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Dr Philip Lee MP: China may be big - but it has big, big problems

Dr Phillip Lee is MP for Bracknell and a member of the Energy & Climate Change Select Committee. Follow Phillip on Twitter.

Phillip LeeWhilst walking through Tiananmen square in 1995, images of tanks driving towards unarmed people and Kate Adie's dramatic eye-witness testimony came to my mind. Locals gathered around me, eager to practise their English. Skulking behind me, suspicious characters listened intently to my conversations.

It was an uncomfortable experience - one which I recalled on my return to Beijing earlier this year with my select committee. The capital appeared much changed. Bicycles have replaced cars; the view from the Square now dominated by skyscrapers. In stark contrast to my first visit, during which I witnessed a mother carefully folding McDonald's packaging material as cherished evidence of her child's visit to a burger restaurant, consumption has now become commonplace. Local incomes have risen on the wave of Western demand for Chinese products. Manufacturing industry has left China holding vast foreign currency reserves. Perhaps more worringly, though, it has also now left them with significant resource and environmental challenges. One hundred years ago, China had few carbon emissions. In a hundred years time, it will have no fossil fuels.

The consensus view amongst economists is that the 21st century will be dominated by China. Until recently, their annual 'double digit' GDP growth has excited everyone's attention. The future is the East. Apparently, we in the West must accept this reality and endure relative economic decline. I don't agree, and not just because consensus economist views rarely hold value. To my mind, wealth is created by the combination of human effort, intellectual capital and raw materials. In the future, it will be increasingly spent on energy, welfare and healthcare.

Until now, the Chinese goverment's legitimacy has been built on stellar growth driven by cheap, young labour. Well, that massive workforce is now ageing and costing more. Of course, Chinese industry is known to copy well; genuine invention, however, remains rare. Raw materials are also beginning to run out. Water is becoming scarce. By this assessment, it appears Chinese prospects do not appear so bright. Their continuous pursuit of economic growth is clearly not sustainable. Hence, the country's future stability remains uncertain.

As Noel Coward famously said, China is very big. Perceived wisdom is that big means strong and small means weak. That, in a nutshell, appears to sum up the West's current strategic thinking on foreign policy. Unfortunately, our performance in predicting future foreign policy challenges has not been so good lately. Were we prepared for the Arab Spring? I also do not recall the sovereign debt crisis featuring in many speeches a few years ago. Some may have foreseen such seismic events, but one has not been left with the impression that individuals in Whitehall tasked with doing so did.

So what is the reality in China? 500 million live there on less than $2 a day. Over half of the population inhabit rural areas, sharing just 10% of the country’s wealth. Such inequality with no democratic outlet is just not sustainable. Indeed, how can a country be thought powerful when a third of its people are poorly-educated, near-subsistence farmers, lacking access to safe drinking water, decent electricity and universal suffrage?

The social situation is little better. Today, China is the world’s top executioner, dispatching more people than the rest of the world combined. Sadly, it's not just the State that is an efficient killer. Suicide is the leading cause of death for people under 34. One woman kills herself every four minutes. Divorce rates are no better, having doubled over the last decade. In Beijing alone, 39% of marriages fail. Health indicators are also showing worrying trends: 200 million Chinese are now overweight. Consequently, one in ten adults have diabetes resulting in obvious substantial cost implications.

And what of intellectual capital? The pervading culture of plagiarism and bureaucracy, with an emphasis on rote learning, seriously inhibits new thinking. Tellingly, no Chinese citizen has ever won a scientific Nobel Prize. For to develop a truly creative society capable of delivering technological revolutions people need to be free. How is that helped by a civil legal process derived from the Soviet system or a judiciary 'overseen' by the Communist party? Furthermore, is not theft and imitation of foreign products a sign of weakness?

Once again, perceived strengths are really weaknesses and vice versa. Of course, it is foolish to think that the Chinese are incapable of innovation. Just ask your nearest cyber security expert. No, the Chinese are resourceful and driven. Thereʼs much more to them than stuffed toys and counterfeit DVDʼs. But equally, it is dangerous to over-estimate their capabilities, too. As is often the case in history, we will doubtless later find that they could do some of the things we thought they couldn't and not all of the things we thought they could.

I believe that the real threat from this vast country derives from its vulnerability. By concentrating on its emerging 'superpower status', I fear that we are missing the true foreign policy challenge. What if there were a genuine breakdown in Chinese society precipitated by a global economic depression or an energy crisis? Remember, the welfare safety nets present in western society are not available to the Chinese. The inevitable rationing of food, water and electricity would be intolerable. Chaos would ensue: a genuine threat to global stability.

Furthermore, if the Arab Spring has taught us anything it is that closed, authoritarian societies, populated with an oppressed people aware of the green grass yonder, live on borrowed time. Their rulers cannot guarantee internal support by demonizing the rest of the world. Are we to believe that every Manchester United shirt and Gucci bag would be ceremonially burnt by their owners? That overnight, the aspirations of millions of individuals would be suspended in lieu of war against the creators of the very lifestyle they yearn for and the language they have worked so hard to speak?

Itʼs possible, but unlikely. Whatʼs more probable, given the world we live in today, is that China, like every other country on the planet, will increasingly need to divert its attention towards complex internal conundrums: an ageing populace, the depletion of natural resources and climate change, to name but a few. China is big, but big equals big problems. The truth is, no one knows what will happen, least of all, I suspect, the 1.4 billion individuals somewhat inaccurately described as “the Chinese”. I think that in the future, big will be bad. Size does matter. Which is why I'd still rather be St George in the year of the Dragon.


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