Outlook: Middle Kingdom, Middle Power

John Pomfret
Post Outlook Editor and Former Beijing Bureau Chief
Monday, July 28, 2008; 12:00 PM

"Nikita Khrushchev said the Soviet Union would bury us, but these days, everybody seems to think that China's the country wielding the shovel. ... Economists expect its GDP to surpass America's by 2025; its submarine fleet is reportedly growing five times faster than Washington's; even its capitalist authoritarianism is called a real alternative to the West's liberal democracy. China, the drumbeat goes, is poised to become the 800-pound gorilla of the international system, ready to dominate the 21st century the way the United States dominated the 20th. Except that it's not. ... For four big reasons -- dire demographics, an overrated economy, an environment under siege and an ideology that doesn't travel well -- China is more likely to remain the muscle-bound adolescent of the international system than to become the master of the world."

Post Outlook editor and former Beijing bureau chief John Pomfret was online Monday, July 28 at noon ET to discuss his Outlook article explaining why constraints like a graying population, water shortages and stifled ingenuity will prevent China from taking America's place as world leader.

A transcript follows.

Archive: Transcripts of discussions with Outlook article authors


Eugene, Ore.: I look at China as an accident waiting to happen. If you look at the history of China, you'll see that it's subject to centripetal as well as centrifugal forces. In other words, over time, it's as likely to fall apart as to fall under a centralized government.

My question is, given the unrest in the western provinces, the fairly moribund ideology of the Chinese Commmunist Party (and its managing of a wild west economy), isn't it possible that an economic or ecological oollapse could make China revert to a chaotic country with breakaway regions? I'm not talking tomorrow, but perhaps twenty years down the road.

John Pomfret: That's definitely one scenario, however, you have to give the Communist Party some credit for riding the tiger of an exploding economy and a rapidly changing society. It's done so by following a kind of "kung fu" philosophy toward societal control -- meaning they only sweat the big stuff. So when there are protests, they buy off most of the participants but they lock up the leaders.


Burke, Va.: Two questions : one on constraints and another on possibility.

One : What can be the impact of future oil shortages on China's growth? After all, they do not possibly have large reserves like USA or Russia.

Two: What is the possibility that China can maul global systems by joining hands with Islamic nations and Communist-leaning sections of other societies like India and Russia, thereby foling U.S. hegemony over the most strategic world region?

John Pomfret: Question one -- they have a tiny strategic reserve.

Question two -- no possibility. China's biggest attempt to create a non-Western alliance bloc -- the Shanghai Cooperation Organization -- which groups Russia, China and Central Asian countries -- hasn't amounted to much of a challenge yet.


Shanghai, China: Your assumption when looking forward is that nothing will change other than the economy becoming larger. This country is changing faster than any other I know and does not seem to be bound by tradition or history. It is certain that China and its people in 2025 will be far different to what we see today. Culture, attitudes and direction of trends can all change over time and from what I have seen during my time here, these change rapidly.

John Pomfret: Actually, I am assuming change in China. Massive change. But the main point of the piece is in the United States the conventional wisdom in China is that all of China's changes will cause it to grow more powerful. I argue however that some of the changes on its horizon are not necessarily that good.


Cambridge, England: Your article is extremely interesting and persuasive. I'd simply add that the excessively reverential attitudes of many Western people toward China in the present day are an echo of broadly similar sentiments toward Japan twenty years ago. Those earlier sentiments have faded, and I imagine that the attitudes of Westerners toward China will likewise gradually become more soundly rooted in reality.

John Pomfret: I agree. In the 70s when I was growing up in New York and into the early 80s, especially when the Japanese bought Rockefeller Center, there was an anti-Japanese hysteria similar to the type of breathless stuff we hear about China today.


Herndon, Va.: John, Excellent article. You did not mention anything about the risks around the political system. How long will people agree to the dictatorial form of government? Any unwinding of the political system could throw the country into chaos like it did to Russia in the 90s.

