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Xinjiang: China ignores lessons from the past

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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A Chinese campaign to forcibly assimilate ethnic Uyghurs in its north-western province of Xinjiang in a bid to erase nationalist sentiment, counter militancy, and create an ‘Uyghur Islam with Chinese characteristics’ ignores lessons learnt not only from recent Chinese history but also the experience of others.

The campaign, reminiscent of failed attempts to undermine Uyghur culture during the Cultural Revolution, involves the creation of a surveillance state of the future and the forced re-education of large numbers of Turkic Muslims.

In what amounts to an attempt to square a circle, China is trying to reconcile the free flow of ideas inherent to open borders, trade and travel with an effort to fully control the hearts and minds of it population.

In doing so, it is ignoring lessons of recent history, including the fallout of selective support for militants and of religion to neutralize nationalism that risks letting a genie out of the bottle.

Recent history is littered with Chinese, US and Middle Eastern examples of the backfiring of government support of Islamists and/or militants.

No example is more glaring than US, Saudi, Pakistani and Chinese support in the 1980s for militant Islamists who fought and ultimately forced the Soviet Union to withdraw from Afghanistan. The consequences of that support have reverberated across the globe ever since.

Some analysts suggest that China at the time was aware of the radicalization of Uyghurs involved in the Afghan jihad and may have even condoned it.

Journalist John Cooley reported that China, in fact, had in cooperation with Pakistan trained and armed Uyghurs in Xinjiang as well as Pakistan to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan.

The notion that Islam and/or Islamists could help governments counter their detractors was the flavour of the era of the 1970s and 1980s.

Egyptian President Anwar Sadat saw the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood as an anti-dote to the left that was critical of both his economic liberalization and outreach to Israel that resulted in the first peace treaty with an Arab state.

Saudi Arabia funded a four-decade long effort to promote ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim Islam and backed the Brotherhood and other Islamist forces that helped create the breeding ground for jihadism and wreaked havoc in countries like Pakistan.

China’s experience with selective support of militancy and the use of religion to counter nationalist and/or other political forces is no different.

China’s shielding from designation by the United Nations as a global terrorist of Masood Azhar complicates Pakistani efforts to counter militancy at home and evade blacklisting by an international anti-money laundering and terrorism finance watchdog.

Mr. Azhar, a fighter in Afghanistan and an Islamic scholar who graduated from a Deobandi madrassah, Darul Uloom Islamia Binori Town in Karachi, the alma mater of numerous Pakistani militants, is believed to have been responsible for a 2016 attack on India’s Pathankot Air Force Station.

Back in the 1980s, then Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping saw his belief that what China expert Justin Jon Rudelson called a “controlled revival” of religion would foster economic development and counter anti-government sentiment boomerang.

The revival that enabled an ever larger number of Uyghurs to travel to Mecca via Pakistan for the haj made Saudi Arabia and the South Asian state influential players in Uyghur Islam. Uyghurs, wanting to perform the haj, frequently needed Pakistani contacts to act as their hosts to be able to obtain a Chinese exit visa.

The opening, moreover, allowed Muslim donors to provide financial assistance to Xinjiang. Saudi Arabia capitalized on the opportunity as part of its global promotion of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism to put money into the building of mosques and establishment of madrassas.

Receptivity for more conservatives forms of Islam, particularly in southern parts of Xinjiang that were closest to Central and South Asia, suggested that the closure of Xinjiang’s borders during the Sino-Soviet split in the 1950s and 1960s and the cultural revolution in the 1960s and 1970s had done little to persuade Uyghurs to focus their identity more on China than on Central Asia.

In fact, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of independent states in Central Asia coupled with rising inequality rekindled Uyghur nationalism.

The rise of militant Islamist and jihadist Uyghurs constituted in many ways a fusion of Soviet and Western-inspired secular nationalist ideas that originated in Central Asia with religious trends more popular in South Asia and the Gulf in an environment in which religious and ethnic identity were already inextricably interlinked.

The juxtaposition, moreover, of exposure to more orthodox forms of Islam and enhanced communication also facilitated the introduction of Soviet concepts of national liberation, which China had similarly adhered to with its support for various liberation movements in the developing world.

The exposure put Xinjiang Uyghurs in touch with nationalist Uyghur groups in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan that fed on what political science PhD candidate Joshua Tschantret terms “ideology-feeding grievances.”

