[Outlook]China’s next steps

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[Outlook]China’s next steps

China, a country that will celebrate its 60th anniversary in October this year, has announced that it is approaching the threshold of becoming a semi-developed country. The country’s statistics office announced that as of the end of 2008, the country’s gross domestic product per capita was $3,266. China has been standing at a forked road between Korea’s golden development model and the Latin American model in which there is growth but no development. Now, the Asian giant is worried about the side effects of its development.

Last year’s growth was stunning, considering that China’s real economy was seriously affected by the global economic crisis and that natural disasters such as heavy snowfalls caused economic losses. That result was possible because China is equipped with the proper policies and institutions needed for development.

Now, China must establish new strategies other than its primary goals of building an advanced nation by 2050, and of creating a well-off society in which prosperity can be enjoyed by all by 2020.

But the fact that China is getting to the semi-developed level earlier than expected is now causing new concerns. As history has shown us, the modernization of a country is linked to its political development. Preparing for economic progress usually necessitates new political institutions.

In China, the Communist Party’s authority has already begun to focus more on mundane economic affairs, and a range of political demands have been bubbling up from the bottom of society. Some scholars and government officials call for the introduction of a competitive political party system, and calls for democracy by critical intellectuals and civic organizations are increasing.

Gaps in Chinese society - such as in incomes, and between urban and rural areas - have been widening. China’s Gini index, a measure of inequality of income distribution or wealth distribution, has already reached 0.495. The country’s inequality is approaching a very serious level and could end up in a crisis. Statistics show that last year there were more than 120,000 protest demonstrations, revealing the seriousness of the social issues China now faces.

Chinese authorities are responding more quickly to the effects stemming from becoming a semi-developed country. Late last year, on the 30th anniversary of reforms and the opening of the country, President Hu Jintao saw the present crisis as being as serious as the Soviet Union’s collapse or the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.

China’s authorities have already abandoned strategies focusing on growth, putting in their place a new ideology for scientific development in order to achieve sustainable growth. In order to change the bureaucratized system, they have established a democracy inside the Communist Party to increase transparency in policy-making processes and predictability in leadership transitions. Although they have adopted incrementalism, they say democracy is a good thing, indicating that political doors may be opened.

They also declared war against corruption in order to thoroughly reform the culture among civil servants. This is not a temporary or arbitrary measure to calm discontent in society. This is based on awareness that corruption can paralyze a market economy and hinder economic growth.

Despite such efforts, uncertainty caused by the global economic crisis puts limits on the space in which China has to maneuver. As its issues are no longer strictly domestic, the international community quickly makes calculations about them, making the issues more complicated and creating new phenomena.

This situation cannot be resolved by the restoration of Communist Party control or by the magic of Sino-centrism or patriotism. It imposes a historic task in which the pace of economic growth must be matched with that of political development. Preparations for the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China have already begun, and the event will present a blueprint for a semi-developed China.

In history, strong countries emerged by turning crisis into opportunity. If China can remove the obstacles that lie in its path to becoming a semi-developed country, it will be able to prove that the Chinese model works.

As such, it will be able to establish a foundation for democracy in international relations, something the country has desperately longed for. The possibility of this was implied in the United States National Intelligence Council’s evaluation that the global financial crisis did not cause a power shift but accelerated the shift that has already begun.

As changes in China’s concern our country as well, we need to use our imagination and strategic wisdom when approaching the situation.

*The writer is a professor of international relations at Sungkyunkwan University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Lee Hee-ok
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