China’s economic threat is overblown

Colby Cosh on some familiar Soviet themes that will hold the country back

Rows of identical houses with a playground seen in the middle in the city of Jiangyin.

A little while ago, Richard Dawkins got in trouble when he pointed out on Twitter that “All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge.” One wonders if the cheeky professor has ever seen the Wikipedia page headed “List of Chinese Nobel laureates.”

There are 15 names on that list. Two of the “Chinese” Nobelists are white American scientists born to foreigners in pre-Communist China. One is a Japanese chemist born in Japanese-controlled Manchuria, on present-day Chinese soil, in 1935. Another is the Dalai Lama, technically a Chinese national. Setting aside these edge cases leaves 11 Nobel prizewinners of Han Chinese descent: two literature honorees, peace prize recipient and democratic dissident Liu Xiaobo, and eight men of achievement in the basic sciences.

All eight won their Nobels for work outside China, which almost goes without saying. Yet it does go without saying whenever someone writes a panicky piece about the supposedly rising Chinese role in scientific research. The hundred million or so Han outside China have, when it comes to first-class scientific discovery, mopped the floor with the 1.2 billion left behind.

Diane Francis, celebrity business columnist for the National Post, is currently in the very awkward position of flogging a book favouring North American political union in order to defend the continent against the white-hot economies of the developing BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China). I say “awkward” because she is rolling out this thesis after a month of headlines about crashing growth rates in the BRICs. China is still above six per cent and India above four per cent, and if trends continue, Francis frets, the leading industrial nations, including Canada, could still be “overtaken” in overall size within a few decades.

But “if trends continue” is a whale of an “if.” Developing countries eventually polish off the low-hanging fruit of growth and become developed, at which point maintaining supersized growth rates becomes a bit trickier.

Her real worry, one senses from the opening of her book, isn’t really Brazil and Russia. She complains of “foreign governments and their vassal entities . . . nibbling away at resource assets” in Canada and the U.S. It’s a “non-reciprocal and sly strategy,” certain to succeed because “the free-market/free-trade/free-enterprise model does not work as well as controlled and planned economic models such as China’s.” Here we have the “Yellow Peril” updated for the 21st century—apparently, judging from that last quote, by a person who was not paying much attention during the 20th.

What I always wonder when I encounter a China bull or a Chinaphobe—for they are two sides of the same coin—is this: Even if they think “socialism with Chinese characteristics” is economically superior to ordinary capitalism, where in China are the parallel cultural institutions to support prolonged capitalist-style growth? Maybe China doesn’t need reciprocal free trade to blow our doors off in the race to utopia. Maybe it doesn’t need untidy democratic quarrelling. One presumes it won’t need a high level of achievement in basic science, either, judging by the Nobels: It is well-documented that the Chinese civilian research establishment is awash in fraud and plagiarism, to say nothing of the destructive favouritism inherent to a one-party state.

Rowan Callick’s new book The Party Forever: Inside China’s Modern Communist Party makes a simple, compact judgment on the general state of Chinese higher education: Just look where the Party leadership sends its own children to university: the U.S. Another important leading indicator of cultural progress is press freedom, which, if history has anything to say on the matter at all, appears to be utterly integral to sustained prosperity. But Mainland China has no newspapers as we understand them; it is not even clear that the regimented, spoon-fed “reporters” there could assemble one, even if the Party would allow it.

The Diane Francises of the world would have us reject the relevance of the Soviet experience to China’s future, to the point of ignoring familiar Soviet themes that are increasingly apparent in China: the vast infrastructure projects standing unused in the middle of nowhere, the blind environmental despoliation, the dodgy economic statistics. Beyond mastery of trading, interior China has simply never possessed much of the cultural technique upon which the advanced stages of economic development would seem to depend. Hong Kong is the exception, but having taken it over, China shows little appetite so far for imitating its social openness and individuality—or for those of Taiwan or Japan or South Korea. It still requires a strange leap of faith to believe it possible for China to economically surpass these neighbours, and ourselves, without becoming a great deal more like us.

On the web: For more Colby Cosh, visit his blog at macleans.ca/colbycosh




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China’s economic threat is overblown

  1. Nobel prize = Westerners patting each other on the back.

    • Not quite, try this
      Nobel prize = Left butt Western fruitcakes patting each other on the back

      It used to be the way you tell it but not any more.

      • Maybe you’re mistaking the Nobel peace prize with the other Novel prizes. They are given out by different organizations. I will agree that the Nobel Peace Prize has become a total farce. Giving Obama a Peace Prize for being elected was weird and awkward for everyone, Obama included.

  2. Not that it matters but much of the Chinese contribution to world
    technology and science took place long before Nobel adapted
    some of it … and under very authoritarian regimes.

