Mythical Dragon, Real China - Part 1: Chinese Chokers

"The Wuhan virus has changed things. Issues and events are panning out in a manner that forces a rethink. In the last six months China has alienated major powers of the Indo Pacific – India, Japan and Australia."


Mythical Dragon, Real China - Part 1: Chinese Chokers

Myths and Reality

Xi’s Call: China is real. The dragon is mythical. However we will stick to the real China in this analysis. In May, Xi Jinping called on the PLA to be prepared for wars. He signalled what he was up to and conveyed it. We did not heed to his intent. How wrong were we?  

Similarly When Xi Jinping, spoke to scientists it was one such moment when a vista was revealed. Two significant aspects of that talk stuck a chord in me. He spoke of the ‘deep and complex’ changes that China faced in the domestic and international environment.

He also spoke of the big  problems that were ‘choking’ and ‘strangling’ China. These included lack of advanced agricultural technology and reliance on imported seed, critical component shortcoming in core manufacturing technology, dependence on overseas oil supplies, pollution, poor distribution of water resources and an ageing population which needed improvements in pharmaceuticals and medical equipment.

These issues are underlying and permanent to China. They are largely pre virus. The chemistry of ‘deep’ complex’ with ‘chokers and stranglers’ needs better appreciation to get to realism.

The World According to Xi: China is modernising. Its economy, power and influence have grown. It is set to overtake USA shortly. However the Wuhan virus has changed things. Issues and events are panning out in a manner that forces a rethink. In the last six months China has alienated major powers of the Indo Pacific – India, Japan and Australia.

All other countries of the region feel threatened.  t has also managed to alienate USA, Canada and Europe. It has got into a military conflict with India and USA; when it was really not needed. It is shaking up the entire global order. It is trying to impose its vision on the whole world.

When we see and read commentaries on China, they are one dimensional and often magnify China to  proportions of a mythical dragon all set to conquer the world. It appears that China is unstoppable. The world according to Xi looks forbidding. However the reality is far different. There are logical opinions which suggest that China has peaked and will actually decline from hereon.

The Wuhan Virus only hastens the process. There are many discordant issues in China which will inhibit and eventually cap China’s rise. That is what Xi Jinping had on his mind when he spoke what he did. In India, we need to get a handle on the entirety of China to deal with it squarely. This analysis presents the large canvas of China.

Jekyll and Hyde Cycle: Step back into history. Ever since the CCP came into the scene a century back, China has had periodic convulsions. Mao unleashed ‘The Great Leap Forward and The Cultural Revolution’. In four decades China was taking ‘The Great Leap Backwards’.  

China talks of a ‘Century of Humiliation’. However the CCP wreaked half of that humiliation through the greatest man made famine in which 35-45 million people died and were reduced to cannibalism. In the 70s, China adopted the ‘One Child Policy’. It  appeared to be the greatest of social reforms of that era. Half a century later it is one of the greatest disasters in Chinese and human history.  

Mao spoke of  ‘Conquest of Nature’ and Deng Xiao Ping felt that ‘To Become Rich is Glorious’ when he kickstarted the four modernizations. Their successors ‘Conquered Nature’ mercilessly and ‘Made China Rich’ through dizzy economic growth. Four decades later China seeks glory but is entering a decline, seeded at the start itself.

The Jekyll and Hyde cycle of the CCP is discernible – revolutionary idea, electrifying start, great promise and seemingly impressive progress to disastrous ends due to unsustainability, unpredictability and unintended outcomes.

Freedom Vs Prosperity: CCP and Xi Jinping view national economic growth and power as commodities fungible with people. The transaction being – ‘you give up your freedoms and we will give you prosperity’. From an economic point of view, China is already a superpower.

However growth has to be for the people. Their perspective tells a different story. Discrepancies  have surfaced ever since the Wuhan Virus has struck the world. Some  instability is discernible in the Chinese monolith. India needs to be cognisant of this.  

Whether China is a superpower or not, India has to live with it as a neighbour. Realism will enable us to deal with it better. Historically an unstable China has been troublesome – to India and the world at large.

Pre Virus Economic Growth: China has clocked stupendous economic growth. It was poised to overtake USA. Its future trajectory up to 2050 indicates that it will continue to rise (see table). All set to achieve the ‘China Dream’ through prosperity, collective effort, socialism, and national glory.

The great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation is imminent. The Chinese aim is to be a ‘moderately well-off society’ by 2021 and a ‘fully developed nation’ by 2050. Inherent in this is to be the sole superpower on earth. Herein lies the rub. The ‘chokers and stranglers’ of Xi Jinping are lying in ambush.

