The Long Wait for China's Emergence


July 26, 1993|By WILLIAM PFAFF

Paris. -- The economic and geopolitical policy makers of the Clinton administration have their attention focused on the Pacific Basin. This reflects conventional wisdom, but the assumptions that lie behind this are not as solid as they commonly are made out to be.

These take for granted that China will be a superpower in the near future, and soon will challenge Japan by its economic dynamism as well as its military power and geopolitical claims. The scale of the military and political ambitions of China today are certainly clear, and continuation of China's rapid economic growth is a defensible assumption, given the transformation visible in the coastal Chinese regions industrially linked to Hong Kong and accessible to Western businessmen and journalists.

However, the United States government and American elites have always possessed a faith, at times near-obsessional, in China's progressive future, which the Chinese have consistently disappointed. In the 19th century American Protestant missionaries set out for China convinced that there was a great harvest of souls to be saved, and that China could and would be converted to Christianity. It was a belief subsequently reinforced by the fact that both Sun Yat-sen, ''father'' of the Chinese revolution and first president of the republic established in 1911, and the wife of Sun's successor, Chiang Kai-shek, were converts to American Protestantism.

Chiang himself was made one of World War II's ''Big Four'' by Franklin Roosevelt because of this American confidence in China's future, which by the 1940s had become a belief that while China might not become Christian it would certainly become -- under American sponsorship -- a democracy, the world's most populous. But China did not become Christian, nor has it become a democracy.

Today's American missionaries to China are preachers of capitalism and democracy. But China was a highly successful commercial society centuries before the United States existed, and politically it has always been, except in periods of dynastic decline or change, what it remains today: a centralized, bureaucratic, authoritarian ''imperial'' system.

AIt is sentimentality to say that capitalism will inevitably bring democracy to China. Democratic reform has accompanied capitalist development in some places in the world, while capitalism has flourished elsewhere under authoritarian regimes, as it does in Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand today, and in South Korea until recently. China's intention with respect to Hong Kong clearly is to deprive it of democracy. It is pure speculation to say that China today is on the way to democracy.

Moreover, the sheer size and population of China must not be confused with economic power. Comparisons of national economies are very difficult for many reasons, and in China's case no one really knows what its gross domestic product may be, or the real scale of economic change across its vast territory. Western specialists working with the data that are available suggest that China's present GDP, or actual economic weight, on international comparisons, is much below that of Spain, and about a third that of contemporary Italy.

The International Institute for Strategic Studies is one respected source for international economic as well as military comparisons, and its latest survey of the world's nations and their power proposes for China a GDP figure equivalent to $371 billion in 1991, the latest year for which internationally comparable figures are available. The equivalent figure for Spain is $527 billion. For Italy it is more than $1 trillion.

The Pacific Basin itself figures poorly, compared to North America and Western Europe. Take the four ''tigers'' or ''small dragons'' of Asia: South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Hong Kong. All together, their massed GDP is roughly that of Spain plus Portugal. Add mainland China to the total and you have an economic and industrial agglomerate about the size of Italy or Britain.

I have found in the past that people in the United States simply do not want to believe these figures. Even sophisticated Americans have a picture in their minds of a huge and dynamic Asia led by Japan and China, on its way to dividing up the global economy with the North American giant -- poor Europe left behind. I can only say to them, look it up: in the IISS figures, World Bank reports or any other serious source of international economic comparisons.

The 12 nations of the present European Community had in 1991, all together, a collective GDP well above $6 trillion, and of course the total is more than that today. The 1991 figure for the United States was $5,674 billion. For Japan it was $3,363 billion. For India, $251 billion. The Dutch economy alone, at $284 billion, is bigger than India's -- with the Dutch population one-sixtieth that of India. Indonesia's GDP is $117 billion; Belgium's is $202 billion.

The average rate of economic growth in the Asian economies certainly is much higher than in Western Europe or North America today, but this also is characteristic of developing economies. Twenty-five years ago West European growth rates were as high as or higher than the present rates in Asia. We may soon see high growth rates in Eastern Europe, as economies there begin to move.

There is no question about Asia's being a mounting and increasingly significant force in the global economy. But today -- Japan aside -- it remains a distinctly minor factor, by comparison with either North America or Western Europe. The policy of the United States government should be addressed to present realities, not to what speculation says the situation might be in the mid-21st century.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.