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The China Conundrum

by Rudy M. Baum
July 26, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 30

China seems to be on everyone’s minds these days. China is certainly a major topic of conversation here at C&EN and at the American Chemical Society.

It’s not hard to see why. China’s economy is booming. China’s chemical industry, particularly its fine and custom chemicals industry, is playing an increasingly important role in the global chemical enterprise. Research at Chinese universities and institutes is attaining world-class status.

C&EN’s coverage reflects China’s growing importance. Looking back over the first 29 issues of 2004, I count at least 15 stories in C&EN’s departments focused directly on China’s chemical industry or particular Chinese chemical firms. That doesn’t include the numerous Business Concentrates that dealt with China, and it doesn’t include the many mentions of China in C&EN stories on conferences such as Informex and ChemSpec or on fine and custom chemicals generally.

Many of C&EN’s stories on China were by Hong Kong Bureau Head Jean-François Tremblay, who joined C&EN’s staff nine years ago when we recognized that C&EN needed a presence in Asia. In this week’s issue, Tremblay examines the Chinese petrochemical industry (see page 18). Many of this year’s stories that touched on China, however, were by other C&EN business and science and technology reporters whose beats increasingly have a China component.

Over the past few weeks, I have read a number of articles in the New York Times and Washington Post on China that have given me pause. Commentators and reporters are dazzled by China’s economic performance over the past two decades, but for the most part they remain silent about China’s stunning lack of progress politically.

The first such article was the cover story in the July 4 New York Times Magazine titled “The Chinese Century.” In it, author Ted C. Fishman argues that, while the 20th century was the American century, the 21st century, inevitably, will be the Chinese century. This major piece maintains that China has mastered capitalism with a vengeance, talks about how the “China price” is determining the price manufacturers can charge the world over, and pretty much advises anyone worried about China’s eventual economic dominance to get over it. The article does not mention China’s political system.

The second article was in the July 5 Times. It discusses China’s insatiable appetite for energy to power its economic boom. On per capita terms, China’s energy use is a fraction of that of the U.S.’s, but in absolute terms China is now the world’s second largest consumer of energy, and closing quickly on the U.S.

The third article was in the July 5 Washington Post. It details the campaign by Chinese military and security officials against Jiang Yanyong, the 72-year-old surgeon who first alerted the world to China’s cover-up of the SARS epidemic. Jiang recently wrote a letter denouncing the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, and he was detained in early June and subjected to intensive “reeducation” exercises.

The Post article states: “Though Chinese police routinely jail dissidents, the decision to detain Jiang appears to have been made by the Central Military Commission … with the consent of the party’s most senior leaders.” That sentence should send a shudder down the spine of anyone who cherishes democracy and the rule of law.

China is the only major economic power on Earth that does not make even a pretense toward democracy. Its government is thoroughly and unapologetically authoritarian. It is useful to point out, I think, that authoritarian and totalitarian governments have often been quite successful, at least in the short term, in organizing their nations’ economic affairs. The absence of the rule of law is very useful, from a competitive point of view, in dealing with labor organizers.

When I have conversations about China with leaders from the business and academic communities, and I bring up the Chinese political situation, I often get a response along the lines of, “Yes, well there’s that … ” and, after a brief pause, the conversation moves on. There’s the sense that that just isn’t that important.

But it is. We need to engage China. But we need to recognize that we are engaging a country with much that needs reforming before it can truly be a member of the developed world.

Thanks for reading. 

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.



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