How do you compare India's growth with China's growth in light of the fact that it is the Indian Companies that are growing and going global? Do you see a bubble in India as well?

John Pomfret: On the political front, you raise a good point. At a certain point the "cookie" is going to crumble in China and some type of political reform will either be forced on or undertaken by the Communist Party. How that plays out will also have a significant effect on China's trajectory.

Re: India, comparisons are made regularly between the two Asian giants. Both will face huge challenges in the future.


Wheaton, Md.: Do you have any insight into why the Chinese haven't excavated Qin Shi Huang Di's tomb?

John Pomfret: Money, a lack of expertise, concern about grave robbing -- generally those have been the main reasons.


Chinatown, Washington, D.C.: I've observed some Chinese development projects in parts of Western and Southern Africa, and Chinese influence in Africa only seems to be growing. Any chance, in your opinion, that Chinese influence can have a positive effect on African development, or as many fear, is China just exploiting Africa for resources, as many have done before?

John Pomfret: I think China's influence in Africa is two sided -- just like ours is as well. In some nations, like Zambia, there has been a significant anti-Chinese backlash. In others, such as Angola and Nigeria, China has been a big help. In general, the more Chinese firms employ locals, the worse China's reputation is (witness China's troubles in another part of the world -- Peru -- over its treatment of Peruvian miners.)


Herndon, Va.: Mr. Pomfret -- I'm curious if you have read a recent book by the travel writer J. Maarten Troost called "Lost on Planet China." He paints a very bleak picture as far as the environmental damage being done and how the weakest members of the society are being treated. I wondered as I read the book if he might be overdoing it a bit, or whether things really are that bad.

John Pomfret: I am reading the same book now, actually. I agree with the writer -- although remember he's selling books so things are always a little better in reality. However, China's environmental problems are indeed grave.


Silver Spring, Md.: I enjoyed your piece and it makes some really interesting points. On the issue of demographics and China's ability to sustain its manufacturing base, isn't it possible that China sees the African continent as its solution to this problem? China's investment in Africa is well documented and extensive enough that any African cab-driver can engage in deep discussion of what China is doing for his homeland. Couldn't Africa become China's manufacturing base, and de-facto manufacturing base for the world down the road?

John Pomfret: That's possible, I guess, but the issue of China's demographics is deeper than just finding a base to manufacture. It also raises the question of how is China going to care for all its old people. Now you can say -- the vaunted Chinese family. But family bonds in China are breaking down -- as they have across the world with development AND remember, more and more Chinese are from one-child families. It's a big burden for one child (when he/she grows up) to support two parents and FOUR grandparents. That's China's so-called 4-2-1 problems


Quebec City, Canada: The article suggested that: Economists worry that as the working-age population shrinks, labor costs will rise, significantly eroding one of China's key competitive advantages. Don't you believe that the repressive nature of China's government use force to keep wages down, (though violent union busting, for example) and keep them below their market value even in the presence of labor shortages.

John Pomfret: Already wages are rising in southern China, prompting some first to pick up and move to lower cost Vietnam. Labor supply and demand (much more so that a repressive political system) are the key factors in wages.


Tucson, Ariz.: We visited China for a few weeks in the 90's and have read about their rise for many years. Two things stood out for us: unbreatheable air; and Chinese families with only one child looking up to two parents and four grandparents. The one child policy seemed wrong-headed but full of uncertainty as to where it might lead. Do you have any comments on how this impacts them.

John Pomfret: The arguments for and against the one-child policy are many. For -- "we've just got too many people." There is some truth to that. Mao encouraged Chinese to multiply in the 1950s and multiply they did. But against -- it's messing with our demographics, its distorting the personalities of our young. There's also a lot of truth in that. The Chinese themselves are torn about it and debates are currently raging inside the higher echelons of China's government about whether to modify the policy.