Nationalists, dubbed ‘identity entrepreneurs’ by Gulf scholar Toby Matthiesen, built on the presence of some 100,000 Uyghurs who had fled to Central Asia in the late 1950s and early 1960 during Mao Zedong’s social and economic Great Leap Forward campaign that brutally sought to introduce industrialization and collectivization and the descendants of earlier migrations.

With Pakistan’s political, economic and religious elite, ultimately seduced by Chinese economic opportunity and willing to turn a blind eye to developments in Xinjiang, Uyghurs in the South Asian country had little alternative but to drift towards the country’s militants.

Militant madrassas yielded, however, to Pakistani government pressure to stop enrolling Uyghurs. The militants were eager to preserve tacit Chinese support for anti-Indian militants operating in Kashmir.

Pakistan’s foremost Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami, went as far as signing in 2009 a memorandum of understanding with the Chinese communist party that pledged support for Beijing’s policy in Xinjiang.

Despite eagerness to address Chinese concerns, Pakistan and China’s selective support of militants is likely to continue to offer radicalized Uyghurs opportunity.

“Jihadis and other religious extremists will continue to benefit from the unwillingness of the military and the judiciary to target them as well as the temptation of politicians to benefit from their support,” said former Pakistani ambassador to the United States Husain Haqqani, discussing overall Pakistani policy rather than official attitudes towards the Uyghurs.

Cultural anthropologist Sean R. Roberts noted that Central and South Asia became with the reopening of the borders in the second half of the 1980s “critical links between the inhabitants of Xinjiang and both the Islamic and Western worlds; and politically, they have become pivotal but contentious areas of support for the independence movement of Uyghurs.

The 1979 inauguration of the of the 1,300-kilometre-long Karakoram highway linking Kashgar in Xinjiang to Abbottabad in Pakistan, one of the highest paved roads in the world, served as a conduit for Saudi-inspired religious ultra-conservatism, particularly in southern Xinjiang as large numbers of Pakistanis and Uyghurs traversed the border.

Pakistani traders doubled as laymen missionaries adding Islamic artefacts, including pictures of holy places, Qurans and other religious literature to their palette of goods at a time that Islamist fighters were riding high with their defeat of the Soviets in Afghanistan and the emergence of the Taliban.

Increased religiosity became apparent in Xinjiang.

Women donned veils in what was traditionally a more liberal land. Students of religion made their way to madrassas or religious seminaries in Pakistan where they came into contact with often Saudi-inspired Pakistani and Afghan militants – trends that China is trying to reverse with the construction of an Orwellian type surveillance state coupled with stepped-up repression and intimidation.

“The cross-border linkages established by the Uyghurs through access provided by the highway, Beijing’s tacit consent to expand Uyghur travel and economic links with Pakistan through Reform Era policies, and Beijing’s explicit consent in supporting anti-Soviet operations – all prompted the radicalization of a portion of Xinjiang’s Uyghurs,” concluded China scholar Ziad Haider more than a decade ago.

The process was fuelled by the recruitment in the 1990s of Uyghur students in Pakistani madrassas by the Taliban and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, both of which were linked to Al Qaeda. Some 22 Uyghurs captured by US forces in Afghanistan ended up in Guantanamo Bay.

The eruption of protests in Xinjiang in the late 1990s and late 2000s against rising income differences and the influx of Han Chinese put an end to official endorsement of a religious revival that was increasingly seen by authorities as fuelling nationalism and facilitating Islamists.

Seemingly stubborn insistence on a Turkic and Muslim identity is likely one reason that China’s current assimilation drive comes as Xinjiang’s doors to its neighbours are being swung open even wider with the construction of new road and rail links as part of the People’s Republic’s infrastructure-centred Belt and Road initiative.

Forced assimilation is designed to bolster China’s expectation that increased economic ties to South and Central Asia will contribute to development of its north-western province, giving Uyghurs a stake that they will not want to put at risk by adhering to nationalist or militant religious sentiment.

The crackdown and forced assimilation is further intended to reduce the risk of a flow of ideas and influences through open borders needed for economic development and cementing Xinjiang into the framework of China’s infrastructure-driven Belt and Road initiatives that spans Eurasia

The assimilation effort is enabled by China’s Great Fire Wall designed to wall the country off of free access to the Internet. In doing so, China hoped in Xinjiang to halt cultural exchanges with Central Asia such as political satire that could reinforce Uyghurs’ Turkic and Central Asian identity.

