Book review: Stumbling Giant, by Timothy Beardson

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 June, 2013, 5:19pm

Stumbling Giant:

The Threats to China's Future

by Timothy Beardson

Yale University Press

This is an authoritative and well-researched book about the future of China by a man working at the centre of Asia's economy for the past 30 years. His conclusion is that the mainland will not overtake the United States as the world's super-power during this century.

That is the judgment of Timothy Beardson, who founded Crosby Financial Holdings in Hong Kong in 1984. It became the first investment bank to be licensed in China and at its height employed 650 staff in 17 cities in 13 countries from New York to Beijing, with an annual transaction volume of US$20 billion.

Crosby was the first international investment bank to open in China, Thailand and Malaysia, and the only foreign bank invited to participate in the working party to set up the Shanghai stock exchange. Beardson sold Crosby in stages between 1996 and 1999.

The book has a wide-ranging analysis, with chapters on the knowledge economy, finance, social welfare, the environment, threats to social and civil stability and identity, the future of the state and the Communist Party, relations with the US and China's neighbours, and on cyber warfare.

For Beardson, the key factor is demography. "China's demographic outlook is dire - extreme gender disparity, remorseless ageing, a falling population and a declining labour force, all of which will affect stability and make high economic growth unsustainable … Between 2010 and 2030, the trebling of the over-65s to more than 300 million means either that families must accommodate unprecedented numbers of elderly per adult, at a time when property prices are very high compared to wages, or the government must handle a growth in the number of people in institutional care from the current two million to perhaps over 150 million, which will create severe budgetary pressure," he writes.

Beardson believes the mainland has a window of opportunity of only 20 years to become a more developed economy, before this demographic burden begins to bite.

The book is objective, wide-ranging and nuanced. He outlines the major challenges. "China's wounds in the 21st century are mostly self-inflicted and treatable. Lack of respect for farmers' land, decades of environmental abuse, poor education, severe income inequality, and careless policies for Islam have created a destructive cocktail which threatens to poison the Party and the nation.

"Solutions to such challenges exist; the problem is the sense of stasis. There has been little interest shown in reform and - based on the evidence of recent years - good grounds to believe that the big issues will not be addressed."

Since 2010, spending on internal security - US$111 billion this year - has exceeded that on national defence, much of it in its vast border regions. Beardson has a radical proposal: "Perhaps China would be economically, socially, culturally and politically stronger and more stable if it unilaterally dropped Tibet, Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang (or parts of them)" - just as Russia would be better off without Chechnya, and Israel without large parts of Palestine.

China would go back to the borders of the Ming dynasty, with 90 per cent to 95 per cent of its current land mass.

The book has a good chapter on cyber warfare. It says that the circumstantial and forensic evidence seem to point to the responsibility of the state in these operations. But the rules for this kind of "warfare" are unclear.

"China may now be the leading cyber power … the environment is so new that, although China seems the technological leader, we do not know what it intends as the boundaries to this activity."

This book is a comprehensive guide to the achievements and challenges of modern China; it will interest the general reader as well as the specialist investors and executives with whom Beardson has worked during his life.