Alexandria, Va.: Thank you for taking my question. According to a recent Reporters Without Borders report last month the Chinese government forced a European satellite company to turn the signal of a U.S.-based Chinese language channel called NTDTV, preventing them from broadcasting into China. Why are stories like this not more widely reported?

John Pomfret: I guess because they are relatively commonplace.


Pune, India: John, how would you rate India, one of the fastest growing economies as stable and more reliable economy compared to China?

John Pomfret: I think both countries are facing enormous challenges. China's educational system, for example, is stronger than India's -- China has a much much lower rate of illiteracy for example. India's middle class is bigger. India's bureaucracy stifles business, however, while China's bureaucracy generally supports business. Both countries are facing huge gaps between rich and poor.


Munich, Germany: Your points about China's aging population and chronic pollution certainly indicate that China's potential path to some form of world domination isn't going to smooth and easy.

But I find it hard to deny that China's current financial success (and Russia's) has made capitalist authoritarianism a real alternative to the West's liberal democracy, that current authoritarian regimes like Zimbabwe, Burma and Sudan would like to aspire to, and likewise, others in the future like Iran or even Iraq.

It does sound like the Olympics are going to be a coming-out party for China as a world power.

John Pomfret: The whole point about China becoming a new model -- of China succeeding whether the Soviet Union failed -- is a little overblown. I mean China is a model for which countries? Sudan? Zimbabwe? Burma? Not what I'd call a cosmic threat to our way of life. These are tinpot dictatorships. Now if Kenya or Brazil began to embrace the Chinese way of doing things, perhaps there'd be an argument but I find the whole line of "China's resilient authoritarianism is challenge to West" to be interesting intellectually but not happening in the real world


Washington, D.C.: They seem to be gussying everything up in Beijing for the Olympics. Seems like a big PR effort. Is the government relaxing restrictions of things over there as well so as to give a good impression to the West?When they're over, will things go back to the way they were?

John Pomfret: Things will return -- for better and for worse -- to normal after October with the conclusion of the Para-Olympics in September


Tampa, Fla.: I have often heard the contention that even though the current political system in China is full of shortcomings, an alternative might be far worse. Is there any truth to such an argument?

John Pomfret: Sure, a nutty ultra-nationalist, militarily aggressive proto-Fascist state would be worse.

That could be possible. And to be fair to China, personal freedom in China has expanded enormously since 1980 when I first went there to study


Wilmington, N.C. : There is so little substantive in the regular media re China that it is great that you are having this chat. Thank you!

John Pomfret: many thanks


Rolla, Mo.: Call me a political geek, but one of the things I'll be watching for in the upcoming Beijing Olympics is how NBC covers it and what, if any, impact it will have on the presidential campaign. NBC will do its promos and cutaways, which will likely show the remarkable large scale projects over the past decade. (Will they also show the environmental degradation?) It may be an eye-opener for many Americans, and, as your article hints at, may not show the full story. Will "dealing with China" become a major issue in the fall campaign? Will you be looking at this angle as well?

John Pomfret: You know -- I've watched Olympic coverage from American networks for years -- and generally they might do a few pieces about the home country but they generally focus on US athletes and the big competitions. I've also watched China Central Television -- in Athens and Sydney and to be frank the Chinese were a lot better. They covered all the sports and did a really good job. Perhaps that's what you get when you don't really have to worry about ratings....


Rockville, Md.: By virtue of sheer numbers and their Diaspora, Chinese people are having more and more influence around the world. Do you think more Western people should study Mandarin, and is the number of non-native Mandarin speakers growing rapidly enough in the USA?

John Pomfret: Sure, more people should study Mandarin. I heartily agree. But it's a hard language and too many people start it for one year and drop it the next.

That said, the number of Chinese-language students in the US is booming. And getting a Chinese nanny in Manhattan is considered de rigeur among the investment-banker set.


Rockville, Md.: What impact will growing middle class habits and patterns of consumption have on the Chinese government's response to its peoples' demands for more self expression and participation?

