Chinese Whispers

Tom Hammond 26 January 2008

Although, in my experience, all journalists, in their less guarded moments, enjoy making predictions, they seldom wish to see them in print. A diverting parlour game all too easily becomes the source of professional embarrassment.

And yet journalists are occasionally called upon to act a little rashly and turn seer. But few journalists are prepared to be truly speculative. Most offer predictions which, through repetition, have entered the realm of the trite.

One such has been that 2008 will be the year of China’s ‘coming out party’, in which China emerges onto the world stage and compels us all to take notice. Although the Beijing Olympics will serve as an obvious focal point, the whole of 2008 could be devoted to scare stories about China as insular British journalists are forced to comprehend the sheer scale of the social experiment which is taking place there.

Let me be injudicious and make two predictions of my own. I predict that much coverage will present China’s rise as a fait accompli, and that it will present China’s rise as inevitable. In this respect it will echo the coverage of the rise to prominence of Japan 30 years ago. Such coverage frequently verged on the apocalyptic. One British author even wrote a novel in which Britain, then the ‘sick man of Europe’, was sold wholesale to Japan.

Of course, many of the inexpert journalists who took to commentary on Japanese affairs thirty years ago cringed when the bubble burst and Japan endured a time of homeless former salary-men sleeping in internet cafes, and negative economic growth. There are lessons here for China-watchers, who at present only seem to have one narrative to offer their readers.

This narrative is, when one gives even cursory consideration to the complexity and internal diversity of Chinese society, laughable. Such narrowness of vision is not only unfortunate, but potentially dangerous. For, though it is vital that we make every effort to understand a rising China, we also need to be prepared for a China suffering reverses. Much as we might lament the consequences of China accruing global influence, the ramifications for the world of a China knocked off course could be far more profound.

In the midst of images of affluence in Chinese coastal cities, it is easy to forget the swathes of the country which have not seen the new prosperity, and those groups for whom the new economic order brings not promise, but despair.

Workers in state owned enterprises facing closure, peasants ordered of their land without compensation, migrants who fall between the rigid urban-rural dichotomy which governs access to social services, and thousands of ‘Little Emperors’, doted on by their parents, recipients of expensive educations, but now unable to find a job commensurate with their status, all have grievances and could begin to ferment unrest.

Already there are thousands of daily protests in China. That part of the secret police devoted to the monitoring the internet grows ever larger, and press freedoms are once again being curtailed.

We need also to remember that China more than any other nation is susceptible to environmental crisis and that events in Taiwan might precipitate a more assertive Chinese foreign policy. Beneath the gaudy façade of the Olympic opening ceremony, there will be a country potentially riven by contradictions, trying to contend with the burdens of both affluence and poverty.

Such a picture makes all talk of an inevitable rise naive. When making predictions, we should be allowed to hope for the best, but we must always also prepare for the worst.

Tom Hammond