    • All right, I’ll bite. Not that I understand fully your post, but: Gun powder is good for pyrotechnics and bullets, but if you need to blast something, dynamite was for a long time, and by far, a more efficient way to go. Woodblock printing can give you some very fine works of art, but a printing press with movable type can churn out reading material to disseminate information to the masses. (I wonder if the type of “alphabet” might have had a role in this.) Which leaves paper and the compass. A compass is probably of little use on a voyage to the moon or Mars and the invention of a process to produce paper did not lead to the production of newspapers.

    • sur, now they just make everything everywhere for every person.

  3. Author is neglegent in looking at current Chinese Educational reforms for the next 5 years, as well as the increase in eduational rankings every year of Chinese top eductional institutions.

    • I’m not worried. Current top educational practice in China is to import teachers from North America to teach the North American high school curriculum at private schools.
      This is done so those same children can then be exported to North America to earn a university degree.

      In other words: the only way to succeed is to become us.

  4. The problem the Chinese government faces is the same one faced by the Soviets … and the Roman Empire, for that matter. The sorts of innovations that drive economies forward are developed by smart, energetic people who ask lots of questions. Those folks, needless to say, are the ones the Chinese government — indeed any dictatorship — simply cannot tolerate.

  5. well, whatever, only if u feel good.

  6. Does anybody really care about the Nobel prize anymore? It lost all credibility in my mind when it was given to Obama for writing a book and Al Gore for showing a Power Point presentation that turned out to be incredibly wrong.

    • Nobel prizes for science are good while the imitation prizes for economics, peace and literature are nonsensical.

      • Certainly the literature prizes are as ridiculous and make as many glaring omissions as the Oscars. In both cases, you could make a list a mile long of incredibly brilliant films/authors that never won. And yes, the peace prizes, while well-intentioned, have often been head-smackingly incoherent. I think in the case of the peace prizes, they’ve never really been able to get coherent on whether they should ward the prize to the “pure” well-intentioned Mother Theresa types (e.g., disarmament advocates), or the more pragmatic, hands-dirty (often even down and dirty) types (the epitome arguably being Henry Kissinger).

        • Of course, they could try obeying Nobel’s will, which requires the peace prize go to those who have “done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”

          Kissinger never qualified. Neither did Mother Theresa.

      • Alice Munro will be pleased to note she is nonsense.

  7. China is still a third world country – I bet more people still share their homes with pigs than have indoor plumbing – and their leaders are dodgy people who are operating a cartel to keep all the wealth within the party. Wealth creation that is occurring in China is not remotely evenly distributed, there is no private property, no rule of law, all the wealth belongs to Communist Party members.

    I read de Soto book Mystery of Capital a few years ago now and he argues persuasively that countries get stuck in middle income trap when they don’t have private property, businesses are difficult to start …. and all these conditions apply to BRICS. None of the BRICS are likely to achieve living standards comparable to Canada this century unless they radically change their societies. And we actually want BRICS to succeed and be wealthy as Canada because that would give world bigger markets, more things to sell and more items to import. Wealthy Chinese or Indians are not a threat to Canada, far too many of Canada’s intelligentsia are xenophobic ninnies.

    .

    • It’s a first world country (Shanghai, Pearl River Delta), developing, and third world country all wrapped into one state.

  8. “Let China sleep. For when China wakes, it
    will shake the world.”

    –Napoleon Bonaparte

    • it has a firm grasp and will not let go .. cannot let go..

      • Yup….it’s western supremicists who are asleep

        Our manufacturing jobs are gone, and they aren’t coming back……and China is in space while the Americans and us are hitching a ride with….Russians.

        • Except, erm, they are coming back. But manufacturing is becoming less labour intensive overall. I know, I know. Smash the looms, get people to weave fabric by hand so they’ll have something to do.

          • Nah….we ran out the clock on that long ago. China has the advantage of cheap labour that we don’t….and while China is now being hit with union movements, there is still Vietnam, Malaysia, then Africa….millions of people are willing to work for cheap.

            After that….actually right now, cuz it’s all happening at once….there are robots. And Japan and China have us beat on that too.

            Finally of course there is 3D….now becoming 4D.

            We won’t see factories all over NA again

            Our time at the helm is over with.

          • “there are robots. And China and Japan have us beat on that too”

            Sorry – I must correct your error. From a technology standpoint, the USA is the most innovative country on planet earth, and not by a small margin.

            I recall my dear grandmother referencing the “Japanese domination” of the computer software industry in the 1980′s as evidence that the western world was doomed. I chucked as I thought of Microsoft, Oracle, Sun, HP (and the list goes on) of the western companies that are responsible for the modern age of technology.

            Same with robotics.

            Please list some “world leading” Chinese robotics companies for me, and let me know how they have changed the world. Here is a list of some robotics companies to get you started.

            http://www.fastcompany.com/most-innovative-companies/2013/industry/robotics

            Maybe that’s why all of the wealthy westerners send their children to study abroad in Chinese and Japanese universities (LOL)
            Best Regards.

          • I know that’s the myth, and that’s what you’d like to think but it changed long time ago.

            There was no ‘software domination’ by the Japanese in the 80s, it was hardware at the time, so tell your granny…..and ask Bill Gates who Microsoft hires….Americans or people from other countries.