The breadth of the more recent crackdown has complicated but not halted the underground flow of cultural products enabled by trade networks.

Mr. Roberts noted as early as 2004 that Chinese efforts aiming to regulate rather than reshape or suppress Islam were backfiring.

“Interest in the idea of establishing a Muslim state in Xinjiang has only increased with recent Chinese policies that serve to regulate the practice of Islam in the region,” Mr. Roberts said at the time.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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East Asia

The Implication of China’s Diplomacy in APEC and ASEAN

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It is truly unusual that the Chinese President Xi Jinping and its Premier Li Keqiang are visiting the same area during nearly the same time: Xi’s visit to APEC from15th to 21st November and Li’s visit to ASEAN on 15th November. Yet, if we look into China’s foreign policy towards this area over the past years since President Xi took power, it is not difficult to understand both Xi’s and Li’s official visits to the “larger Pacific” and the meaning beyond.

As we know, President Xi has reiterated that the Pacific is large enough for the countries involved to share the prosperity with each other. In order to achieve the inclusive rather than exclusive benefits for all, China’s diplomacy aims to reject any kind of unilateralism, trade protectionism and anti-globalization. Given this, Xi’s at APEC and Li’s at AEASN is defined as a signal of China’s diplomacy to further reform and bold openness.

As a rising great country, China is surely eager to expand its investment and trade with the south Pacific area, and Papua New Guinea (PNG) is the first country visited by Chinese president. What is more, PNG joined the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) early 2018 and then became the first state of Pacific islands to sign the MoU on “The Belt and Road Initiative” construction. As the theme “Harnessing Inclusive Opportunities, Embracing the Digital Future,” the APEC summit will focus on Regional economic integration, digital economy, connectivity, sustainable and inclusive growth and so forth.

Also during Premier Li’s visit to the ASEAN, he highlighted the necessity of the collaboration and mutual benefit among the countries involved on the 21st China-ASEAN leaders meeting. This is also the 21st ASEAN Plus Three Summit (10+3) and the 13th East Asia Summit (EAS).

Quite understandable, since the 1960s, the center of world economy has shifted from North Atlantic to Asia-Pacific, its dynamic growth in the region create countless jobs and push the development of world economy. This is the reason that Asia-Pacific region has the most trade agreements and the most complicated economic architecture around world. APEC and ASEAN, as two institutions that possess most member states, are the very pillars of the tumbledown regional economic architecture. APEC was launched by Australia and later included 21 member states in the region, amongst are United States, China, Japan, the economic giant three of the world economy. ASEAN is an institution that consist of ten small and middle states. Though they are not strong enough to meet the challenges from the power politics alone, ASEAN is a core force that firmly facilitate the economic integration of the whole region of East Asia and the Pacific. No matter what the way they embrace, they are the de facto basic regionalism of Asia-Pacific. The withdrawing of United States from Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and hard-achieved Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) once brought the regional economic architecture a fig leave and strengthened the impact of APEC and ASEAN.

As a result, the two visits of Chinese top leaders to the same region at the same time definitely attract worldwide attention, because they not only represent China’s recent diplomatic focus but also mark the fact that Asia-Pacific region has become one of the vital fields where China’s diplomacy will be actively conducting in terms of the Belt and Road Initiative, and carry on the good-neighbor policy. Since China has argued for creating a peaceful development milieu, to enhance economic transformation and upgrading oversea markets and partners in Asia-Pacific region.

Consider these facets, China, as the second largest economy, aims to promote its well-articulated stance on multilateralism and inclusiveness and globalization. As both President Xi and Premier Li have strongly said that China is ready to work with Pacific island countries to endeavor together and sail for a better future for bilateral relations. For the sake of that goal, China always believes that as long as all the countries involved have firm confidence in each other’s development, cooperation and the future of East Asia, and work closely together and forge ahead, all sides would achieve more and reach a higher level in the next 15 years.

For sure, China belongs to the part of a larger Asia-Pacific family, and the Chinese government defines its goal as the shared prosperity of this region. Therefore, China will continue to work hard and constructively to promote the overall development of impoverished but promising Pacific island countries under the Belt and Road Initiative.

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East Asia

An uncertain step in moving China-Japan relations

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Authors: Meshach Ampwera  & Luo Xinghuan

On October 26, Chinese President Xi Jinping met Japanese PM Shinzo Abe and praised that both China and Japan have pledged to strengthen bilateral ties amid continuous efforts made by the two nations. Xi said, “Bilateral relations have returned to the right track and gained positive momentum, which is something the two sides should cherish.” As the two largest economies in Asia, China and Japan are also the vital players in Asian security and the global development.

