ETHOS Issue 08, Aug 2010
In the wake of ongoing economic malaise in much of Europe and the US, there is a sense in which optimism and growth need to be sought further afield. Indeed, if an ascendant China did not actually exist, it probably would have had to be invented. Nevertheless, arguments that China, were it willing, could resolve the world's economic (or environmental) woes anytime soon are misplaced. China's economy is still growing rapidly, but from a low base — it has at least decades to go before it can hope to replace current sources of global demand, and it now faces much tougher economic conditions and wage pressures going forward. At the same time, it faces significant challenges in jumpstarting the domestic consumption necessary to sustain growth. The institutions and infrastructure necessary to support a world-class economy, including high quality education, research and consumer activities, remains underdeveloped. China at large remains poor, particularly in the rural heartlands; social tensions between the newly rich and the persistently poor need to be managed; natural and environmental disasters can take their toll.
Yet judging from the media — and not a few scholarly pundits — the rise of China as a global power seems all but assured. There is of course evidence to support this auspicious view of China's development: its economic growth over the past decade has been phenomenal; the Beijing Olympics and Shanghai World Expo mark the triumphant re-entry of an age-old civilisation onto the modern cultural world stage; domestic sentiment and geopolitical relations are on a relatively even keel, notwithstanding the occasional blip.
In some areas, China even seems to be ahead of the global curve. Despite attempts to pin the shortcomings of the Copenhagen climate talks on an obstructive China, it has taken bold steps towards a clean energy economy — if nothing else, to secure its own energy needs and economic advantage in the long term. Riding on popular technologies that have allowed it to leapfrog the constraints of its vast geography, China now has the largest netizen population in the world, with implications for China's potential influence on the web, and perhaps its own social development.
Nevertheless, while observers such as Lye Liang Fook and Zheng Yong Nian see a considerable opening up of Chinese society and political discourse, media veteran Yang Jin Lin cautions that any social reforms are likely to be cautious and conditional rather than sweeping. China's leadership, while clearly cognisant of the many complex challenges in the way of its steady development, still need to strike a delicate and by no means unshakeable balance between ensuring stability and generating headlong growth for a nation hungry for modernity.
As long-time China observer Shaun Breslin points out, most views of China are based on its imagined, potential power in a projected future, and not the complex, evolving reality that is China today. A nuanced and dispassionate perspective is perhaps more sensible than either a triumphalist or alarmist view of what an emerging China means for the world. There are, after all, other emerging centres of interest in the world: in Asia there is India, and the not-inconsiderable resources of the ASEAN countries taken together. Nor does a global economy dominated by a single (even if benign) power necessarily mean a comfortable ride for open economies such as Singapore, given considerations of how the global trading regimes might evolve. Other small nations around the world have begun to formulate their own responses in anticipation of an uncertain geopolitical landscape: diversify, boost education, find new niches, nurture social resilience and build a forward-looking, responsive public service — still prudent strategies to pursue no matter how Asia's growth story unfolds.
In the spirit of strengthening key public institutions, Goh Phek Suan from the Centre for Leadership Development, Civil Service College (CSC) outlines important principles to consider in the disciplined cultivation of next-generation leaders in the public service. CSC's Centre for Governance and Leadership principal researcher June Gwee examines a fresh approach to service innovation based on design principles. Cornell's Professor Robert Frank proposes a progressive tax to slash wasteful private consumption without reducing the resources available for public expenditure.
I wish you a fruitful read.
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