            The whole thing should have served as warning to the west, but it didn’t.

            You can also look up Chinese education abroad…..and put the flag away.

            Empty boasting will get you nowhere.

          • Emily,

            Your comments are quite frankly “empty”. Please provide a list of companies and innovations. Actually, I’ll make it easier for you – just state the innovations.

            “It changed long time ago”, did it? I say this respectfully, but I suspect you are an elderly person who spends a lot of time reading the news, with virtually no formal science or engineering background. Unfortunately the facts do not support your statements. However, I’m sure you will continue to believe what you wish.

            And why is the USA is so powerful and innovative? Precisely because the country attracts the best and brightest people in the world, many of whom dream of immigrating and working in the USA. I believe the comment you made in your second paragraph affirms that truth.

            And, whether or not you wish to believe it, an annual military budget in excess of 600 billion dollars facilitates a large amount of R&D that is subsequently leveraged by the private sector. I suggest you pick up a first year college computer science textbook and do some reading. Or, perhaps you could just Google DARPA and ARPANET to get your education started. Or you can use a Chinese search engine if you prefer.

            Best Regards.

          • I don’t intend to argue this with you. You want to believe the old movies and John Wayne…..and that’s your choice.

            It’s not reality….but then hot doggers aren’t into reality.

        • If manufacturing jobs were worth anything, they would still be in North America.

          • You’ll have to explain that one….I’m still on my first coffee.

    • Emily, I had no idea you knew Napoleon.

      I’d have bet money that all his camp followers would be pushing up daisies by now.

      So tell me this Emily, did you actually stay at Pebble Farm with the Big boys? Did you ever meet Harry Flashman?

  9. Overblown? I think not. They are in charge. Large.

  10. Considering that China’s economic growth has beneffited many countries,Canada included,then the question here is …is it threat to whom? Overblown or otherwise.

  11. You don’t think that it’s racist to say that just because two of the Nobelists were white means they are not Chinese? Are you living in 1940? I suppose that because their parents were foreigners in China, that means their children are not sons or daughters of that land, just like how even though a person of Japanese descent is born in America, because his parents are from Japan he can never be a “true” American (read WHITE) like you, right? You’re a complete idiot and I cannot believe this racist drivel was ever posted. There’s an elderly white man, born in China and a US WW2 veteran, here in NYC who often goes to Chinatown cultural events and says to others, in Chinese, that he “is Chinese, not a foreigner.” He was born there and he identifies with China, so who are you to tell him that he is not Chinese? Or better yet, a black contestant on a Chinese singing show, born in China to a black father and a Chinese mother, has said repeatedly that China is her motherland. I suppose to you, she’s just “Chinese” in name only as well, right?

    China is a huge country and there are over 56 ethnic groups, including Koreans, Manchus, Zhuang, Mongolians, and Tibetans. One’s race should have nothing to do with one’s nationality, but you seem to think that all Chinese must be Han. Because of your first line, I had a problem believing it was even worth my energy reading the rest of this anachronism. If I wanted to read racist landfill fodder posing as respectable opinion, I would have read American newspaper cartoons from the 30s and 40s.

    • If you look at the two individuals’ bios in question, they both were born in China while their parents were on temporary sojourns, and left the country permanently after that while still little kids. It is not a slight to China to say the influence of that country on their Nobel-winning ability had to have been minimal, at best. This is not a question of self-identification, it’s whether the Chinese educational system has produced world-leading science over the last century.

      I was born in England while my parents were on a work visa, took all my school in Canada, and have worked in Canada my whole life. I will never win anything like a Nobel, but if I did I would be on the same sort of list as English-born. Whether I self-identify as English or Canadian or Sontaran has nothing to do with the fact that that reality would still be worth asterisking on any such wholly-hypothetical list of “great men of England.”

  12. Cosh, better stick to hockey. You know so little about China – as a matter of fact you should keep all that precious little knowledge all to yourself. That would improve McLean’s content quality (somewhat). Just don’t bother writing about things you don’t understand.

  13. Dalai Lama is Chinese? This tells you about credibility of this author.

  14. Nobel prize does not seem to hold any reputation anymore specially when Nobel peace prize is given to war criminals ,it is the wrong kind of debate in that sense , It is interesting that Chinese themselves don’t think that they are going to become the superpower as much as some pundits in the west , but pundits have a point and I agree that China will rise and swallow the so called western nations who will be happy and smug thinking that “China may be powerful but we are the ones who are better for having Values , we are the ones who respect the gays as no one else, We are the ones who understand the importance of flattering the Jews , We are the ones who uphold the importance of human rights while killing and bombing those who do not deserve to have rights” this kind of self righteous denial of China’s greatness or China’s rise is an essential component in the rise of China; will precipitate the rise of China , World needs a better super power than the current ones who are the most timid yet with most weapons of mass destruction , they borrow money from China to pay those spies who spy on anyone from Japan to Hawaai and call themselves champions of human rights. the world needs a better leader.

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