Will China dominate the 21st century? It is a question that has been asked and written about often, and a question answered in recent years as “most likely yes.” But not everyone is convinced because of several different factors. Jonathan Fenby is a former editor of Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post and author of Will China Dominate the 21st Century. He spoke with VOA’s Jim Stevenson about his view of modern China and the challenges he sees for its government.
STEVENSON: There are many factors in the case against China dominating the century and you lay out several of them, starting off with the political trap.
FENBY: Yes, indeed. I think we have here the last major state on earth run by a communist party. You may say that the system which runs China is largely influenced by capitalism and the market, but it is still a communist party which is the sole political party running China. And I think that is leading it into increasing contradictions, as Mao Zedong would have put it, which actually inhibit its ability to develop and reach a position of dominance if it wished to. I am not convinced that China actually wants to dominate the world.
STEVENSON: There are some extraordinary pressures that China will be facing in the coming 50 to 100 years, especially with an aging population and some potentially serious health issues weighing on the state with the amount of pollution that they have, and other factors.
FENBY: Absolutely, because growth has gone ahead without much effective concern for other issues which you mentioned. Fertility has been falling off in China. We have the one-child policy. We have the sheer cost of having a child because of the lack of health care provision in China, and the gender imbalance. You also have the environmental issue. There was a survey done last year by a number of international universities which reckoned that if you have been born this century in China, your life expectancy in northern cities where the worst pollution is, would be cut by five and a half years. On top of this is the question of what I call the trust deficit, that people do not believe in the cleanliness of the air, the cleanliness of the water, in food safety, the lack of the rule by law, all these create difficult social issues and social tensions which the administration is going to have to deal with.
STEVENSON: Would you say the internal pressures on China are greater than the external ones in the argument that it will not be dominating in the 21st century?
FENBY: Yes. I think the first concern of the Chinese leadership, of the communist party leader Xi Jinping, is domestic. Last November there was a big meeting of the leadership which laid out an ambitious plan, 60 points of changes to be made over the next six to seven years. Those are all domestic issues. This is really where the crux of the matter is. International affairs, foreign affairs do not matter that much for China so long as China does not feel threatened by external powers, so long as it does not feel other powers are not going to intervene in its internal affairs, or its access to iron ore, to oil and other resources which it needs are going to be under threat. My argument in my book is that those domestic problems are so challenging, I do not say necessarily they will turn out badly, but they are so challenging for China that its prime focus is internal rather than external.