Are you a superpower when Timothy Garton Ash says so? The award-winning writer has a grand piece in the Guardian today in which he states:
Today - 2 April 2009 - may yet be marked as the day on which, through the catalysis of a global economic crisis, China definitively emerged as a 21st-century world power.
Not so fast.
Garton Ash poses what to him is "the Chinese question of questions." That is, "can you continue to combine command politics with market economics?" For the sake of argument, he says, let's assume that China solves this riddle, then what?
My reaction to the piece is similar to my reaction to a lot of Western journalism about China. The questions that burn for us actually might not be the ones that burn the Chinese.
Garton Ash assumes that China is going to be able to fit the square peg of its authoritarian political system into the round hole of its free-wheeling economic system. As a result, he says, China becomes No. 1.
But what if he's asked the wrong question? What if the burning question for China is, for example, demographics? It's the fastest aging society in the world. It will indeed grow old before it gets rich. Or what if the question is environmental? I don't need to go into details here, you know how bad it is. Or social? China's crime problem is serious and getting worse. There's a nationwide shortage of trust. Or health-related? AIDS continues to grow; there's avian flu. Or economic? Yes, China has done miraculously so far. But exports are down significantly. Can they weather this Western-induced crisis?
There is a triumphalism coming from Beijing that Garton Ash's piece notes. The recent attack on the dollar; the obnoxious musings of Vice President and Anointed Successor Xi Jinping (Misspelled initially. Thanks to reader P. Gardes for pointing out the mistake!) while he was in Mexico. Some of the bluster is justified. But some of it also masks a deep insecurity about what's next for China. We need to remember that what we often think are the big questions for that great country aren't the right ones at all.