"The world according to Xi looks forbidding. However the reality is far different. There are logical opinions which suggest that China has peaked and will actually decline from hereon."
Graphical Representation

‘Chinese Chokers’

Aging Choker: An aging population is the main ‘Choker’. The one child policy reduced birth rates drastically. As against the standard replacement rate of 2.1, the birth rates fell to 1.18. Despite lifting the one child policy in 2015, the birth rates will not cross 1.7.

People are not marrying or having a second child. Reasons include rising prosperity, opportunities for single women, young couples opting for single child and gender imbalance. As a result the population is expected to peak at 1.4 billion around 2030 and decline thereafter (see graph). The population will reduce to about 1 billion by 2100.

"Whether China is a superpower or not, India has to live with it as a neighbour. Realism will enable us to deal with it better. Historically an unstable China has been troublesome."
Graphical Representation
Graphical Representation
Graphical Representation

Child population (0-15) and dependency is expected to be around 20%. Simultaneously the share of the aged (65+) is set to steeply grow due to increasing lifespans (see graph). China is the fastest aging country in history. Overall, Child and Old-aged dependency will keep increasing. This has manifold implications. Some are highlighted. One. The working population will keep decreasing.

A smaller number of  workers will have to take care of an increasing number of old and young people. The overall standards of life will correspondingly decrease. Two. As  population ages, additional resources are needed to meet the needs of the elderly – medical, energy, housing, food. China has a very weak social welfare system for the aged.

An estimated 23 % of the old-aged cannot take care of themselves. The aged also represent a shrinking tax base.  Overall, the government revenues will be strained. Three. The percentage of unmarried men in their late 30's will quintuple by 2030. This will have adverse societal impacts. Four. When the work force declines, wages increase, productivity goes down and profits go down.

Lesser workers means lesser consumption spending. China has no choice but to export. However most consuming countries are also aging. Their consumption will go down. The overall economy will dip. The key to Chinese prosperity lies in countries capable of consuming in the future like India, Indonesia and Nigeria. The prediction is that in the period 2020-30 the economy will start shrinking. Five.

An aging society and increased urbanisation reduces availability of farmers. It brings up the issue of food security. Six.  The one child condition, limited youth and urbanisation will have an adverse impact on the availability of the right material for armed forces (see graph). There are other unforeseeable issues which will vector themselves in as China  goes along.

"China is modernising. Its economy, power and influence have grown. It is set to overtake USA shortly. However the Wuhan virus has changed things."
Graphical Representation

Food Problems:

Currently China is facing a food crisis. It is likely to have domestic and geopolitical fallouts. This brings focus on to an issue which has been choking China historically. Chinese history is full of famines. However, ever since Mao’s policies induced the Great Famine, China has not really faced a food crisis. In fact China has carried out vast agriculture reforms.

Today China is the world’s largest producer and consumer of agricultural products. Recent developments have however raised concerns about its food security. China  has 19% of the global population but only 7% of arable land and freshwater resources. Both are diminishing.

There  are questions of sustainable development due to environmental degradation, pollution, climate change, disease, urbanisation, industrial growth and demography. More than 40% of China's arable land is degraded seriously. Food production is reducing. Demand for agricultural products has grown due to a burgeoning population, growing industrial economy, and expanding consumerism.

Believe it or not, China has the maximum obese people in the world. China became a net food importer in 2004. Its import dependence is irreversible. It will face a domestic grain supply gap of about 130 million tonnes by the end of 2025. It continues to import seeds due to lack of technology.

Wheat, corn and rice are the main ingredients of the Chinese food basket. These crops have been threatened by floods, typhoons and draughts – all in one season. Climate change might also be playing its part. Pork is the main meat. However availability of pork has been affected badly due to the African Swine Flu for the past three years.

Corruption/inefficiency in logistics and storage as also insect infestation threaten its inventory. About one-sixth of the total grain produced in China is wasted annually in the production, processing and transportation cycle. China might not run out of food but prices are rising and there are creases of economic worry.

Unprecedented Chokers: China has faced unprecedented rainfall, floods, typhoons and droughts this year. Diseases specific to this year include the Wuhan Virus and Brucellosis (an infectious disease caused by bacteria from livestock which can also infect humans and leave men infertile).

African Swine Flu, Plague,  Yellow Fever, Polio, Avian Influenza, SARs are recurring diseases in the recent past. It raises a lot of issues. Is it due to pollution, environmental degradation, climate change or all? In any case the effect of this continued disease and pestilence is only going to get more serious as China ages. This budding superpower is unhealthy. Click Here For Part 2

(Lt Gen PR Shankar was India's DG Artillery. He is highly decorated and qualified with vast operational experience. He is now a Professor in the Aerospace Dept of IIT Madras. You can reach him on Twitter: @palepurshankar, Email ID: pravishankar3@gmail.com)

(Views expressed are the authors own, and do not reflect the editorial policy of 'Mission Victory India')

Head over to 'Gunners Shot' for all things defence by Lt Gen Shankar

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