker on doing business in Asia and I constantly travel between the United States and Asia. I most commonly speak on China law issues and I am the lead writer of the award winning China Law Blog (www.chinalawblog.com). Forbes Magazine, Fortune Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, Investors Business Daily, Business Week, The National Law Journal, The Washington Post, The ABA Journal, The Economist, Newsweek, NPR, The New York Times and Inside Counsel have all interviewed me regarding various aspects of my international law practice.

I am licensed in Washington, Illinois, and Alaska.

In tandem with the international law team at my firm, I focus on setting up/registering companies overseas (via WFOEs, Rep Offices or Joint Ventures), drafting international contracts (NDAs, OEM Agreements, licensing, distribution, etc.), protecting IP (trademarks, trade secrets, copyrights and patents), and overseeing M&A transactions.