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The Chinese Miracle

Helal Uddin Ahmed | November 13, 2019 00:00:00

A high school student going through examination papers, ahead of the annual "Gaokao" or college entrance examinations in China — AFP

Seventy years ago, the People's Republic of China (PRC) was facing difficulty in even feeding its huge population following her emergence in 1949 under the Communist Party leadership led by Mao Zedong. Her main products at that time were minerals, textiles and some common commodities. But within a span of mere seven decades, the PRC has miraculously transformed itself into a 'global factory', by thriving on socio-economic reforms, Confucian work ethics and diligence, and low labour-cum-prudent production costs. By embracing market-oriented economic reforms or market socialism towards the end of 1970s and by starting new businesses in coastal towns, China overcame many obstacles to its growth.

All these have resulted in successful conversion of large state-owned workshops into massive productive enterprises. The process of transforming China into a manufacturing hub of the globe has continued ever since. The advent of the new millennium saw China focusing more on hi-tech and advanced production processes, whose impact is already being felt all over the globe. According to the World Bank, China became the largest base for global output in 2010 by removing the USA from the top slot. Since then, it has maintained that top ranking.

Stretching over a huge landmass of over 9.5 million square kilometres and boasting of being the most populous nation on earth, China currently has a population of around 1.40 billion, which is 50 million more than the next populous country India (1.35 billion). The third most populous country - the USA has a much smaller population of around 325 million. Comprising 22 provinces, five (05) autonomous regions, four (04) directly controlled municipalities and two (02) self-governing special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macau, the People's Republic of China (PRC) also claims Taiwan as its 23rd province. The official population statistics for PRC, however, exclude the figures for Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan.

On the other hand, the PRC is ranked 81st in the world in terms of population density, with 145 inhabitants per square kilometre or 375 persons per square mile. Although the country has 56 officially recognised ethnic groups, over 90 per cent of the population belong to Han ethnicity. China, however, has one of the most skewed male-female population ratios in the world, with around 115 males against every 100 females. Past governance measures and prevailing social norms contributed a lot to this imbalance.

Since its inception in 1949, the PRC government led by the Chinese Communist Party encouraged people to have many children in order to increase the country's workforce. Mao Zedong, the founder of the People's Republic, wanted as many Chinese in the world as possible. But his radical pro-growth policies were unsustainable, and towards the end of his life in the 1960s, Beijing's technocrats adopted the mostly voluntary "Wan, Xi, Shao"-"late, long, few"-programme to limit population growth. These efforts were mostly effective, with birthrate falling by half in less than a decade. However, by the decade of 1970s, the Chinese leaders once again felt that the prevailing rates of population growth would become unsustainable very soon.

Mao's successor Deng Xiaoping was not satisfied with the situation in vogue. He, therefore, rolled out the one-child policy, often termed the world's most draconian social experiment, in 1979 as one of his first initiatives after assuming office. It decreed that the Chinese couples could only have one child. Those who adhered to this rule were offered benefits like increased access to education, better healthcare and childcare, cash bonuses and better access to housing. Those who did not comply were fined and deprived of benefits.

Resistance was particularly observed in the rural areas where people traditionally had large families. Therefore, while the policy could be strictly enforced in the urban areas, remote rural regions were harder to control. As a result of this massive campaign to enforce the one-child policy, the population growth rate has continuously fallen. It proved so successful that the birth rate of 1.4 children per woman even fell below the replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman. There have also been some negative impacts, such as a skewed population in terms of gender due to traditional preference for boys. It was reported in 2000 that 90 per cent of the foetuses aborted in China were females.

Because of emerging realities, the one-child policy was relaxed since 2000, whereby couples, especially in rural areas, could apply for a second child if the first child was a girl, or the parents were the only-children. It was finally replaced by the two-child policy in 2016, allowing couples in both rural and urban areas to have two children. Two other negative impacts of the one-child policy were as follows: (a) falling birth-rate leading to a rise in the proportion of elderly people; (b) lesser proportion of working-age people to support the growing number of elderly dependants.

Chinese experts are now concerned that China's low birth rate, combined with its aging population, will damage its future economic growth prospects. The credit for much of China's economic growth has been attributed to its abundant and cheap workforce, combined with its low social costs. With the number of young Chinese falling and the number of elderly people gradually rising, it is doubtful whether China's economy can continue to grow at the same rapid pace visible since the decade of 1980s.

The amendment of the one-child policy in early 2016 to permit all Chinese families to have two children helped raise the number of births in China to 18.46 million during the year 2016, the highest increase since 2000, but the fertility rate still remains below the replacement rate that allows a population to naturally replenish itself from one generation to another. The new births were also lower than the projected figure of 20 million.

The National Population Development Plan 2016-30 released by the country's cabinet - the state council -has warned that China faced a turning point particularly between 2021 and 2030. There would be accelerated aging of population, which would put additional pressure on social security and public services. Side by side, the shrinking of the working-age population will damage economic growth and reduce tax income needed for supporting the elderly.

