Transnational China Project Commentary:
"China Through the Eyes of a Chinese"
Ambassador Yang Chengxu, President,
China Institute for International Studies

Talk Given at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy
Rice University
December 8, 2000
(Text based on copy provided by Amb. Yang)

In recent years, with the maintenance of political stability and rapid economic growth, China has become the focus of world attention. Many experts, scholars and journalists have been making various predictions about the prospect of China's development and its possible future influence on the world. To me, the prospect of China's development lies in answers to three questions: whether China will be able to overtake the United States, whether China will fail or fall in disorder, and when democratization will be realized in China.

1. Overtaking the U.S.: A Theoretical Assumption

The past two decades and more have witnessed the sustained, sound and rapid growth of China's economy thanks to its reform and opening up policy. Today, some people are saying that China's GDP is the second or third largest in the world. Others are saying that China will overtake the U.S. to become the number one economy by 2020.
Let us forget for a minute what underlies the above predictions of China's economy, be they well-meaning wishes or ulterior agenda, and work out a math problem.

It is known to all that the U.S. economy has had 113 months of consecutive growth since the end of the recession in March 1991.With an average annual growth rate of three percent, the current round of economic growth in the U.S. is the longest ever in history. The gross domestic product (GDP) of the United States in 1999 amounted to U.S. $9 trillion dollars. In comparison with the U.S. economy, China's economy has been growing faster. For over ten years, since the beginning of reform and the opening up, China has enjoyed a double-digit growth rate. In recent years, thanks to the changed mode of growth from a scale-oriented to an efficiency-oriented one, China's economy has slowed down its pace of growth. In 1998, it grew at a rate of 7.8 percent, and in 1999 its GDP growth rate stood at 7.1 percent. It is estimated that China's economy will grow 8.1 percent in 2000.
Notwithstanding China's faster rate of growth, the huge gap between the GDP of the U.S. and China means that one percentage point of U.S. economic growth takes nine percentage points of China's economic growth in order to have the same amount of increase in its respective GDP. In other words, given the three percent annual growth rate of the U.S. economy, China's economy has to grow at a rate of 27 percent to keep pace with the increase in GDP of the U.S.

Now the question of when China will be able to overtake the United States. Let us assume that both China and the United States will maintain their respective growth rates of eight percent and three percent; it is not very difficult to work out that it will take 47 years for China to overtake the United States. But there is one point we may have to keep in mind - it is as difficult for China to maintain a growth rate of eight percent in almost half a century as the U.S. economy to grow at a rate of three percent annually. Obviously even a theoretical assumption does not support the prediction that China is to overtake the United States in a short period of time.

2. Failure of or Disorder in China: Will it Come True?

In sharp contrast with the overstatement of China's economic development, some people are pessimistic about China's future and have been talking about the scenario of a failed China, or China falling into disorder, and its possible impact upon the international community.

Just like those who have predicted that China will become a threat to the world, pessimism about China's prospects is unjustified. In the first place, the living standards of the Chinese people have been greatly improved over the past two decades since the policy of reform and opening to the outside world was initiated in 1978 under the auspices of Deng Xiaoping. For the nearly decades before the reform and opening up, most of the Chinese people lived a very plain life. Take just one aspect of the people's life as an example. In Beijing, each person was given a monthly ration of only a quarter kilogram of meat, a quarter kilogram of edible oil and a little fish. Each family was supplied with a ration of a kilogram of sugar and one kilogram of eggs per month. They had to use coupons to buy cloth or clothes and other daily necessities.
Two decades after the reform and opening up began, the livelihoods of the Chinese people have been substantially improved. Shortages of supply in commodities have ended, and today China is disturbed by the problem of inadequate demand in domestic markets. The campaign against poverty has made great progress. Today the food and clothing problem faced by the poor has essentially been solved. The Engel's coefficient (the proportion of income spent on food) of national residents dropped from 56.1 percent in 1995 to 49.3 percent, and it is expected to further fall to 48 percent by the end of 2000. The average standard of living nationwide has basically reached the relatively comfortable level set by the Chinese government. According to my own experience and observation, this constitutes one of the very important factors behind the maintenance of political stability because the policy of reform and opening up has brought about real and tangible benefits to the Chinese people.

Secondly, it is true problems and difficulties have erupted over the past two decades' reform and opening up, and some of them are quite serious. These problems include the disparity of income distribution, the uneven and unbalanced development between coastal regions and inland areas in Central and Western China, the difficulties faced by state-owned enterprises (SOEs) in the course of their reform and restructuring, environmental pollution and degradation, and the corruption of government officials. These problems have caused concerns both at home and abroad about the prospect of China's development. Some people even went so far that they started to worry that China's reform and opening up will fail and that China will fall into disorder, a scenario neither China itself nor the international community wishes to come true. While some of these worries are understandable to me, they are not justifiable. On the question of income disparity between people and the uneven development across regions, Deng Xiaoping's approach was to encourage certain people and regions to become better off first, through honest labor and legal operations, so as to set an example for other people and regions to follow. When these people and regions become rich they are supposed to help those lagging behind, to follow suit for the common prosperity of the whole nation. It is widely believed that the nation would have remained in the state of poverty without this pragmatic and workable policy.

The Chinese government has always kept this point in mind in making its economic plans and has worked assiduously to solve this problem. In the past five years, China has essentially set up a social security system and insurance system to help those laid-off/unemployed workers of the SOEs, gradually alleviating difficulties facing those who have been affected by the ongoing economic reform and restructuring. In the meantime, the central government and local governments at various levels have established re-employment centers to train laid-off workers with new skills and to help them find new jobs. The re-employment centers have proven very helpful to these workers.

