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CCTV: China Surpasses Japan

August 27, 2010

On Tuesday, I was on CCTV News’ Dialogue program, talking about the implications of China surpassing Japan to become the world’s 2nd largest economy.  Martin Jacques, author of When China Rules the World, was one of my fellow guests, via satellite.  You can watch the show here.

One of the main topics we discussed was China’s apparent discomfort at the news.  Rather than celebrating the accomplishment, the Chinese leadership has been eager to issue cautions and caveats.  Earlier this week, Barbara Demick of the Los Angeles Times asked me about the reasons behind this reaction:

“China has played the underdog and victim for a long time and they’re used to that role,” suggested Patrick Chovanec, an associate professor at Tsinghua University’s School of Economics and Management in Beijing. “There is an adolescent quality of not being comfortable with what you’re becoming.”

By insisting that it is still a “poor, developing nation,” a phrase Beijing officials often repeat like a mantra, China is also able to beg off demands in negotiations over issues varying from climate change to trade balance.

“You have this strange contradiction. China is proud of what it has accomplished and wants to be a power, if not a superpower, but it feels if it is no longer seen as a developing country that would harm its interests,” Chovanec said.

You can read her entire article here.  I should hasten to explain that I don’t intend the word “adolescent” in a condescending or pejorative sense, implying that China is somehow childish or immature.  What I mean is that, like a person at that critical stage of life, China is rapidly evolving into something new, taking its place in the world, and is in the process of coming to terms with its new role and identity.  Perhaps a more positive expression that captures the same idea is “coming of age.” 

That ties in with my comments on Dialogue, where I note that there’s a lot of uncertainty, around the world, about what a powerful China means and what kind of leadership it will exercise.  We’re all waiting to find out.

By the way, I should mention that Barbara Demick, the Beijing bureau chief of the LA Times and the author of that article, is also the author of an excellent book on North Korea called Nothing to Envy.  It’s a rich, personal account of young people growing up during the famine there in the 1990s, in and around Chongjin, an industrial city in the northeast near where I recently visited.  In fact, our trip was originally supposed to include Chongjin, but our travel permits to go there never came though.  I read Barbara’s book on the bus to the Chinese border crossing with North Korea.  Needless to say, I couldn’t bring it in to the DPRK, so I left it by the side of the road.  So somewhere in remote northeast China, there’s a free copy flowing around, but it’s a lot easier to locate your own copy here.

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