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The Chimerica Dream
Posted on Jun 21, 2013
By Pepe Escobar, TomDispatch
The $6.4 trillion question is whether any dream competition involving the Chinese and American ruling elites could yield a “win-win” relationship between the planet’s “sole superpower” and the emerging power in Asia. What’s certain is that to increase the dream’s appeal to distinctly standoffish, if not hostile neighbors, China’s diplomats would have to embark on a blockbuster soft-power charm offensive.
Xi’s two predecessors could not come up with anything better than the vague concept of a “harmonious society” (Hu Jintao) or an abstruse “theory of the Three Represents” (Jiang Zemin), as corruption ran wild among the Chinese elite, the country’s economy began to slow, and environmental conditions went over a cliff.
Xi’s dream comes with a roadmap for what a powerful future China would be like. In the shorthand language of the moment, it goes like this: strong China (economically, politically, diplomatically, scientifically, militarily), civilized China (equity and fairness, rich culture, high morals), harmonious China (among social classes), and finally beautiful China (healthy environment, low pollution).
The Holy Grail of the moment is the “Two 100s”—the achievement of a “moderately prosperous society” by the Chinese Communist Party’s 100th birthday in 2021, one year before Xi’s retirement; and a “rich, strong, democratic, civilized, and harmonious socialist modern country” by 2049, the 100th birthday of the founding of the People’s Republic.
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Built into such projections is a powerful belief in the economic motor that a relentless urbanization drive will provide—the goal being to put 70% of China’s population, or a staggering one billion people, in its cities by 2030.
Chinese academics are already enthusing about Xi’s dreamscape. For Xin Ming from the Central Party School (CPS)—an establishment pillar—what’s being promised is “a sufficient level of democracy, well-developed rule of law, sacrosanct human rights, and the free and full development of every citizen.”
Don’t confuse “democracy,” however, with the Western multiparty system or imagine this having anything to do with political “westernization.” Renmin University political scientist Wang Yiwei typically describes it as “the Sinocization of Marxism… opening up the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics.”
Hail the Model Urban Citizen (aka Migrant Worker)
Of course, the real question isn’t how sweet China’s party supporters and rhapsodists can make Xi’s dream sound, but how such plans will fare when facing an increasingly complex and anxiety-producing reality.
Just take a stroll through Hong Kong’s mega-malls like the IFC or Harbour City and you don’t need to be Li Chunling, from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, to observe that China’s middle class is definitely dreaming about achieving one kind of westernization—living the full consumer life of their (now embattled) American middle-class counterparts.
The real question remains: On a planet at the edge and in a country with plenty of looming problems, how can such a dream possibly be sustainable?
A number of Chinese academics are, in fact, worrying about what an emphasis on building up the country’s urban environment at a breakneck pace might actually mean. Peking University economist Li Yining, a mentor of Premier Li Keqiang, has, for instance, pointed out that when “everyone swarmed like bees” to invest in urban projects, the result was a near bubble-bursting financial crisis. “The biggest risk for China is in the financial sector. If growth comes without efficiency, how can debt be repaid after a boom in credit supply?” he asks.
Chen Xiwen, director of the Party’s Central Rural Work Leading Group, prefers to stress the obvious ills of hardcore urbanization: the possible depletion of energy, resources, and water supplies, the occupation of striking amounts of land that previously produced crops, massive environmental pollution, and overwhelming traffic congestion.
Among the most pressing questions raised by Xi’s dream is what it will take to turn yet more millions of rural workers into urban citizens, which often turns out to mean migrant workers living in shanty towns at the edge of a monster city. In 2011 alone, a staggering 253 million workers left the countryside for the big city. Rural per capita income is three times less than urban disposable income, which is still only an annual 21,800 yuan, or a little over $3,500 (a reminder that “middle class China” is still a somewhat limited reality).
A 2012 report by the National Population and Family Planning Commission revealed that 25.8% of the population is “self-employed,” which is a fancy way of describing the degraded state of migrant workers in a booming informal economy. Three-quarters of them are employed by private or family-owned businesses in an off-the-books fashion. Fewer than 40% of business owners sign labor contracts. In turn, only 51% of all migrant workers sign fixed-term labor contracts, and only 24% have medical insurance.
As working citizens, they should—in theory—have access to local health care. But plenty of local governments deny them because their hukou—household registrations—are from other cities. In this way, slums swell everywhere and urban “citizens” drown in debt and misery. In the meantime, top urban management in Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Chongqin is working to eliminate such slums in order to clear the way for the wildest kinds of financial speculation and real estate madness. Something, of course, will have to give.
When former World Bank chief economist Justin Lin Yifu warned that China should avoid “over-urbanization,” he nailed it. On the ground, President Xi’s big dream looks suspiciously like a formula for meltdown. If too many migrants flood the big cities and the country fails to upgrade productivity, China will be stuck in the dreaded middle-income trap.
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