China: Last Man Standing?

On this blog, I have been a frequent critic of the view that China is a threat to the rest of the world as a rising superpower. Most of the time, these critics have a clear agenda to sell with regard to fear of China, or are journalists who have very little understanding of China. If the latter group, their articles are really rehashes of “If China were a rising superpower like US/Britain etc. this is what China would be plotting to do.” For someone who has never been to China and does not understand the country and people, the argument makes sense. But for someone who has been in China for some time, it’s ridiculous.

The reason for this is very simple. Running a country of 1.3 billion people is a very tough job, and this is something these China newby articles invariably overlook. In simple terms, the daily challenges are huge and are much bigger than the rulers of the US and UK have to deal with. For the most part, Chinese are not nearly as docile as Americans and Britons, and are much more “creative” about the ways they express their unhappiness. The knife hiding behind the smile or 笑裏藏刀 is a useful phrase to be aware of in business and politics in China.

In recent days a new theme has popped up, and that is the government incentives from the Chinese government are beginning to show positive results in the Chinese economy. Some of the articles are:

The Chinese government has acted forcefully, much more so than western governments, in fighting the effects of this recession which has turned into a depression. Compared to the west, the Chinese government has been the model of efficiency.

Sources in Beijing have told me that the Chinese government has offered companies full salary subsidies for company positions. That is, they have offered to reimburse companies full salary for positions in companies, especially positions for new university graduates. I am not sure if this applies to SOEs or if it also extends to the private sector. I am not aware of the full details of how it is implemented, but it does have the ring of truth. This has created a favorable market for employers, as many companies routinely lay off 80-90% of students following the three-month probation period.

Coming back to the rising superpower theme, this serves as an excellent illustration of a major point of mine: to become a superpower, you really don’t need to have a plan for world domination. You only need to be the last man standing when everyone else has already collapsed.

It will be very interesting to find out how long China will stand? The Chinese government is running the distinct risk of using all its bullets too early, and not having any left if the depression continues over a prolonged period. If that happens, the only thing China can do is inflate its way out. Another article point out the risk of this approach:

If the depression is long and this scenario plays out, then China will become a very short-lived superpower, and will only be standing a very short time before it collapses on top of the heap with the other former superpowers.

You only win when you can walk away after the battle. Otherwise it is just a pyhrric victory.

(Trouble is, pyhrric victory is a western term which does not an equivalent in Chinese.)

UPDATE Feb. 20, 2009: Knowledge@Wharton has an article about the possible ramifications of the surge in lending by Chinese banks.

2 Responses to “China: Last Man Standing?”

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