The Population Plan has predicted that 25 per cent of China's population will be over 60 in 2030, compared to about 16 per cent in 2015. Conversely, the working-age population (15-59 years) will be 80 million, less than the figure in 2015. According to this report, China's population is expected to peak in 2030 by reaching 1.45 billion. Interestingly, the average life expectancy of the Chinese people has shot up from only 35 in 1949 to 57 in 1957, 68 in 1981 and 77 in 2018. Whereas the average annual per capita income of the Chinese people was only 49.7 Yuan in 1949, it rose 60 times to touch 28,228 Yuan in 2018.

Once a bastion of protectionism and dogmatic ideologies, China has however emerged now as a leading champion of globalisation as evidenced by its recent involvements all over the world in economic development ventures, investment projects, as well as liberalisation-cum-facilitation initiatives in the areas of trade and commerce. This has been in sharp contrast to increased protectionism and inward nationalistic moves in many Western countries, who were ironically the erstwhile champions of free trade, market economy and open-door policies.

A pertinent report released by the London-based consultancy firm Brunswick on March 16, 2017 also showed that while China is pushing forward global cooperation, some others are focusing on protectionism. According to this report based on a survey of 42,965 respondents in 26 countries, globalisation is more welcome in China and India compared to the developed states. Sixty per cent of respondents in China supported globalisation, while less than 20 per cent in developed countries expressed positive views about globalisation. The report concluded: "While several markets around the world are focusing inwards and becoming more protectionists, China understands that the future is dependent on global cooperation and the global exchange of ideas among businesses, governments and societies."

The present scribe first visited Beijing, China, in August 2005 as a member of an official press entourage from Bangladesh and was quite impressed by discipline and regimentation observed in almost all areas of public life. When he visited Beijing again in March-April 2017 as a fellow of the Confucius Institute Headquarters, his positive views about the potentials of the Chinese nation were further strengthened as radical improvements were noticed in all sectors of the Chinese economy and society within a span of mere 12 years. The improvements certainly tallied with his previous expectations about the inevitable rise of China in the global arena.

The Chinese culture appears to be unique and distinctive because of its emphasis on collective good instead of individual self-centredness. This culture appears to embrace the notion of unity and natural harmony in all aspects of life, which is different from self-centred individualism of Western societies. Besides, the Confucian ideals and philosophy of hard work, industry and prudence in day-to-day living appear to have been the bedrock of Chinese civilization. The Chinese culture is colourful, pulsating, vibrant and harmonious, where people try to enjoy life and make life comfortable for all human beings through diligence and hard work. This author was also impressed by the great care the Chinese parents took in rearing their children, as well as their warmth, openness and friendship for foreigners.

People of Bangladesh are now becoming familiar with the Chinese culture, as China has become one of the biggest trading and development partners of the country, especially since the second half of the decade of 1970s. Interactions of the Bangladeshis with the Chinese people and government have increased manifold during the past two decades because of greater involvement of Chinese government and enterprises in the development projects of the country, particularly in infrastructure, energy, communication and telecommunications sectors.

Besides, a much larger number of Bangladeshi students are now pursuing higher studies in different universities of China after learning Chinese language. Many Bangladeshis believe the 21st Century will be an Asian Century led by China. Consequently they look at China as the centre of globalisation efforts, which is likely to benefit all countries. Most Bangladeshis are believed to support the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) of China launched by the Chinese government for joint collaborations in infrastructure development and investments across 152 countries.

The Chinese drive for globalisation and global integration has significant ramifications for their domestic economy. As one expert on the subject, Jeremy Garlick, pointed out in the Beijing-based Global Times in 2017, speedy globalisation is a possible solution to overcapacity and debt problems which are creating a drag effect on the Chinese economy. For example, if the Chinese companies can work on projects like building high-speed railways, roads and power stations under the BRI, then that would not only provide a safety valve for domestic overcapacity, but also encourage firms to formulate newer and more profitable models for their businesses. Building infrastructure inside the country allows some of the overcapacity dormant in the firms to be utilised in the short run; but once the country has enough of it, then the only option would be to go outward to Asia, Europe, the Middle-east and Africa.

There are plans in China to reduce domestic over-capacity by 2020. By then much of the vital infrastructure would be completed inside the country. It will then be necessary to drive a sufficiently restructured economy to transform the Chinese state-owned enterprises into leaner, profit-making entities, rather than the lumbering, debt-laden firms often seen today. The focus and attention of the Chinese industries will thus have to turn from the domestic to the international sphere from next year, and they will have to build win-win interconnectivities with other emerging economies through solidification of global moves like the BRI.

The Chinese ideal of 'Harmony in Diversity' has its origin in the utterances of the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius. Confucius had said: "The noble man searches for harmony without uniformity, but the petty person searches for uniformity without harmony". Seeking harmony in diversity (implying lack of uniformity) is undoubtedly a virtue of good people, and this philosophy has been successfully applied by the Chinese government over the years for forging harmonious relationships with other countries. It is faithfully applied in her international relations, as different countries and civilizations are akin to musical notes, and excellent music can be composed only by combining diverse tones. Consequently, the ideal of 'Harmony in Diversity' matches with the Chinese endeavour for developing bilateral and multilateral relations with various countries, including Bangladesh, for mutual benefits and collective good of mankind.

Dr. Helal Uddin Ahmed is a retired Additional Secretary and former Editor of Bangladesh Quarterly.


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