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A Long Wait at the Gate to Greatness

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One important nuance we keep forgetting is the sheer size of China's population: about 1.3 billion, more than four times that of the United States. China should have a big economy. But on a per capita basis, the country isn't a dragon; it's a medium-size lizard, sitting in 109th place on the International Monetary Fund's World Economic Outlook Database, squarely between Swaziland and Morocco. China's economy is large, but its average living standard is low, and it will stay that way for a very long time, even assuming that the economy continues to grow at impressive rates.

The big number wheeled out to prove that China is eating our economic lunch is the U.S. trade deficit with China, which last year hit $256 billion. But again, where's the missing nuance? Nearly 60 percent of China's total exports are churned out by companies not owned by Chinese (including plenty of U.S. ones). When it comes to high-tech exports such as computers and electronic goods, 89 percent of China's exports come from non-Chinese-owned companies. China is part of the global system, but it's still the low-cost assembly and manufacturing part -- and foreign, not Chinese, firms are reaping the lion's share of the profits.

When my family and I left China in 2004, we moved to Los Angeles, the smog capital of the United States. No sooner had we set foot in southern California than my son's asthma attacks and chronic chest infections -- so worryingly frequent in Beijing -- stopped. When people asked me why we'd moved to L.A., I started joking, "For the air."

China's environmental woes are no joke. This year, China will surpass the United States as the world's No. 1 emitter of greenhouse gases. It continues to be the largest depleter of the ozone layer. And it's the largest polluter of the Pacific Ocean. But in the accepted China narrative, the country's environmental problems will merely mean a few breathing complications for the odd sprinter at the Beijing games. In fact, they could block the country's rise.

The problem is huge: Sixteen of the world's 20 most polluted cities are in China, 70 percent of the country's lakes and rivers are polluted, and half the population lacks clean drinking water. The constant smoggy haze over northern China diminishes crop yields. By 2030, the nation will face a water shortage equal to the amount it consumes today; factories in the northwest have already been forced out of business because there just isn't any water. Even Chinese government economists estimate that environmental troubles shave 10 percent off the country's gross domestic product each year. Somehow, though, the effect this calamity is having on China's rise doesn't quite register in the West .

And then there's "Kung Fu Panda." That Hollywood movie embodies the final reason why China won't be a superpower: Beijing's animating ideas just aren't that animating.

In recent years, we've been bombarded with articles and books about China's rising global ideological influence. (One typical title: "Charm Offensive: How China's Soft Power Is Transforming the World.") These works portray China's model -- a one-party state with a juggernaut economy -- as highly attractive to elites in many developing nations, although China's dreary current crop of acolytes (Zimbabwe, Burma and Sudan) don't amount to much of a threat.

But consider the case of the high-kicking panda who uses ancient Chinese teachings to turn himself into a kung fu warrior. That recent Hollywood smash broke Chinese box-office records -- and caused no end of hand-wringing among the country's glitterati. "The film's protagonist is China's national treasure, and all the elements are Chinese, but why didn't we make such a film?" Wu Jiang, president of the China National Peking Opera Company, told the official New China News Agency.

The content may be Chinese, but the irreverence and creativity of "Kung Fu Panda" are 100 percent American. That highlights another weakness in the argument about China's inevitable rise: The place remains an authoritarian state run by a party that limits the free flow of information, stifles ingenuity and doesn't understand how to self-correct. Blockbusters don't grow out of the barrel of a gun. Neither do superpowers in the age of globalization.

And yet we seem to revel in overestimating China. One recent evening, I was at a party where a senior aide to a Democratic senator was discussing the business deal earlier this year in which a Chinese state-owned investment company had bought a big chunk of the Blackstone Group, a U.S. investment firm. The Chinese company has lost more than $1 billion, but the aide wouldn't believe that it was just a bum investment. "It's got to be part of a broader plan," she insisted. "It's China."

I tried to convince her otherwise. I don't think I succeeded.

John Pomfret is the editor of Outlook. He is a former Beijing bureau chief of The Washington Post and the author of "Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China."

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