The grand plan of developing the Western Region is the most ambitious and the largest strategic plan launched by the Chinese government to help develop China's Central and Western regions and to solve the uneven development between regions. The plan to develop the West covers ten provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions, an area of 5.4 million square kilometers and a population of 285 million, 57 percent and 23 percent of the nation's total respectively. The emphasis of development will be on infrastructure, environmental protection and conservation, the hi-tech industry, science, technology and education and the opening up even wider to the outside world. It is believed that the development of China's Western area will not only solve problems caused by the widening gap between the East and West, where 90 percent of China's poverty-stricken population live. It will also contribute to the sustained development of the entire nation in order to attain the strategic goal of building China into a middle-level developed country by the mid-21st Century.
Corruption is another problem that has been disturbing China's reform and economic development in recent years. Cases involving millions and even billions in RMB have been unearthed; high-ranking, corrupted officials at ministerial level have been indicted and prosecuted. The rampant corruption in China is mainly the result of the transition from the planned economy to the market economic structure. While acknowledging that corruption cannot be eradicated for the time being, the Chinese government is determined to deal with this vice according to the law with the most serious manner. In the meantime, efforts have also been made to strengthen laws and regulations, to plug loopholes and to educate officials at various levels to uphold integrity and ethics in government.

Last but not least, China enjoys an advantage - it is such a big country it has a rather large maneuvering room to cope with temporary difficulties. You may have drought in North China, and flooding in South China, but China still survives. Agricultural production in China today is also rather developed, capable of offsetting possible short-term natural calamities.

On the whole, I would like to say that the above-mentioned problems and difficulties are ones that have cropped up in the course of reform and opening to the outside world. It will not affect the general situation of China's economic development and political stability, not to mention causing failure or disorder in China.

3. China's Democratization: When and How?

The question of democratization in China is another issue of great interest to people in the West. To them, China is a not a democratic state. There is no democracy in China because it is ruled by one party -- the Communist Party of China.

The idea that China is not a democratic state comes from as much prejudice against China as ignorance about China's political system and the great progress achieved over the past fifty years, particularly the recent two decades. In the first place, democracy has been greatly improved since the founding of New China in 1949. For over one hundred years before New China, China was a semi-feudal and semi-colonized state and had been subject to foreign aggression and humiliation. There was simply no talk of democracy in the Old China. It was on October 1, 1949 that the Chinese people stood up and became the masters of their nation. Since then, the Chinese people have started to enjoy unprecedented freedom and democracy guaranteed by the Constitution. The multi-party cooperation under the leadership of the Communist Party of the China and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference is not only a unique system of democracy that is in line with China's national conditions, but it is also one that ensures the democratic rights of people of various walks of life and the minority ethnic groups.

Secondly, democracy in China has been constantly improving since reforms and the opening up to the outside world began. Since 1978, China has sent over 200,000 students to study in foreign countries, and more than 50,000 have gone to the United States. The opening up policy has also attracted foreign investment and technology that is now playing an indispensable role in China's political and economic life, opening the eyes of the Chinese people and contributing to the development of China's democratization. The fast development of the Internet provides the Chinese people with easy access to information and a better understanding of the outside world. Today, over 15 million people in China are connected to the Internet, and the number is growing at a rate of over 20 percent annually.

Thirdly, democracy at the grass-roots level is also progressing quickly. Today, all of the village committees in rural areas and the neighborhood committees in urban areas are elected through free and fair elections, marking a significant achievement in terms of self-governance at China's grass-root level. Pilot projects have also been launched to elect township governments - the basic cell of China's local government.

Fourthly, the Chinese government has attached great importance to the rule of the nation by law, and with the policy of reform and opening up to the outside world it has worked very hard to make many laws to meet the needs of development for a socialist market economy. Legislation to keep the pace of the establishment of the socialist market economy has now become one of the top priorities of China's National People's Congress at various levels. In drafting its laws, the NPC has drawn a lot of experience from Europe, the United States and other developed countries.

However, in promoting China's democracy, the Chinese government and people have always been fully aware of China's national conditions. China is a developing nation with a big population and relatively weak economic basis. Its natural resources are not abundant in per capita terms. While we have to learn from advanced experiences of mankind to develop democracy, we should always keep our national conditions in mind. Any attempts to copy or clone foreign models are doomed to failure. Furthermore, foreign countries should make no attempt to impose their models on China because there are so many differences between China and the West in terms of history, culture, traditions and the level of economic development.

To conclude, China's economy has indeed been growing very fast in recent years. But it is not fast enough to overtake the United States in the near future as predicted. The fact that economic development in China over the past two decades has solved the problem of food and clothing for 1.3 billion people, one fifth of the world's population, is a significant contribution to world peace and development. A stable, prosperous and powerful China will not pose a threat to its neighbors and the world, as China has declared on many occasions that it does not seek hegemony, and it will not seek hegemony when it becomes developed in the future. At present, China is faced with some problems, some of which are quite complicated and challenging, but we are confident, and indeed the whole nation are confident, that we will attain our goal to build China into a powerful, prosperous, stable, democratic and unified nation.

Biographical Note: Amb. Chengxu Yang is president of the China Institute for International Studies, with whom the Baker Institute has had a formal agreement to conduct joint research on energy policy and energy security issues since 1999. Amb. Yang was PRC ambassador to Austria from 1985 to 1989, and Director-General of the Policy Planning Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 1990 to 1993. A frequent commentator on relations between the West and China in People's Daily, Outlook Weekly and China Central Television, he has also been president of the China National Committee for Pacific Economic Cooperation since 1994.