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Evans

Will the 21st Century be the Chinese Century?

Sean Evans, Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science
Jul 1, 2011

After recently spending two weeks in China, I believe predictions of a coming Chinese century are exaggerated. China will be a world power but not a superpower.

China has tremendous potential. First, there is a unified national sense of purpose about making China a great nation. Second, China's authoritarian government can make strategic decisions and implement them easily. Third, many Chinese have an entrepreneurial spirit. Finally and most important, the Chinese have an amazing sense of duty that focuses their attention and leads them to work hard.

In spite of these advantages, several obstacles lie in China's path to superpower status. First, the Chinese culture does not reward taking the initiative. While the Chinese are extremely hard working, the culture dictates performing only one's role. If your role does not require something, it is up to someone else to do it. This culture prevents many Chinese from developing latent skills.

Second, the Chinese rarely admit mistakes because it causes them to "lose face" in their culture. The inability to admit mistakes or weakness prevents them from learning and improving.

Third, the Confucian culture is too rigid and hierarchical. For example, the scores on the national college entrance exams pre-determine the university one enters and the degree one pursues. This system leads to students receiving degrees in subjects for which they are not well suited, which will affect China's future economic productivity. Moreover, the top-down decision making requires that the government plan correctly.

This unemployment problem speaks to the fourth obstacle, which is uneven economic growth. China's national economy has grown at rates of 10 percent per year over the past 30 years. However, the growth is focused in certain regions. The uneven growth leads to college graduates working in jobs that do not match their skills and many individuals working in make-shift jobs that could easily be eliminated.

Fifth, China emphasizes economic growth without the values that sustain it and ignores some basic humanitarian needs. For example, property rights are so suspect that basic maintenance does not occur, making recently built buildings look much older than they are. Moreover, the water sanitation system is so poor that everyone either boils water or buys bottled water when a simple solution is better water treatment plants.

Sixth, the tremendous growth over the past 30 years is changing individual expectations regarding jobs, personal freedom and success. As the Chinese continue to integrate with the world, they will observe life in other nations which will increase expectations further. If China is unable to meet its citizens' expectations, challenges to the government's legitimacy may develop.

Finally, the global appeal of the Chinese model of strong economic growth but limited personal and political freedom may not appeal to the masses around the world. The Western model with its emphasis on human dignity, for all its faults, should appeal more to the growing middle classes in the developing world.

This article originally appeared in the July 1 edition of The Jackson Sun