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Is China As Strong As It Seems?

Wednesday,  12 November 2008

Co-sponsors: WEAI and the International Media and Communication Concentration, SIPA 

Robert Gifford, London Bureau Chief of U.S. National Public Radio, spoke about the “hope and despair” that essentially sums up politics and economics in China today.  China has achieved unprecedented economic growth over the last three decades, and lifted 400 million people out of poverty.  Residents have more freedom and are able to make individual choices, from spouse to occupation.  China’s premier cities, Shanghai and Beijing, mirror the advances and infrastructure of major cities in the west.

But the country is much more fragile than perceived.  During a tour across China in 2005, Gifford saw many remote villages where most residents had seen few, if any, benefits from China’s economic growth.  Quality health care and education is out of reach for many, which explains their excessive private savings.  It also partly explains why China’s growth has continued to rely on capital accumulation and energy-intensive industries, rather than consumption and service-oriented models.

Shanghai has made efforts to transition from a manufacturing to service-oriented economy, but factories still dominate the city’s business landscape.  China’s pattern of growth poses several problems globally.  Its mounting demands for resources means it is likely to continue supporting controversial regimes such as Sudan and Burma.  The global economic slowdown is presenting major hurdles for the country’s continued growth and stability, with many factories closing down.  Gifford said it remains to be seen how effective China’s recently approved stimulus package will be on the economy.

Professor Gifford said while economic modernity has improved the lives of many, it has also introduced unique contradictions to Chinese society.  He pointed to a photo of monks surfing the Internet after prayer and questioned whether this technology has made the country stronger or weaker.  It has given the Chinese access to information, but this access has come at the expense of individual privacy, as the Chinese government monitors internet users.

How East Asians View Democracy: Findings from the Asian Barometer Surveys

Monday,  10 November 2008

Co-sponsor: WEAI

Yun-han Chu, distinguished research fellow at the Institute of Political Science of Academia Sinica and professor of political science at National Taiwan University, and Andrew J. Nathan, Class of 1919 Professor of Political Science at Columbia University, discussed the findings from a large-scale survey-research project which were compiled in their new book, How East Asians View Democracy.  The project, called the East Asian Barometer, consisted of eight research teams conducting national-sample surveys in five new democracies (Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Thailand, and Mongolia), one established democracy (Japan), and two nondemocracies (China and Hong Kong) in order to assess the prospects for democratic consolidation.

“The provocative finding is that of the eight countries we surveyed, public satisfaction with the regime is highest in authoritarian China, lowest in democratic Japan and Taiwan, and very rocky in the other newly emerged democracies that we surveyed (Korea, Thailand, Philippines, Mongolia),” said Nathan.  East Asian democracies are in trouble, their legitimacy threatened by poor policy performance and undermined by nostalgia for the pro-growth, soft-authoritarian regimes of the past. Yet citizens throughout the region value freedom, reject authoritarian alternatives, and believe in democracy.

Professors Chu and Nathan don’t believe democratic governance is incompatible with East Asian cultures, but counseled against complacency toward the fate of democracy in the region. While many forces affect democratic consolidation, popular attitudes are a crucial factor.

Factory Towns: Portraits of Modern China

Wednesday,  5 November 2008

Co-sponsors: WEAI and the International Media and Communication Concentration, SIPA

Peter Hessler, Staff Writer for the New Yorker and a contributing writer to National Geographic, described his recent experience traveling to factory towns in the Wen Jo province of China.

Many of China’s provinces specialize in manufacturing specific items in bulk.  For instance, Chao To has 370 button factories, and manufactures one-third of the world’s socks.  Wen Jo manufactures a good percentage of the world’s shoes, and about 70% of the world’s cigarette lighters. 90% of Wen Jo’s economy is private, and foreign direct investment is not a big factor.  Though not a special economic development zone, the economic pressure to develop was so great that he witnessed a business owner design an entire factory floor on a piece of paper in 27 minutes.  He also saw several buildings go up within five weeks.

During the Q&A session, Mr. Hessler noted that governmental institutions like the Labor Board have some influence, but are not very integrated into the system yet; most negotiations take place within the factory.  Much of the regulatory regime is actually tied to profit, and some corruption; for instance, the tax bureau came into one factory and “recommended” a particular accountant in order for it to avoid problems.  Relatedly, he said that China’s social networks are also more profit-oriented; there are more private businesses, and less non-governmental organizations.  Finally, he said that, because of China’s status as a supplier country, he is very concerned about the potential for financial collapse during a weak economy since it is so dependent on constant growth. 

Chinese Lessons: Roadblocks on the Way to China's Superpower Status

Monday,  27 October 2008

Co-sponsor: WEAI

John Pomfret, Outlook Editor and former China Bureau Chief for the Washington Post, gave a presentation describing the challenges that China faces in its development toward superpower status.  One of the first American students to enter the country in 1980, Pomfret used the personal narratives of many of his classmates to personify the rapid change China has experienced throughout the past generation. 

Pomfret also identified potential barriers to China’s continuing emergence.  Among them are the inflexibility of a one-party state, the patronage system by which party leaders distribute capital, demographic challenges, environmental degradation and a lack of a national belief system that could unite the Chinese for a common good.

Pomfret sees cause for optimism regarding the future relationship between America and China.  Irrespective of the “visceral fear” that many Americans have of China, there are in fact several areas in which the two nations enjoy positive bilateral cooperation.

The event was moderated by Howard French, Shanghai Bureau Chief of the New York Times.