BOOK REVIEW / China's long march towards economy class: 'China: The Next Economic Superpower' - William H Overholt: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 18.99 pounds

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THE world is suddenly waking up to the probability that China will at some point become the world's largest economy, overtaking the United States. The precise timing is uncertain, and in any case depends on rather arbitrary definitions of economic size. But given the disparity of the populations (1.2 billion against 250 million) and the differences in growth rates for the last 10 years (roughly 10 per cent against under 3 per cent) it is quite difficult to see any other outcome.

This is an astonishing turnaround. At the beginning of the 1980s China was facing not just catastrophic economic disruption following the cultural revolution, but the triumphant growth of the overseas Chinese communities. Three of the four fastest-growing new economies - Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong and Korea - were Chinese. Provided its people were able to escape from mainland China, they were tremendously successful. It was quite clear that China had bet on the wrong economic system.

The proposition that China will become the first large economy to transform itself from developing country status to industrial status in one generation has been developed by William Overholt, an American banker in Hong Kong. It is an unashamedly bullish view: economic take-off will be sustained; it will improve the lot of the world's poor; it will lead to democracy; and it will make China a great power.

Dr Overholt concludes that the West should not threaten China with trade retaliation over its record on human rights (as has the US), nor establish a form of democracy in Hong Kong (as we are seeking to do), but rather allow China to liberalise at its own pace. Confrontation, he argues, will be counter-productive.

The first part of the argument is persuasive. Even given China's policy mistakes - and anyone who has read Jung Chang's Wild Swans will be all too aware of those - there is enough momentum to carry China to a position of economic dominance early in the next century.

This growth is based on real consumer needs, not some misguided ideology; unlike the Great Leap Forward it is hardly going to collapse in catastrophe.

But to draw parallels between China and the other Asian economies is to ignore both scale and history. All the countries that have developed rapidly have been quite small. Even South Korea, the largest, has a population of only 43 million. They have also all had military or historical links with the US or UK, and so had a ready access to these markets for their exports. Countries like Singapore, Hong Kong or Taiwan have built their economies by selling goods to the West, and the West has felt a certain obligation to accept these products.

The West has a quite different relationship with China. In any case, it simply would not be physically possible to buy China's exports on the same scale pro rata as we have bought products from, say, Taiwan. China's economic expansion will have to be internally driven, and will almost certainly move more slowly as a result.

Nor will economic growth necessarily bring political clout. It is no coincidence that economic takeoff has occurred on the fringes of China, most notably the hinterland behind Hong Kong. It is almost as though strong central government is incompatible with economic success.

Looking ahead, the ideal model for China, from a purely economic point of view, might be something more like the European Union than the United States. Arguably it is in the West's interest that the country should fragment, provided it can fragment in a benign way: an association of more-or-less independent states with more-or- less democratic institutions, rather than competing warlords.

Whether the West can have much influence on the outcome is another matter.

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