A while ago I reviewed Jonathan Fenby‘s Tiger Head, Snake Tails, which I liked because its answer to the question about China’s prospects for economic and geopolitical success is essentially ‘it depends’. It’s a rare book that gives an effective overview while resisting the temptation to be either a China-booster or China-basher. I’ve now read another China book that probably falls into the latter camp, Timothy Beardson’s Stumbling Giant: The Threats to China’s Future.
The author would surely describe it as China-realism though. It is certainly more nuanced than some others, pointing to the country’s amazing recent achievements. He lives in Hong Kong and has done business in China for decades. The book is full of interesting and informative detail and insights. For example, in the chapter on the knowledge economy, I learned that plagiarism is a pervasive problem in the Chinese academic world. One biologist, Fang Shimin, documented 500 cases of plagiarism in his field in one year, 2007. A professor named as a culprit arranged for criminals to attack Fang with a hammer. Beardson goes on to claim that while plagiarism is a global problem, the culprits in other universities are often Chinese, citing a consultancy to US universities advising clients to expect half of all Chinese applicants to submit forged transcripts. Of course I haven’t done any additional research into Beardson’s figures but this is indeed an interesting perspective on the capacity of the country’s education system to turn out creative, innovative thinkers. Another example – the description of an increasing number of incidents of large-scale public violence in the past 20 years, including more very large scale incidents, albeit against the background of very high (80-80%) support for the government and belief the country is heading in the right direction.
The book runs through a series of important challenges facing China’s leaders: its ‘broken’ economic model (other authors might dispute that description of course); the elusiveness of the knowledge economy; a fragile financial sector distorted by state intervention in lending; the absence of adequate social welfare; adverse demography; environmental degradation and pollution; civil stability; the future of the Communist party; the geopolitics of east Asia and relations with the US; ethnic unrest in central Asia; the battles in cyberspace. That’s quite a list – it’s a chunky book covering lots of ground.
Can they be overcome? Beardson concludes: “Many of the challenges which China confronts appear to an international audience to have clear solutions. However, they must be viewed in the context of a government which is driven by the desire to stay in power and yet has a sense of fragility. Many obvious policy solutions are avoided as they carry political costs or risks.” He thinks it “inconceivable” that China will overtake the US this century. The challenges have solutions but these will not be implemented. I found it impossible to assess this ultimately political judgement.
What does seem clear is that events in China will be – one way or the other – extraordinary. If you’re interested, this book is a very welcome addition to the collection of well-informed perspectives on a country that has unavoidably become part of our future. ‘Stumbling Giant‘ is an apt title: it’s an alarming prospect and it could take some nimble footwork from the rest of us to avoid collateral damage.