The 21st century, we are told, will be China’s. Usually this is intended as a warning: if the world’s leading economies fail to respond to the Chinese “threat”, we will face a second-class future trailing in the wake of the People’s Republic.
This blinkered view gets us nowhere. China is a proud nation with a turbulent history, and it makes no secret of its superpower ambitions. It is certainly a fierce competitor for resources – witness the panic in the US about China’s thirst for oil, and what that means for fuel prices. But this vast and diverse country is already much more than a simple adversary. Without China’s supply of cheap manufactured goods, massive overseas investment and talented labour, the world’s economy would be in serious trouble.
In this age of globalisation, China is also a partner – which is why we should all be concerned about the challenges ahead. China faces immense social, political and environmental problems, and whatever is a problem for China is by definition a problem for everyone else too. Today in rich western countries, people worry about poisoned Chinese pet food and imported toys tainted with lead. Tomorrow, it could be a global climate meltdown driven by China’s exploding demand for energy.
China’s leaders are no fools. Most senior members of the central government were trained in that most practical of disciplines, engineering. They know that the nation’s present trajectory is unsustainable, both economically and environmentally. If China is to continue its remarkable development, it must transform itself from an exporter of cheap manufactured goods built to western blueprints into what its leaders call an “innovation nation” – able to sustain its growth through home-grown ingenuity. So they are pouring huge sums into science, particularly at the applied end of hot fields like nanotechnology and renewable energy. China’s spending on research and development has more than doubled in the past five years, and official plans call for a further rise – from 1.34 per cent of GDP in 2005 to 2.5 per cent by 2020.
If the plan bears fruit, some of the innovations that will be needed to solve global problems are likely to come from China. Already, top Chinese researchers and entrepreneurs trained abroad are returning to their homeland in unprecedented numbers. They are emphatic about one thing: wanting China to be able to stand with the US and other leading nations as an equal partner.
Can China really reinvent itself as a lean, green technological superpower? Will the rural poor get left behind as the urban middle class reaps the benefits of rapid economic growth? Or will the economic miracle falter or even collapse? And can the Communist Party maintain its grip on power through it all? Will it ultimately be an engine of reform, or an obstacle to change? Will China eventually embrace democracy as it is practised in the west? Or does conflict lie ahead?