China must escape traps for all our sakes

Article by US academic highlights how 40 years of growth have eradicated extreme poverty in the country, but challenges regarding wealth and power lie ahead

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 August, 2018, 5:40pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 August, 2018, 10:43pm

I am such a rude and ungrateful person so this column is something of an apology. An opinion page editor of the English-language China Daily sent me an op-ed piece by the distinguished American political scientist Graham Allison.

I wrote back saying it was a pretty old story, so why bother? Allison, a former dean of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, was writing about the anti-poverty drive in China since 1978 and the lessons it holds for the world. Of course my editor friend was right to publish it.

“Our hands should sometimes do less wringing and more clapping,” wrote Allison, commenting on China’s rise in relations to its success in eliminating extreme poverty. “This year the World Health Organisation announced that Chinese babies born today can expect longer ‘healthy lifespans’ than those born in the United States.”

Allison is not the first to point this out, but it’s worth repeating: “40 years of miracle growth have created a greater increase in human well-being for more individuals than occurred in the previous more than 4,000 years of China’s history.”

In this context, why shouldn’t contemporary mainlanders be proud of their country and generally hopeful about their future, as survey after survey has shown? No, sanctimonious Hong Kong localists, it’s not that they have been “brainwashed”, but rather they realise they are the lucky ones, by the standards of miseries characteristic of Chinese throughout their history, and even until recently.

China’s 2018 priorities: financial risks, poverty and the environment

It’s fortunate that in these dangerous times, there are still distinguished American scholars who appreciate the full complexity of China’s rise and the implications it has for itself and the world. They understand the Chinese communist state is neither bogeyman nor saviour, but that it faces constraints and conditions that are difficult even for experts to untangle and barely understandable to casual outside observers.

Last year, Allison published his highly influential book, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?

It seems China is facing all kinds of traps. There is the “middle income trap”, when its population may grow old before it grows rich, and then, Thucydides’s trap, which could compel the country to go to war with the most powerful nation on earth before it grows rich.

For Allison, China must escape both traps, for its own sake and that of the world. Whether it could or would is the frightful question of our time.