Jonathan Fenby: “China’s Dominance is Not Inevitable”

At The Guardian’s Comment Is Free, journalist and author Jonathan Fenby challenges the assumption that China’s continued rise is inevitable, and catalogues the dizzying range of problems facing its next generation of leaders.

China’s rise is a commonplace of our times. The last major state on earth ruled by a Communist party appears set to dominate the planet, surpassing an anaemic west and owning the 21st century. After the temporary economic downturn of 2008, its growth has soared once more to make it the planet’s second biggest economy. Everything about it is huge, starting with its 1.3 billion people. Its Communist party is the planet’s biggest political movement; it contains 55% of the world’s pigs; its people smoke 38% of the cigarettes consumed on earth ….

The reality is that, as it prepares for a wholesale change of leadership starting later this year, the People’s Republic faces fundamental tests which will determine if it is able to continue its upwards trajectory or will be caught by the deep flaws in its system – political, economic and social ….

Despite all these fault lines, China is not going to collapse; it is far too resilient for that. Its growth has made more people materially better off in a shorter space of time than ever before in human history and this breeds loyalty to a system. But two things are clear. It does not provide a model for the rest of the world as its admirers might wish, and the danger now is that, unless Xi Jinping and his colleagues in the new politburo undertake serious reform, China will be stuck in an increasingly outdated groove, out of tune with its needs and aspirations.

Fenby surveyed China’s options in The Spectator last month:

It can turn left in the direction of even more party control and state power. That was Bo Xilai’s route, which now seems to be blocked. Or it can veer right by helping private companies which have been squeezed by privileged state enterprises and embarking on a major programme of reform. This is sorely needed. Deng’s revolution remains incomplete and, in many ways, has been scaled back by the expansion of the state since the 1990s ….

The probability is that China will take the middle road, continuing on a course with which its leaders are familiar. There will be change — the new Five-Year Plan provides for rebalancing the economy towards consumption and for a move up the technology chain. But progress will be slow. An official from the Party School remarked to me that the move away from dependence on exports and investment in property and infrastructure would take ten years. Muddling through, albeit at 7 to 8 per cent annual growth, will be the order of the day.

The snag is that China may be running out of time.

Fenby’s new book, ‘Tiger Head, Snake Tails‘, aims to provide “a one-stop overview of China’s politics, economics, society, international relations, history, environmental issues, corruption and new leadership.” It has received positive reviews from former governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, at The Financial Times, and from author Julia Lovell at The Guardian:

No single book could ever describe the full complexity of contemporary China, and Fenby has made tough but judicious decisions about what to leave out. Perhaps the most regrettable omission, though, is the neglect of Chinese culture. Although the pace of life in China can often seem too frenetic to permit anyone to settle down long enough to write, film or paint anything, its flourishing literary, cinema and art scenes offer fragmentary but intensely individual insights into this confounding country – a welcome counterbalance to the big headline stories about industry, GDP, diplomacy and political succession. But as a one-stop guide to political and economic realities in China today, Tiger Head, Snake Tails is fast-moving, informed and illuminating.

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