The Hollow Dragon
Modern China: what does this phrase conjure up in the minds of most of us?
Roads being built at an astonishing pace; a huge emerging middle class eager to over-consume like their Western counterparts; shiny new trains and skyscrapers; the world’s largest hermetically-sealed Internet with some of the most valuable technology companies in the world; and new military hardware that will soon turn US carrier groups into nothing more than expensive floating targets. China is on the ascendant, a nascent superpower.
According to the generic narrative, China has overwhelming advantages. Its size permits it to become the global leader in Artificial Intelligence as it garners data from 1.3 billion citizens every minute of every day. Its leaders, free from the mindless self-harm engendered by representative democracy, can focus on the future and pursue long-term plans. Chinese investments abroad create both soft and durable power for Chairman Xi to wield.
For anyone who’s visited Beijing or Shanghai in the last few years, this narrative seems watertight. This will definitely be China’s century.
Well, maybe. But a very interesting book written by two Californian researchers and just published by the University of Chicago Press tells a rather different story. Invisible China explores not the glossy Westernized cities but the vast hinterland in which 70% of Chinese people still live.
While Chinese High School students have been scoring near the top of the PISA rankings in recent years, those students haven’t actually been representative of students across the nation. Rather as offspring fortunate enough to have wealthy parents and live in wealthy communities such as Berkeley, Marin County, and Palo Alto score far better than more typical US students, so too do the students China selects to take the PISA tests score far better than the average Chinese girl or boy.
In fact, once we move out of the ranks of the privileged, the Chinese picture changes dramatically. Instead of shiny tall skyscrapers there are pit latrines and women handwashing clothes in nearby rivers. Villages are populated by the old, by women, and by small children. Men have departed to work as laborers in large cities and are able to return home briefly only once or twice per year to see their families — who cannot join them due to China’s strict policy of hukou which ties people to the village of their birth and prevents them from accessing any services (education, hospitals, government offices) elsewhere.
As a consequence of hukuo, 67% of Chinese children attend village schools. The Californian researchers tested thousands of such children over a period of several years and found that 91% scored no better at the end of the school year than at its beginning, and many actually scored worse. Not only are teachers at such schools disinclined to exert themselves to do any teaching, but chronic persistent malnutrition resulting from total ignorance about nutrition means that half of all rural Chinese children are intellectually stunted by the time they begin to attend school. The authors found that these children were unlikely ever to attain even an IQ score of 90.
This means that hundreds of millions of Chinese children will become uneducated slow-witted adults, unable to aspire to any but the most menial occupations. As the offspring of the fortunate elite continue to rise, hundreds of millions will remain mired in abject squalor and poverty. Although tens of millions won’t starve to death as they did under the catastrophically stupid policies of “the Great Helmsman” Mao Zedong, they won’t get much more than empty calories to feed their bellies — and the stomachs of their children. So the cycle will perpetuate itself.
In addition to appalling malnutrition, 40% of rural children are infested with worms, which cause them to be lethargic. Peasants, always the most superstitious of human beings, fear that deworming tablets would cause their children to become infertile so they refuse to treat the condition. Likewise the 33% of Chinese children who have poor vision go without glasses because the adults who look after them believe that glasses are bad for the eyes. So these children can’t see the blackboard or read the ideograms printed (badly) in their out-of-date school text books.
In other words, far from being an emerging superpower that is destined to rule the globe by the middle of this century, China is mostly a third-world nation with a few shiny cities and a relatively small percentage of fortunate citizens living in first-world conditions.
From a demographic perspective, China is a time-bomb.
China’s population is ageing thanks to the one child policy imposed by “the Great Helmsman” and so it will be the first nation in history to experience a massive overhang of older people past working age before ever attaining the GDP necessary to begin to support them. Add into this the fact that two-thirds of Chinese children will never be able to work in the knowledge economy — which is where most of the new jobs will be created — and it is easy to see that the Chinese Communist Party will need to resort to greater and greater repression in order to keep a lid on growing discontent as the years roll by.
Greater internal repression will raise the need for stunts that generate transient prestige for the Party. Russia’s Putin knows this game very well and has attempted to hide behind stunts like the invasion of Georgia in 2008 and the invasion of Ukraine in 2014. For a short while these “patriotic” sideshows work because people are endlessly gullible and always love a good war when their side appears to be winning. It’s easy to imagine an increasingly desperate Chinese leadership deciding that a good old-fashioned “patriotic” invasion of Taiwan is just what hundreds of millions of unhappy peasants need to cheer them up and get them to rally behind the Chinese flag for a while.
So China’s weakness is not good news. As if to confirm the Party’s need for external victories to distract from problems at home, a senior Chinese security minister Chen Yixin recently boasted of “a rising East and a declining West” that presages Chinese dominance this century. As most wars begin due to over-confidence by the belligerent nation and as China has been increasing its military capabilities in dramatic fashion over the last ten years — particularly in areas that negate former US advantages — it is all too easy to imagine China starting a “quick” war they feel sure they can win in a suitably telegenic manner.
Rationally, Chinese leaders should focus on improving the quality of life for the vast majority of ordinary Chinese citizens. Unfortunately we humans have almost no capacity whatsoever for rational behavior, but we are very good indeed at telling ourselves how clever we’re being as we light the fuse that leads to a very large keg of explosives.
It is, alas, all too possible to imagine that this century will indeed be the China century — in much the same way as the last century could be described as the German century.
But at least millions of nearly-illiterate Chinese school children won’t have to struggle to read about it; they can watch it unfolding on the village TV screen instead.
That’s progress, Chinese style.