Susan Shirk '67 Keynotes China Conference

Posted: March 10, 2008

After a relatively short interlude of less than 200 years, China is poised to reclaim a position it held for 2,000 years until the late 1800s as the world's largest economy, according to Susan Shirk '67, a former high-ranking State Department official and author of a new book titled China: Fragile Superpower. The keynote speaker at the March 7-8 conference The Rise of China, organized by the McCulloch Center for Global Initiatives, Shirk told the more than 350 attendees that China's economic growth of 10 percent per year for the last quarter-century is "absolutely unprecedented in the history of the world." The CIA estimates that in terms of gross domestic product China will surpass the United States (in sheer size, not per capita) by mid century.

A dozen or so leading international scholars came to the Mount Holyoke campus to talk about the implications of this extraordinary reconfiguration of the global economic scene. McCulloch Center director and economics professor Eva Paus said the papers will form the basis of an edited book that will be published next year.

Five College Professor of Peace and World Security Studies Michael Klare predicted that China's thirst for fuel to maintain its expansion will lead to conflict with older industrial powers, particularly the United States. "With China's need for imported energy sure to grow, and the future availability of abundant oil increasingly in doubt, the danger of international tension and conflict over vital resources will become increasingly severe," Klare said. "The risk of friction and conflict over energy is not a 'China problem' but a global dilemma." Speaking as part of a panel on "geostrategic implications" of China's ascendance as an economic powerhouse, Klare said he is pessimistic that armed conflict can be avoided without "more enlightened leadership" and a commitment among all industrialized countries to massively shift resources away from military spending to research and development on renewable energy. "The science and technology is there," according to Klare, but investment in that technology must equal what is currently spent on defense.

Kelly Sims Gallagher, director of the Energy Technology Innovation Policy (ETIP) research group at Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, raised the specter of environmental catastrophe related to "the centrality of coal in China's energy system." Total energy consumption increased 70 percent in China between 2000 and 2005, according to Sims Gallagher, and coal consumption increased at an even higher rate. "This astonishing rate of growth indicates that China's entire energy system is doubling every five years," said Sims Gallagher, adding later in her talk, "it is truly difficult to imagine China achieving environmental sustainability." With a population of 1.3 billion people, even small increases in per capita energy consumption have huge consequences, said Sims Gallagher, noting that the number of cars on China's roads is also exploding. Her recent book is titled China Shifts Gears: Automakers, Oil, Pollution, and Development. By 2030, she said, the United States and China "will account for more than half of global emissions in terms of greenhouse gases," meaning that, "these two countries together will make or break the climate change problem." The big question, said Sims Gallagher, is whether an environmental movement will rise up in China and become politically powerful enough to force a move to cleaner technologies and what she called "a culture of compliance" with environmental regulations the central government is trying to promote. "Energy is at the heart of the environmental problem in China," Sims Gallagher said, "and the environment is at the heart of the energy problem."

Zhang Ruizhuang, director of the Center of American Studies at Nankai University, questioned whether China could rightly be thought of as a superpower any time soon, citing the extreme poverty that still pervades his country. Aggregate figures notwithstanding, said Zhang, China still only ranks 131st out of 230 economies in terms of per capita production. "There is a saying in China depicting the nation's plight," he said. "Any achievement divided by 1.3 billion is nothing, and any problem times 1.3 billion is overwhelming."

Contemporary China lacks a unifying ideology, "which is an indispensable qualification for a superpower," said Zhang. For several decades the Chinese people have been living in a "spiritual vacuum ... with no beliefs except the popular motto 'get rich fast,' " he said. Traditional values "were thoroughly destroyed" during the first 30 years of communist rule and since then "the Chinese Communist Party has ironically made Chinese society more capitalist than most Western nations," Zhang observed, but it failed to embrace moral and ethical elements such as democracy and human rights.

An afternoon panel focused on how China's economy affects Africa, Latin America, and the rest of Asia. There is nothing unique about the duration and rate of China's growth, argued Raphael Kaplinsky, professor of international development at the Open University in England, but the size of China's population makes it a transformative event in world affairs. "The world could tolerate the expansion of Korea and Japan growing at 10 percent a year for 30 years," he said, but the growth of China, with a fifth of the world's population, signifies the emergence of a "distinctly different historical epoch." China's new productive capacity as well as its burgeoning demand for resources is transforming markets in ways that turn established theories about economic development on their head, according to Kaplinsky. Poor countries seeking economic development through industrialization are suffering as China bids up prices of commodities, he said, and they lose again as Chinese goods push down the prices they can fetch for manufactured goods.

Shahid Yusuf, an economic advisor to the Development Economics Research Group at the World Bank, explained how China's "muscling in" on the electronics sector is having similar effects on mid-sized Asian countries. China's "growth potential is very strong and countries see this as continuing indefinitely into the future," he said, naming this the "Southeast Asian predicament" or "middle income trap."

Summarizing these analyses, McCulloch Center director Eva Paus noted that "very few countries benefit, and most countries are challenged by the rise of China because most countries are not exporters of primary commodities." Looking to the future, the "question for them is still, 'How can we industrialize; how can we move up the value chain? ' " she said. "To me that is absolutely the fundamental question, to which nobody has a good answer."

To deepen the understanding of the complex implications of the rise of China, five MHC professors from four departments team taught a two-credit course leading up to the conference. More than 100 students are enrolled in the course. Jessamyn Rising '09, a history major, said the focus on China has taught her that "energy and resources are going to play a big role in future relations between the United States and China" in ways that are much "more complicated" than she anticipated. Evegeniya Efremova '08, a senior majoring in economics and Chinese language, studied in China last year. That "China affects the world in many ways" is not news to her, Efremova said, but she is struck by the fact that many people are just now opening their eyes to this new reality.

The Rise of China, the second in the McCulloch Center's biennial conference series on global challenges, attracted a large audience including many members of the community beyond the gates in addition to faculty and students from a variety of disciplines. Jane Eaton '71 drove eight hours from Calais, Maine, with her husband Al Churchill to attend. "We have very different interests, and this is something I thought we could both enjoy and do together," Eaton said. She was especially struck by the talk by Zhang Ruizhuang of Nankai University. "I think of China as having a cultural identity," she said. "It's scary to think of a huge country coming to the forefront without a strong ideology."

Susan Shirk, who opened up the conference, became the director of the University of California systemwide Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation after serving as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of East Asia and Pacific Affairs from 1997 to 2000. She said her goal at the conference was to help the audience "put themselves in the shoes of China's leaders to understand why they do what they do." She has come to realize that in spite of China's astonishing growth in the last three decades, the leadership is often motivated by deep insecurities about where the country is headed. "To us, on the outside, Chinese leaders look like giants because the country is so successful. Economically, now politically and militarily too, it's a rising power and we're kind of in awe of China," Shirk said, "But in their own minds, China's leaders feel like scared children, trying to stay on top of a society that has been turned upside down by all this radical economic change since they introduced market competition and opened up to the world in 1979."

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