It’s known in argumentative logic as a slippery slope or domino fallacy: without sufficient evidence or corresponding explanation, a particular event is offered up as being just one, usually the first, in a series of events inexorably leading to a definite outcome. In other words, A causes B, which leads to C, D, and E. Such a fallacy is currently underpinning one of the poorest arguments – and richest myths – of this young century. China has become the world’s second largest economy, and, according to Goldman Sachs, is slated to be the largest by 2027. Therefore, just as it exports its goods, China will soon export its language, practices, values, politics, culture, and worldview. The twenty-first century is going to be China’s; it’s finally on its way to becoming a nation among nations; it’s on the verge of “ruling the world.”
Not only are such claims clinically illogical, they are being disseminated and backed by dyed-in-the-wool Sinophiles: mythomaniacs keen to omit unflattering facts about China to ensure it gains respect, and they gain credibility. But not all the sycophancy, shallow analysis, and hocus pocus in the universe can belie China’s lagging far behind.
China, you see, lags far behind many of its Asian neighbors. The UN’s 2010 Human Development Index (a comparative measure of life expectancy, literacy, education, and living standards) lists Japan in 11th spot, Korea in 12th, Hong Kong in 21st, and Singapore in 27th. China comes in 91st.
It’s a similar story with GDP per capita, a statistic rarely paraded by the Wow!-Look-at-China-go! lobby. According to the IMF, China is rated 94th in that department, with $7,519. Singapore is 15th ($43,117), Japan 16th ($42,820), Korea 33rd ($20,591), and Taiwan 37th ($18,548).
China is not a developed nation.
As a developing nation, China faces a cornucopia of impediments; not just obstacles preventing it from interacting with the world in a sincere and meaningful way (outside economics), but issues, which, if not acknowledged, will only continue to encumber its citizenry. Chief among these trouble-spots are education, corruption, and pollution.
Traditional Chinese education is an antique. Exam-based and heavy on rote memorization, it stymies critical thinking and creativity. Out of 976 Nobel laureates to date, only 1 has been a resident of China: Lui Xiaobo, a human rights activist and professor awarded the 2010 Peace Prize while serving a prison term for subversion. The latest Times Higher Education World University Rankings show only 3 universities from China in the top 100. Australia, a country with less than 22 million people, has 5. A full 91 are located in the West, where nearly 1.4 million Chinese students are presently studying.
Corruption is a core component of Chinese society, woven into its very fabric. Bribes are commonplace; kick-backs and extortion normal. In the higher echelons, venality is institutionalized, and always has been. In a recent and rare glimpse into the hulking chasm that is China’s profiteering crisis, the central bank leaked a report concluding 17,000 cadres had smuggled out of the country $124 billion in illegally obtained funds between the mid-1990s and 2008. Dealing effectively with corruption requires transparency and rule of law, neither of which China has. It’s much easier to churn out anti-graft propaganda while prodding the dummy justice system to produce a few convictions. Nothing spells resolve quite like show-trials and executions.
As for pollution, China burns more coal than the US, Europe, and Japan combined. Indeed, coal-burning, along with car fumes, has helped make that country the world leader in emissions. The World Bank has calculated that 700,000 people die each year in China from breathing bad air, and has declared China to be the most polluted place on Earth, with 16 of the world’s 20 most contaminated cities. It’s believed half of all bottled water is tainted, one third of the nation’s fresh water being unfit even for industrial use. Roughly three quarters of China’s river water is not suitable for drinking or fishing, and China’s Ministry of Health now lists cancer as the number one cause of death.
Apologists are fond of blaming China’s predicaments on its government, but the root of the problem lies in the tenets of traditional culture, not easily expressed in figures and pie-charts (or in brief opinion pieces), but responsible for psychologically shackling a vast populace to its past. Until Confucian values are replaced by Enlightenment values, and the authoritarian tradition is swapped for fundamental freedoms, China won’t possess the intelligence or means to deal with its aforementioned dilemmas or evolve into a developed nation.
When or how is China going to “rule the world?” represents the wrong question(s). The questions that ought to be asked, in the Western Socratic tradition, are: ‘What is China?’, ‘How did it become what it is?’, and ‘What is it likely to be in the future?’
To find the answers, Western people need to do a bit of studying. After all, propositions built around shoddy logic, sound bites, and mythomania are no substitutes for knowledge.
Troy Parfitt is the author of Why China Will Never Rule the World.
Troy Parfitt is a Canadian national, author and world traveler with a knack for writing visceral travelogues at once enlightening and unconstrained by political correctness. His work is informative, witty, and at times shockingly honest, capturing the experience of an expatriate in Asia. Born in Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada in 1972, Parfitt graduated from the University of New Brunswick with a major in American history and a minor in Canadian political science. He left New Brunswick in 1996 to teach English in South Korea as a certified English-as-Second-Language instructor.
Parfitt lived for nearly two years in Seoul, South Korea and for more than 10 in Taipei, Taiwan. He also made trips to Japan, North Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, Nepal and Vietnam and wrote about them in his Notes from the Other China (New York: Algora Publishing, 2007), a humorous collection of vignettes about the privileges and perils of living and traveling in East Asia. Then, inspired by Paul Theroux’s book about train travel through China in the 1980s, Parfitt set out on extensive journey through the Middle Kingdom in what would become Why China Will Never Rule the World, an account both amusing and erudite. With his Mandarin ability, years of experience living in Chinese society, and scholarly knowledge of Chinese history, Parfitt relays vivid descriptions, comments on facets of the national culture and psyche, and delves deeply into China’s turbulent past while arguing China’s future will not entail global domination.
Mr. Parfitt returned to his hometown of Saint John to take a teaching post at Canada’s oldest English-language university and, in 2011, Why China Will Never Rule the World was published by Canada’s Western Hemisphere Press. Still living in his hometown, Parfitt is presently working on a travel narrative about his homeland (A Sort of Homecoming – In Search of Canada) and hopes to write a novel set in his native Saint John. .