Tuesday, February 7, 2023
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China’s early decline is wishful thinking. Western think tanks keep getting it wrong

The road ahead may not be smooth for China but to argue that it is peaking or on the way to decline is just outlandish. India would do well to not get excited.

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The internet is full of experts, media personalities and think tanks telling us: China has peaked; China is about to peak; China’s Covid strategy will ensure short term economic decline; China’s demographic position will ensure long term economic decline.

Even the rather understated defenders of China tell us that the country has not peaked, but in fact will peak in ten years or so. Virtually identical words are used by different experts and commentators. It is when most such YouTube channels parrot words like crisis, decline, demography, authoritarian, peaking, ghost cities and so on with a never-ending negative penumbra that we should get a tad suspicious. Is China really in that much of a crisis? Or is the crisis in the eyes of the beholder? Even worse, is the so-called crisis really wishful thinking on the part of these experts who far from being objective analysts are in fact jealous adversaries?

The possibly malevolent intent of the critics can be picked up on examining the contradictions in the facile comments on demographic decline and economic growth. We are told that the population is declining or it is about to decline. Sometimes we are told that even current population numbers may be overstated. If any of this is true — as it must be because prestigious journals in London and DC say so — then as a lover of old-fashioned arithmetic it seems to me that there is no cause for worry like the experts would have us think. After all, a declining economic growth rate makes sense if the population is declining. Can there not be a robust per capita economic growth in this scenario if the denominator (population) declines and only the rate of growth of the numerator declines? Western analysts cannot have it both ways. They cannot pick and choose gross and per capita statistics when it suits them.

The distortions caused by switching from one statistical framework to another are even more obvious when shrill commentators criticise China’s “climate misbehavior” — whatever that might mean. If China’s population is in decline, their consumption of coal and their contribution to global warming should reduce. The neo-malthusian climate extremists should be coming out with ecstatic YouTube videos praising the Chinese state on its far-sighted, “pro-planet” one child policy.


Also read: China’s military power is catching up with its economic might. New era is indeed one of war


Poor soothsayers

The real problem seems to be that western experts predicted things wrongly. They assumed that if the capitalist west helped Chinese economic growth, then over time Chinese society would start resembling western ones. This prediction simply did not materialise. Rather than admit that they were poor soothsayers, western think tanks and media outlets have decided that they will demonise the Chinese system and start making predictions about the system’s imminent demise. Clearly, they believe that because they want China to implode, it is their obligation to predict it. Without a doubt, these experts are like the self-fulfilling oracles of antiquity. Should we refer to them as Delphic experts?

It is so easy to sound erudite when you say, “China is facing a crisis.” A simple response from the uninfluenced could be, “Who is not facing a crisis?” It is completely credible to say the US, Europe, India, Japan, Britain, Africa are facing crises. The fact that China, like others, faces problems does not automatically imply that the country has peaked or that the society is in irretrievable decline.

Patents, international visits, stocks

Even those who do not wish China well and who have a vested interest in negative prophecies coming true, must admit that the evidence is all over the place. In some areas, China is flourishing. Just look at their exports as recently as last quarter. They are rapidly filing patents on inventions every week. They can get support from the Organisation of Islamic Countries for the Chinese actions in Xinjiang. Despite all the bluster, the German Chancellor sheepishly visited Beijing recently. For that matter, so did the Vietnamese leader who according to western think tanks is in the camp of Chinese adversaries. And all it required was a small relaxation in rigid Covid guidelines for Chinese stocks to jump four per cent in international financial markets.

The fact is that many countries in the world face demographic declines. Many countries confront issues in the area of trade. The German export model is probably more threatened than the Chinese one. It is true that the Chinese political system is not as open to feedback as the systems prevailing in other countries. This has not prevented them from responding pragmatically either to the recent Covid protests or to the setbacks they have faced in their Belt and Road Initiative.  It highly unlikely that a society, which over five decades has created so much wealth is suddenly peaking out or becoming incompetent. The road ahead may not be smooth but to argue that China is on some vertiginous precipice is just outlandish.


Also read: World population to reach 8 billion, says UN, China frets over its shrinking population


The predictive abilities of western think tanks and media outfits have been less than stellar. If the non-profit organisation, Club of Rome, had been correct in 1960, India’s population should have been a mere two hundred million by now as so many of us would have died in famines. No highly funded think tank predicted the demise of the Soviet Union or the failure of the Arab Spring. The latter was particularly poignant for the participants. Western experts and their media preached to young Middle-Easterners that their encounter with democratic freedom had finally arrived. The earlier regimes had apparently “peaked” and were in “decline”. Some of the young people believed it. The western correspondents went home even as things did not revert to the new normal, but quite simply to the old normal.

China may not be as successful as its wolf warrior diplomats and journalists make it out to be. But its early decline is one more wishful thinking prophecy of overpaid think tank executives in cocoon territory. We in India would do well not to get excited about this imaginary imminent decline. This is particularly relevant because we too have a lot of wishful thinkers who would like this to happen. Unfortunately, the world and certainly our neighborhood does not always end up the way we would like it to be. We would do well to remember Oliver Cromwell’s admonition to trust in God (not in western think tanks) and keep our powder dry.

Jaithirth Rao is a retired businessperson who lives in Mumbai. Views are personal.

(Edited by Ratan Priya)

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