In addition, since this is the first official visit to China by a Japanese PM in a seven-year “Cold Peace” period, it is widely assumed that Abe’s visit symbolizes the resumption of high-level visits and will be followed by an increasing rapprochement between China and Japan. True, the leaders of the two economic giants witnessed a wide range of agreements, including a 30 billion US dollar worth of currency swap pact, the establishment of a maritime and air liaison mechanism, and enhancing people-to-people exchanges.

Yet, three factors have to be considered seriously in looking into Japanese foreign policy given the current changing geopolitical landscape regionally and globally. First, Japan has still regarded itself as a “defeated” state during the WWII. Since then, Japan’s postwar posture has frequently described as a new pacifism; yet in fact it is considerably more complex. As Henry Kissinger put it: “Japan had acquiesced in the U.S. predominance and followed the strategic landscape and the imperatives of Japan’s survival and long-term success.” This means that the governing elites in Tokyo used to hold the constitution drafted by U.S. occupying authorities with its stringent prohibition on military action, and adapted to their long-term strategic purposes. As a result, Japan was transformed from the pacific aspects of the postwar order (that prohibited military action) into a nation that has focused on other key elements of national strategy, particularly using economic leverage regionally and globally, though not uncontroversial.

Second, in a recently-released paper written by the former US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, he maintained that “Japan is a close ally of the U.S. and a rising military power, too, because of legal and constitutional changes of great significance championed by Prime Minister Abe.” In practice, the Japanese administration has engineered an expansion to enable its military to operate regionally and even globally in response to the rise of China, violent extremist activity in Asia, and the alleged North Korean belligerence.

Actually in 2013, Japanese Government White Paper revealed a desire to become a “normal country” with an active alliance policy. In a searching for a new role in the Asia-pacific region, Japan aims to act as an “anchor” of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) concluded in 2018 after the withdrawal of the United States. Now it involves 11 countries and representing 13.4% of global GDP ($ 13.5tri.). As the largest economy of the CPTPP, Japan has been active in moving it forward. Early this year when the British government stated it is exploring becoming a member of the CPTPP to stimulate exports after Brexit in 2019, Abe stated that the United Kingdom would be welcomed to join the partnership. It is said that even the U.S. reconsiders possibly rejoining the CPTPP if it were a “substantially new deal” for the United States.

Japan’s ardent involvement into the US-led strategy in Asia has also been endorsed to expand steadily as a normal power regionally and globally. For example, the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC) is the result of the joint declaration issued by the India and Japan in 2016. Although it is premised on four pillars of development and cooperation, it is self-evident that the AAGC reflects a growing special “strategic and global partnership between India and Japan” in which both sides have viewed China’s growing, pragmatic and successful presence in Africa as a menace. There is no question that AAGC is a well-crafted vision and agenda of both India and Japan, linking with their own development priorities. But with increasing pressure from Washington and Brussels, Japan and India are in effect driven by the option for the AAGC to rebalance China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

From the inception of the BRI, they have more than ever before been concerned with being isolated in Africa by Beijing’s initiative. But, as Ampwera Meshach, a researcher at Jilin University put it, “Africa is on the growth trend and offers potential markets and raw materials. For this reason, Africa largely needs pragmatic and scientific, technological and development- oriented initiatives and these are clearly reflected in China’s BRI.” In light of this, the AAGC does neither reflect a novel nor pragmatic approach on how it fits within the African agenda. Instead, AAGC’s foundational pillars seem more inclined to the Western cooperation approaches that have for decades not been translated into development.

Controversially, two days before Abe’s visit to Beijing, Japan had decided to scrap official development assistance (ODA) to China, which is a program where Japan provides aids to developing countries starting back in 1954. Even though some people argue that Japan’s ODA is reasonably cancelled because China’s GDP is even 2.5 times larger than that of Japan, yet, it is necessary for Chinese to be aware of the reality that Japan is a longstanding ally of the United States. As Japan has long been an economic power, its impressive military capabilities would not be confined to a strict policy of territorial defense—no projection of Japanese power or the U.S.-Japan alliance to the region as a whole.