John Pomfret: Great question. Over the past 30 years, the government has been forced to cede more and more decision-making power to its people. Three decades ago, when you graduated from university, you were given a job and an apartment, told when to marry, often told who to marry, told when to have a kid, stopped from going abroad if you weren't favored in your work unit, had to apply for permission to get divorced, etc. etc. All that is changing now. In fact, all of the above has changed. And I think that process -- of allowing people to become agents of their own fate (if you will) will only continue in the future.


Bridgewater, Mass.: Speaking of demographics, what's happened to that multi-million excess of Chinese males that was talked about a few years ago? The only thing I noticed recently was a government promise to crack down on those providing sex-selection services, but this does nothing about the girls already not born and soon not to be available to marry the baby boys who were. Are there any indications they're worried about this?

John Pomfret: This is a BIG problem. Some provinces report 137 boys for every 100 girls. Nationwide the numbers are around 117 boys for 100 girls. This means that you'll have an army of 20 million unmarriageable men. Everybody is worried about this -- including the police.


Upper Marlboro, Md.: I agree with your article, China will not be able to grow until they bury their past mistakes and move on to a freer and more humane existence. Then they can harness and exploit their natural advantages. But, just for the sake of exercising the mind, I would add one more supposition: suppose China begins to realize the mistakes that they have made, and take their massive army on a nation-building rampage, swallowing their near neighbors and starting World War III? A Long Wait at the Gate to Greatness ( Post, July 27)

John Pomfret: You know, that's an interesting question, but I just don't see it. They are so focused on their internal struggle -- just to keep their economy growing -- and they also have benefited so much from being a player in the international system, that I just can't seem them launching a blitzkrieg across, where?, Asia? the Siberian plains? Another problem they have four neighbors who have nukes.


Camp Hill, Pa.: Mr. Pomfret, I too enjoyed your article. My question is: What do you see as the future relationship of the U.S. with Taiwan, and with China?

John Pomfret: I'm optimistic on the US-Taiwan-China front. With the election of the more rational Ma Ying-jeou as president of Taiwan, I think the relationship between Taiwan and China can only improve. The US's policy toward Taiwan has pretty much been the same for 30 years so Democrat or Republican in the White House I can't see that changing. And China really doesn't want a war as long as Taiwan isn't being silly like it was so often under the leadership of ex-president Chen Shui-bian.


Leesburg, Va.: I am interested in the statement "80 percent of all middle and high level officials who undertake international training do so in the U.S."

What is the source for that information and how can I learn more?

John Pomfret: The source is Horizon Group, it is China's biggest Chinese-owned polling company


Washington, D.C.: Does China assume any environmental responsibility for the world?

John Pomfret: It hadn't for the longest time. But international opinion is forcing it to do just this. Also if the US embraces climate change as an idea and begins a serious fight against global warming; the Chinese will fall in line


Olympics: I saw this bizarre report that the government is training tens of thousands of citizens on the accepted forms of cheering during the Olympics. It's just one more example that leads many to wonder if the Olympics will breathe any life into China at all. That along with everything else will make this one of the hardest Olympics to get excited about that I can recall.

John Pomfret: Yes, the Chinese government does really know how to ruin a party. The party-state is not a fan of spontaneity.


Arlington, Va.: Excellent piece Mr. Pomfret and a needed tonic for the "China will take over the world crowd." Couple of questions. One, what reforms if any, have been instituted in the opaque Chinese banking system? Two, is the commercial r.e. bubble along the coastal rim in danger of exploding? Thanks again for a superb article.

John Pomfret: The banking system has been flirting with reform for years. It has allowed a small amount of foreign competition -- but not enough. It needs to allow more. The problem with the banks though is that there are still too many non-performing loans.

