Monday, July 19, 2004

Spinning Into the Chinese Orbit

After being kept out for centuries, China is now on every Western country’s trading list

The enormous economic growth of the “Middle Kingdom” has attracted the world’s attention for many decades. Its vast geographic territory, manpower, resources, and its incredible business opportunities have the miraculous ability to seduce the market dreams of the West and the countries of the Global East.

The isolation policies and xenophobia of the Chinese have kept foreigners away from the mainland for centuries. But in many ways that helped China to focus on its domestic development without any intervention from any external power. It also seems that China had sufficient domestic resources in earlier times and hardly required imports from the rest of the world. This logically justified China’s closed-door policy for centuries. And due to the unique character of China’s trade relations, its foreign counterparts were found running into high trade deficits.

The continuous knocking at the door of the Chinese kingdom by the Western world has rarely given way for them to enter the Chinese market, as they had expected. No other country on the Asian continent has become as important, in terms of market opportunities, or shows as much promise as China.
This article looks at some specific factors that make China the world’s most important developing country this century.

The Orbit
The Chinese orbit is a vast imaginative space of China’s interaction with the outside world. With its elusive quest to gain an understanding of China and to access its untapped opportunities, the outside world revolves around the Chinese orbit. This orbit mainly includes the magnetic points such as the “Chinese market,” its “economic growth” and its “social, political and cultural systems.” All the above-mentioned factors have undeniable roles in bringing the outside world closer to China.
Despite many criticisms of China on different issues, such as its projection of economic growth, human rights issues, etc, a growing affinity for China is evident in the international community. In the past, missionaries, commercial lobbies and governmental agencies waited to push themselves into the Chinese mainland, but could do so only with great difficulty. Time changed as China started opening up slowly to the outside world. The opening up was approached with great caution from the Chinese side. And in effect, it allowed China to learn more about the outside world than what others could learn about China.

China’s Market: A Galaxy of Opportunities
With a population exceeding 1.3 billion and a fast-growing economy, China promises to be the largest possible market for commercial activities in the world. The story of the Western world’s commercial fascination with China dates back 2,000 years and began with a product that still symbolizes the relationship—silk. The romance of the Chinese market and its products has been growing through centuries. Trade commodities like silk and tea, and the desired know-how for papermaking were fascinating factors to the outside world.
The Chinese have taken a courageous step toward open markets, recognizing that no nation can isolate itself in today’s global marketplace if its economy is to grow and its people are to prosper. China today offers enormous market opportunities. It can assure sufficient returns to any investor, and is therefore a market that neither investors nor international brands can ignore. The Chinese market is irresistible to many multinational giants in the fields of automobiles, software and information technology (IT), among others. China’s entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) has also contributed to the development of its vast market. The entry was a relief to many multinational companies, waiting for new markets in the Asian region after the Asian financial crisis in 1997.

Great Leap in Economic Growth
China’s economic growth reached 9.1 percent, and its external trade reached $851 billion (7 trillion yuan) in 2003, according to official Chinese sources. Though there was concern about China’s economic development due to the impact of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), the slowdown in economic growth did not persist throughout 2003. Moreover, China’s foreign exchange reserves reached $415.7 billion by the end of January 2004, the world’s second largest after Japan. Despite criticisms of this economic growth as dodgy and unsustainable, the Chinese economy has been gaining attention among other countries. It is true that official information on many facts is not available to the outside world and there were fluctuations in economic growth in the past. However, these are purely due to the domestic political conditions from time to time.
The worst times for the Chinese economy came during the Great Leap Forward (1958-59) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). But in the post-1980s, the situation changed, and the modernization processes had great influence on national development. Even during the slowdown in other Asian economies, China was witnessing immense progress in its economic growth. When East Asia was attacked by a financial crisis in 1997 and 1998, China introduced a policy of not depreciating its currency, and it really delivered the goods, making remarkable contributions to the East Asian economies’ riding over the crisis and restoring stability and growth.
China’s economy is greatly influenced by the ongoing globalization trend. Globalization has opened up investment opportunities in China, and in addition, the Chinese Government’s effective policies on taxation, plus its long-term investment in infrastructure construction have also contributed to a more pleasant investment climate. All these factors collectively make China’s economy an important one on the global stage.

Society, Culture and Political Systems
Chinese society has its roots deep in Confucianism, a realistic moral philosophy. Though it was never practiced as a religion, it played a major role in shaping China’s society, its political system and molding Chinese thinking. China has a very rich cultural history that dates back centuries. The development of literature, architecture, painting, ceramics and Chinese medicine has gained notable importance in the world. These factors have influenced the West’s fascination with China and brought many Western countries to its shores.
The political system in modern China is another important factor, which has always made China watchers enthusiastic. Communism in China was different from the communist experience in Russia. What the world could see in China was the “Sinofication” of a communist ideology.
Western Sinologists always suspected the survival of communism in post-liberation China, but Chinese leaders were ambitious and confident that they could make the country into a strong economic world power. Though the failure of some policies during the late 1950s and early 1960s was viewed critically by Western Sinologists, China never gave up its efforts to push itself onto the global platform. By the end of the Cold War, China had gained attention as a growing Asian power and was the only country able to fill the power vacuum created by the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Since the Tiananmen incident (in 1989), China has become more assertive in protecting its national interests in a pragmatic way. Developing relations with the West or former ideological enemies is no longer taboo for China. Moreover, it has been given due importance to improving its trade relations.

Sinologists have different opinions on whether China is a threat, competitor or opportunity to other countries, especially to its Asian neighbors. What is more important to its Asian neighbors is to understand that the growth of China as an economic power will always be better than a China suffering from economic or political problems. While the West projects China as a threat to its Asian neighbors, it is evident that they have already fallen into the Chinese orbit, looking for access to the world’s most promising market. The only country that is always worried about the truth of multi-polarity is the United States. And if China is blamed by the United States for hegemonizing the Asian continent, it only reflects U.S. interests in the continent.
In addition to the Western powers, Russia also maintains strong relations with China. For Russia, China is a promising customer for its arms industry, and its bilateral trade is greater with China than with the United States. China is an economic giant and a dependable trading partner to other Asian countries, and it stands to make the demands of the developing countries more vocal in the international arena after being dubbed “the most important developing country” in the Asian region. China’s cooperation is undeniable and essential in bringing about pragmatic solutions to issues like energy security, economic development, the fight against terrorism, etc., especially in the Asia-Pacific region.
China’s economic growth and market avenues have opened up channels for many more trading giants showing their interest in the country. Countries that had refused to kowtow before the Chinese emperors centuries ago have now kowtowed before modern China a hundred times to gain entry to its market. They have indeed been well and truly sucked into the Chinese orbit.