It is during the Abe’s administration which has recognized an environment of growing Chinese assertiveness, violent extremist activity in Asia, and North Korean hostility, and therefore, Japan has eagerly participated in Asian security, including training and exercising with other nations, beyond a purely passive, home-island defense role. This makes it an increasingly important player serving the US strategy in Asia but challenging the rise of China globally.

It is true that Abe tweeted about the trip — while recognizing the challenges in moving bilateral relations forward, he said that he would still work to “push Sino-Japan relations to the next level”. Given the two countries’ economic links, it is only understandable that there is a need for the two sides to come closer. Moreover, Japanese businesses has been an extremely active force behind the government’s shift of attitude on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Yet, all in all, we should never ignore that Japan’s ambitious foreign policy has gone beyond the economic goal.

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Red Flags: Why Xi’s China is in Jeopardy – Book Review

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George Magnus writes about the dangers of the Middle-Income Trap in the Middle Kingdom, among other issues, in Red Flags: Why Xi’s China is in Jeopardy. President Xi’s face adorns the book cover, with his name looming above.  Fitting, seeing as China has removed presidential term limits; China’s fate is thus likely to be tied to the decision making of Xi for the next couple decades.

Magnus writes about the dangers of Xi’s likely ascendance to President-for-Life.  Ever since the excesses of Mao’s one-man rule, China’s Communist Party has largely ruled by consensus, while provincial governments have served as a counterweight to federal authority via control of their land and many of their local State Owned Enterprises (SOEs).  Xi is challenging this staus quo.  So-called Xi Jinping Thought is now official party canon, being taught in schools and in the media.  The 2012 crackdown on corruption by Xi in his inaugural year was widely seen as a pretense for taking out political opponents and sending a message to his potential opponents.  Ever since, Xi has been working to centralize power to himself.  Magnus notes that being leader for life largely shields Xi from short-term popular discontent, but also means that every long-term decision, good or bad, will become part of Xi’s legacy.  Hence, the book informally reads as a personal policy checklist for Xi.

Red Flags lists four, well, red flags of likely impediments to Chinese economic development.  Firstly is debt.  China has been an unprecedented money-making machine for the past three decades or so.  However, signs are starting to appear of a possible economic slowdown.  Most significant is the debt-GDP ratio, which has skyrocketed over the past few years.  Magnus writes extensively about how China’s growth, up to this point, has largely been fuelled by credit (debt).  China’s much-maligned (by Trump, most notably) trade balance surplus has shrunk to no more than a few percent, statistically insignificant.  China could theoretically make up for shrinking foreign demand for goods and services with domestic consumers.  Magnus is unfortunately the bearer of bad news in this regard: “Household savings rose from about 5% of disposable income in the late 1970s to about 38% in 2016, or just over 25% of GDP. Savings by companies are also elevated, amounting to about 17% of GDP in 2016.”

Hence, the Xi regime has been trying to maintain economic growth via ever-greater sums of state investment funding.  Magnus explicitly warns against this: “The reason the investment rate has to fall is because the more China relies on it, the more inefficient that investment will become.”  Such a statement might seem self-evident, but Magnus backs it up with facts.  For instance, he points out, “Between 1978 and 2006, for example, China spent between 2 to 4 yuan of investment to get 1 additional yuan of GDP. Since then, the amount has risen steadily to reach about 9 yuan in 2015, corresponding to a marked fall in investment efficiency.”

Magnus writes a lot about the inefficiency of China’s thousands and thousands of SOEs.  “Officially, and according to some China-watchers, SOEs now account for just a fifth of output and a tenth of employment. The presumption though that the rest of the economy is in private hands, as we understand it in the West, is incorrect. Many private firms have large or majority state owners, who exercise significant control over senior appointments and corporate strategy, and state ownership is often disguised by multiple layers of investment companies ultimately owned by a state entity. Allowing for these opaque adjustments, the purely private part of the enterprise sector may actually be little higher than 20–30 per cent.”  SOEs have built much of modern China, but their efforts are increasingly being wasted on skyscrapers and airports that remain almost empty, Chinese Roads-to-Nowhere.  A blank check invites planners to ignore long-terms concerns of viability, blinded by short-term gains that go directly into the pockets of Party-affiliated contractors.  China’s financial services sector isn’t much better off.  Magnus writes about all the bailouts, takeovers and general heavy-handedness by the government of various Chinese banks and other related companies.  Due to a slowdown in trade and many other issues discussed in the book, state investment will figure to play an ever-larger role in China’s economy, inefficiency be damned.

