China’s rise: from poverty to prosperity in a few decades

Fear in American circles that China will become a serious challenger for the country in the not-too-distant future

Shahid Javed Burki July 19, 2021
The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and served as vice-president at the World Bank

Recently, the western press and historians have given a lot of space to China, discussing its present situation and speculating about its future. The occasion was to mark an important event in the history of the Chinese Communist Party, CCP. On Thursday, July 1, China celebrated the 100th birthday of the country’s communist party. I will save for a later day the discussion of where China is today and where it is likely to be in a decade or two from now. Today, I will look at where China was half a century ago when I first visited the country, in the summer of 1965. But before I get to that, it would be useful to write a few words about some aspects of global change that provides an appropriate background for discussing recent Chinese history.

The CCP has lasted longer than the original organisation of this genre, the Soviet Union’s Communist Party. That collapsed in 1991, after Moscow suffered a humiliating defeat in Afghanistan and Mikhail Gorbachev, the party’s last secretary general, decided that the time had come for his country to move on and be governed by another political system. That event was celebrated in the West as a triumph of the political and economic system that brought new heights to the countries that followed it. A memorable book, The End of History, by Francis Fukuyama became a bestseller. The main thesis developed in the book was that from now on world history would not be written and told in terms of conflicts between and among different ideologies. One system had prevailed. It allowed governments to be managed by people placed in office through elections; those given the authority to run the affairs of nations would be accountable to those who placed them in the positions they occupied. Elections would be held at defined intervals with the definition coming from the constitution the people had accepted as the guide for governance. Following the constitution meant following rule of law.

In fact, the rule of law would also be followed by nations across the globe in their relations with the outside world. International law was shaped by nations through deliberations that took place within international institutions which had representations from all those countries that wished to be included in this effort. After the end of the Second World War, the world established an array of institutions that included the United Nations, International Monetary Fund, World Bank and its sister regional banks, the World Trade Organization. Several other specialised agencies such as the World Health Organization, Food and Agricultural Organization, and World Refugee Agency were created to manage different aspects of relations among nations.

Thinking about global governance continued after the collapse of European communism and now includes the question of persistent inequity among citizens in individual countries and among nations. This debate on how to make the domestic and international systems more equitable provides a good opportunity to place in context what is generally regarded as the “rise of China”. There cannot be any doubt that China’s spectacular economic and social rise over a period of a few decades has no precedence in history. “The question is no longer that China is rising,” said David Shambaugh the author of China’s Leaders: From Mao to Now, “China has risen. It is here.” The evidence for the country’s rise is all over the place. Per capita GDP has grown to over $10,000 today, from less than $900 in 1960. When I visited China for the first time in 1965, to study the country’s system of communes, the country looked as poor — if not poorer — than Pakistan. The poor ate poorly and lived in poor housing even in the country’s large cities. As a member of a three-man team, I traveled extensively in the country, using an antiquated railway system to go from one city to another. As the director of West Pakistan’s Rural Work Program, I had come to know well the Pakistani countryside. In 1965, I saw scores of Chinese villages. The quality of life was poorer than that of the rural folks in Pakistan but they were healthier and better schooled.

Although Mao Zedong has been recently viewed very critically by his own people, there could be no doubt that the ground for China’s quick rise was laid by him soon after he and the communist party took control of the country on October 1, 1949. His three moves had a lasting impact on the country. The first was to bring the status of women on a par with that of men. In 1965, I saw many old women who could barely walk because of small and stunted feet as a result of foot-binding, a common practice in the country among the well-to-do segments. Small feet were one aspect of women’s beauty but the real reason was to drastically reduce their mobility. Mao banned the practice; those who continued the practice were severely punished.

The second major contribution was to bring universal education to all of China, to the country’s cities and the remotest villages. No one was to remain illiterate, unable to read and write.

The third important part of Mao’s drive to develop the Chinese human resource was to bring universal healthcare to the citizenry. This was done by having “bare foot” doctors go from door to door providing basic healthcare. The task was assigned to the people who were given knowledge of basic healthcare and were able to spot problems that needed expert attention. Those who needed that kind of help were sent to clinics and hospitals in the neighbourhood.

These three actions brought the Chinese population to the level at which the people could take the next step towards modernity, both economic and social. Mao made several mistakes; some of them cost millions of lives. But there cannot be any doubt that he laid the ground for China’s rapid transformation.

There is fear in several American circles that China will become a serious challenger for the country in the not-too-distant future. China’s economy is now poised to be bigger than that of the US economy, possibly by the end of this decade. It has the resources to spend more than a trillion dollars on improving the physical and human infrastructure that links it with the world, especially to the western side of its landlocked border. The multi-billion-dollar CPEC is an important part of this programme. Although the virus that resulted in the Covid-19 pandemic came from China, Beijing has been more successful in controlling the damage it could do than was the case in the US, in the West and India in the less developed part of the world. China now has become the biggest lender in the world, surpassing the World Bank and the IMF. It is now set to lead global change and the world should prepare itself for that time.




Published in The Express Tribune, July 19th, 2021.

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R S Chakravarti | 2 weeks ago | Reply

What about Chinese expansionism The view that any place near China is part of China

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