The Chinese finger-trap

Spearhead Analysis – 21.10.2014

By Enum Naseer
Senior Research Analyst,
Spearhead Research

ChinaThe Chinese are going to land with a thud— economic pundits and prognosticators have for long been skeptical about China’s rise, going to odd lengths sometimes to convince the global community that China does not have what it takes to be on top. This is both dismissive and dangerous: that an apparent ideological incompatibility between the West and China stands in the way of appreciating the Chinese miracle for what it is let alone understand it. That China does not necessarily conform to textbook definitions of capitalism does not seem to have a bearing on its economic trajectory. The glaringly obvious xenophobia in the mainstream discourse suggests that the bubble will burst soon enough and it bases the inevitability of such on the premise that China’s growing economic clout is a result of globalization, of ‘de-industrialization’ and ‘de-growth’ in the West. While China has been quick to realize the opportunity and work towards economic excellence, its ambitions are viewed with suspicion and disdain.

Indeed, the relationship between the global hegemon and the new aspirant is both curious and complicated. While the former one poses as the guarantor of liberty and freedom and points fingers at the latter for its human rights record and dismisses its continued economic progress as mere serendipity, it will not only gladly consume what the latter will produce but also let it become its biggest foreign creditor. The dichotomy owes itself to an underlying symbiosis in spite of the competition between the two superpowers for the throne. China is at it and while it is still donning a communist uniform, it is at it with a new version of capitalism. “China is today the ideal capitalist state: freedom for capital, with the state doing the ‘dirty job’ of controlling the workers,” opines eminent Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek.  “China as the emerging power of the twenty first century …seems to embody a new kind of capitalism: disregard for ecological consequences, disdain for workers’ rights, everything subordinated to the ruthless drive to develop and become the new world force.”

There has been a lot of hullabaloo over the implications of China’s rise on the world stage, particularly in the sphere of human rights, civil liberties and democracy.That a system that is oppressive by Western standards should help achieve success may make for an inspiring story but does not satiate the appetite for romance— ideally, those conforming to the standards of righteousness set by the Global North should prosper and the rest should fail. What may be of greater relevance though is the fact that there is no empirical evidence robust enough to establish a significant correlation between Western style democracy and growth. Democracy, despite being the lesser of the two evils, can sometimes disappoint too when it becomes a cover for reckless power grabbing by some interest groups. African and Asian countries, in particular have experienced this problem. For the most part, development is dependent on the effectiveness of state policies implemented to bring about economic growth rather than the nature of a country’s political system. Berating China’s current success on the grounds that it is yet to democratize itself to bring about real growth: innovation-based growth, will keep the world from appreciating the Chinese model and learning from it.

Mainstream media reportage and popular discourse are both rife with anti-China xenophobia but should not cloud our understanding or analysis of China’s economic trajectory. The fact that growth thus far has been a persisting phenomenon at a time when global economic trends are dismal alone is intriguing. In a world of increasing interdependence, it is crucial to fully understand what is happening around us before we write things off for challenging globally established preferences. In the same corollary, it can also be argued that regardless of our leanings in the US vs China debate, the two will be inevitably locked in a symbiotic relationship keeping egoistic interests on both sides in check. It might be safe thus to assume that with China making economic progress in a novel and quiet manner, there may be more to learn and consequently, a lot less to fear— at least in the short and medium term.