The book’s second diagnosed problem for China’s future growth is its currency, the renminbi.  Xi mirrors the isolationist mindset of China’s ancient emperors with regards to cash inflows and outflows.  It’s very hard for Chinese investors to send renminbi out of the country.  Likewise, China restricts the ability of foreigners to own reserves of renminbi, or Chinese financial assets in general.  The renminbi is subject not only to this lack of liquidity, but also the confines of a planned economy.  China is infamous for its strict control of its currency valuation, as well as its monetary policy via diktats, investment and bailouts.  Its ownership of USD and other foreign currency reserves must always be flawlessly balanced to safely back up the value of the renminbi.  This resulted, for instance, in the selling off of a trillion of its USD reserves between 2014-2016.  The combination of currency illiquidity and over-management limits the ability of the renminbi to fuel Chinese economic growth.

Thirdly, the book mentions the so-called Middle Income Trap.  Once a country reaches a certain benchmark of development, it’s hard to maintain further momentum.  China’s already experiencing slowed growth due to factors such as increased global manufacturing competition.  As Magnus points out, China has already had its coming-out party to the world economy.  It can’t join the WTO again or eliminate mass hunger again.  Likewise, China has stalled in terms of rural development and education.  Rural China is increasingly falling behind the major cities and the hukou system of restricted movement and rights for migrant workers isn’t helping.  Students in China still attend far fewer years of school than students in developed countries like the US, especially in advanced fields like IT.  These issues of inequality and 21st-century education must be addressed if China is to fully develop.

Lastly, Magnus writes about the demographics crisis.  China has one of the highest ratios of elderly people in the world.  Combine this with China’s 1.45 birth rate and the gender disparity caused by the 1-Child Policy and you have a ticking time bomb.  The workforce is increasingly running out of youngsters who can take the place of retirees, causing a slowdown in economic output.  The higher the elderly population becomes, the more each working-age person will have to contribute to pensions and healthcare.  The economic burden that only-children will have to shoulder taking care of their aging parents will inevitably lower marriage rates and thus further lower the unsustainably low birth rate.

This is the most dire problem because there’s very little that society can do about it.  Xenophobia has prevented any meaningful amount of migration to China, but even if China were to let in tens of millions of foreign workers, that would be a drop in the bucket for a nation of 1.4B people.  Even after China ended its One-Child Policy, couples are still averaging well below 2 children, despite increasing prosperity.  The only real hope for China’s demography problem would be a literal ex machina: automation.  Robots may be able to generate untold wealth that could buoy a small nation like Singapore, but even an army of robots is unlikely to completely offset the gradual loss of hundreds of millions of working-age people to aging.  Even if AI is a magic bullet for all productivity woes, it take probably at least a century to meaningfully scale up, by which time China’s population will have substantially shrank.  It doesn’t help that China is, in many respects, barely keeping pace in the AI race with the US, Japan and the EU.  In the race for artificial intelligence, even being a year behind the competition can cost trillions of dollars; China’s tech sector will likely take a few decades to completely match Silicon Valley.  Lastly, it should be noted that not even innovation can overcome the limit resources of our planet.  We’re already running out of industrial resources like oil and lithium.  It would be foolish to place all of one’s eggs in the basket of a sci-fi utopia.

Red Flags is a very detailed and interesting book about the future of China.  Magnus isn’t anti-China by any means; he gives credit to China’s marvelous successes and doesn’t moralize.  If anything, the book was too generous by barely mentioning the unrest in Xinjiang and not mentioning the occupation of Tibet at all.  In an objective fashion, he succinctly explains China’s problems and offers possible solutions.  China has shown an unprecedented ability to adapt to change.  This flexibility may wind up being undone not external adversaries or limitations, but by increasing autocracy.  Dictatorship has rarely resulted in long-term, across-the-board growth.  One can look at a fellow Communist country for an example: the Soviet Union.  Though the USSR made impressive leaps in technology, manufacturing and agricultural output and human longevity, it was ultimately undone by its ideological rigidity.  A lack of accountability for its leaders meant that the USSR was forever a captive to bad policy.  Likewise, a lack of freedom stunted innovation.  If Xi is to avoid the pitfalls of the USSR, he must avoid letting his power get to his head and embrace a flow of ideas from both fellow Party members and private citizens.  Xi’s consolidation of control and crackdown on dissent would point otherwise, unfortunately.  Only time will tell if China will continues to beat the odds…

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