Economic polarization. Social dislocation. Environmental degradation. Military confrontation. Political transformation.
China is unique in that within its borders all of these themes of the late twentieth century are being played out on a grand scale. But there are other reasons why the Middle Kingdom will increasingly capture our time and attention. About one in five people on earth are ethnic Chinese. In addition to a domestic population nearing 1.2 billion, there is a thriving network of inter-related Chinese communities throughout the Western hemisphere, Southeast Asia, Oceana, and much of the rest of the globe. And, if present trends continue, China will have the world's largest economy by 2020.
What does this mean? For Canadians and most everyone else, a great deal.
To begin to understand the dynamics of contemporary China, it is necessary to look behind the headlines at some of the fundamental and underlying realities. Coverage of last spring's events in the Straits of Taiwan, for example, or any developments regarding the Spratly Islands, conveys the impression that the giant of the Far East is not only stirring, but is determined to expand its influence.
To be sure, like all major powers, China is directing part of its growing wealth towards military modernization, thus developing the capability to support its renewed assertiveness. But this observation requires further refinement and must be placed in context. The Chinese argue that they have never pursued an aggressive, expansionist or imperialist foreign policy but have acted only when necessary to defend their territorial integrity or to protect legitimate interests around their borders. Although this view of history may be challenged, they contend that, with the exception of a period of Japanese occupation, the island of Formosa (Taiwan) has always been part of China and reunification is therefore a purely internal matter.
Whatever the international community - not to mention Tibetans - might think of these arguments, the Chinese leadership is nothing if not calculating. Although missile testing makes great television, China is unlikely to plunge headlong towards broader conflagration. History suggests that it is probably safe to rule out reckless or impulsive military behaviour, especially of the type which could lead to World War III.
The prognosis for internal developments, however, is less clear. The pervasive forces that will shape the next century include the extraordinary dynamic of liberalized trading and investment arrangements, globalized economic activity, and technological developments. But the benefits rarely fall equally. For a great many people even in the richest countries the Global Village is not a very comforting or comfortable place - how much less so in the poorer villages around the globe. As suggested at the outset, events in China over the coming years will be critical in defining the nature of the first century of the next millennium.
On the positive side, the dramatic overall growth of the Chinese economy in recent years is certainly something to celebrate. That the government has loosened its grip on centralized control and thus released immense entrepreneurial energies is an outstanding achievement. Economic development, especially in the southern and coastal regions, has rivalled the achievements of other Asian countries and has driven overall rates of growth to levels as high as any in the world. A country that was virtually closed to foreign investment now welcomes it. Despite the frustrations of an opaque, and sometimes unpredictable, legal and administrative system, businesses from around the world are flocking to a booming market.
Long-term investors - the biggest players - have placed their bets that fifteen years after Deng Xiaoping launched China on the road towards freedom of economic activity and fuller integration in the world trading and investment system, the process cannot be reversed. …