As to the real estate bubble, like I wrote, whenever I read stuff about China I always remind myself that things that go up, almost always come down. If you don't believe that real estate prices could fall in China, look at the stock market. It's dropped 60 percent in less than a year


Tampa, Fla.: Moral values. Is it true that "anything goes" in China nowadays? How does the change in moral standards in China compare with the U.S.?

John Pomfret: That's a great question. China is, as the cliche goes, "a land of contradictions." There is a moral vacuum in China; traditional Chinese values were flattened by Mao and pulverized once economic reforms started in 1978. So there's been a revolution in familial relations -- kids talk back to their parents like never before. A sexual revolution -- with prostitution and mistresses commonplace. There's also been a collapse in common morality.

The government is worried about this so it's tried to resuscitate Confucius. But I don't think that's going to work


Las Vegas, Nev.: Can you talk a little bit about how you expect Chinese military power to change over the next few decades, and how it will compare against our own in terms of size, focus, etc.?

John Pomfret: China's military has been engaged in a significant build-up for the past 20 years. They are mainly focused on the task of "taking back" Taiwan -- which also would theoretically involve fighting the United States. As such, they have invested billions in buying weapons systems from Russia such as destroyers and submarines and anti-ship missiles with over-the-horizon radar capability. They have also pared down the size of the People's Liberation Army to move away from a "people's war" concept to create a leaner, meaner fighting force. That said, they still have a long, long way to go. Yes, they are good at missiles, but they still can't manufacture a jet engine and the mainstay of their air force -- the Russian-built Su-27 and Su-33/35 -- have to go back to Russia every six months for repairs.


Wokingham, U.K.: Does China expect to have the debts owed to it by the United States repaid? Will she be disappointed?

John Pomfret: Great question. The fact that China holds $1 trillion in American debt is another sign of how inextricably intertwined we are with them. They really really don't want the dollar to fall too far.


Indianapolis, Ind.: Hi John;

I am in the import-export business, travel frequently throughout S. E Asia and Western Africa. I have noticed an affinity for the Chinese 'soft power' in these two parts of the world and a desire to see China balance out the USA, especially after these last eight years under this rogue administration. School kids in many Asian countries and Africa are starting to learn Mandarin Chinese. I see the 21st century as a century of the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) nations and not necessarily China alone.

John Pomfret: There's no doubt that the "others" -- the BRICS -- are rising. What I wanted to stress in my piece, however, is that the BRICs -- and this specific case China -- also face significant problems, too.


Seattle, Wash.: John,

A very good article. Having lived in China during the 90's, I share your sentiment. However, one aspect that you didn't discuss is the military. That's an area they are not skimping on. Could China have a bigger military influence than an economic influence in the world?


John Pomfret: I doubt that. I also think that the same problem bedeviling China will also trouble the military --- corruption and demographics to name just two(the army is having a hard time finding smart people to enter the military because they can make more money elsewhere). That said, China has definitely grown its military budget and has a very focused program -- on "recovering" Taiwan.


Los Angeles, Calif.: John, excellent article but I do have to take exception to your response about morality. In my many business trips to China, I find that the people are extremely hard working and have a custom of taking care of their parents and grandparents when they get old. As far as prostitution and mistresses, we have that here in spades and we are supposed to be a "Christian" nation. So I don't see China as being less moral but less hypocritical.

John Pomfret: I take your point and respectfully disagree. I think the modernization and globalization -- along with China's troubled Communist history -- have combined to create an enormous shock on the value system of many Chinese.


Beaumont, Tex.: While I'm sure you got a lot of criticism for your assessment of China's economic future vis a vis their population problems, you relieved me somewhat. I see China, should they develop malicious clever leadership, being a real threat to our way of life. And yet, I find the regular Chinese people very interesting and wish we would see more of them here and that we could visit the country more easily.

John Pomfret: Well, the US has refcently instituted tourist visas for Chinese so I think we will be seeing more of them, which is a good thing.


John Pomfret: Thanks a lot for all your great questions!

The Olympics should be fascinating.


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