Wednesday 25 Nov 2020 | 02:52 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 25 Nov 2020 | 02:52 | SYDNEY

Bi-focal China


Malcolm Cook

5 February 2008 13:33

Getting a proper read on China is difficult. Is it the political-economic juggernaut overtaking the US to become the world’s technological leader (the Georgia Institute of Technology certainly claims so) and providing a new bureaucratic authoritarian model for emulation by others not wed to the American version of liberal democracy? China is presented as the newest challenger to the US' long reign as the world’s pre-eminent superpower, with many wondering 'when' and not 'if' China can take over the helm, and many of these thinking the 'when' will be sooner than later.

The coverage on China’s New Year transport chaos though should act as a tonic to such hubris. Here, the focus is on the fact that China is a poor, developing transitional economy where its leaders face a myriad of challenges and contradictions that would make the leaderships of advanced economies blanche. Tomorrow, the first Wednesday Lowy Lunch of the year will highlight some more of these domestic challenges and what they mean for China’s future (the podcast will be on the Lowy site soon afterward). China’s aggregate economic statistics (even after the World Bank PPP adjustments lopped 40% off China’s GDP) and the generally positive news coverage of Chinese diplomacy in the Australian media do make China seem like the global heir apparent ready to take over from the US and Japan. China’s per capita economic statistics and the huge difficulties facing commuters trying to get home for their annual holidays suggest otherwise. The huge scale of China – 1.3 billion and counting – explains the mind-bending difference between the aggregate and the per capita – a difference that those of us looking from outside China in should not forget.