Following his conquest of the Crimea, Russian General Grigori Potemkin is said to have built empty façades meant to resemble small towns along the banks of the Dnieper River. As history tells it, he hoped the sight of these settlements would impress foreign dignitaries traveling through the region with Catherine the Great. His objective was to convince them that Russia had gained a valuable economic and strategic asset and was on its way to becoming a serious European power.
In that case, Russia had its sights set on just Europe, but now China, today’s equivalent to Potemkin’s Russia, has far greater ambitions.
In its pursuit of ever-broadening stature on the world stage, the Chinese government threw its full weight behind the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, which ended last Sunday. The country’s leadership was determined to show the world that China was ready to assume its place as the new superpower of the 21st century.
Network broadcasts were filled with gushing reports of China ascendant. These games, we were told, were China’s great coming out party, the moment that would show the world that a new paradigm of power was taking shape, with China at its center. Analysts were quick to prophesize doom for American hegemony and economic prowess. How, they asked, could any nation hope to compete with one as ambitious and uncompromising as China?
The numbers, however, are far less generous to China than are the analysts. While annual Chinese GDP growth hovers around an almost breathtaking 10 percent, the odds of this level of growth continuing far into the future are slim, if not impossible, and the Chinese government is largely to blame.
While China’s much-maligned one-child policy might be succeeding in its goal of controlling population growth, in the process, it is threatening the country’s greatest economic asset.
The Center for Strategic and International Studies notes that this policy has created the most quickly aging population in the world, with almost 400 million people over age 60 within the next 30 years. The problem is that as the median age goes ever higher, the number of viable workers shrinks. A lack of young men and women entering the workforce puts cheap labor, the backbone of the Chinese economy, on the chopping block.
To make matters worse for China, a substantial portion of its manufacturing is not financed by Chinese businesses eager to re-invest profits in their homeland. Rather, more than half of all China’s exports are owned by foreign companies that could just as easily take their business (and profits) elsewhere as soon as cheap labor dries up. If China were to lose its biggest advantage in the global economy, it is doubtful that the dream of a Chinese-dominated 21st century would survive.
What’s more, while the rest of the industrialized world has been steadily (if slowly) marching toward economies powered by alternative energy, China has shown little interest in taking serious measures to cut pollution and fossil fuel use after the Olympic flame was extinguished.
China will soon overtake the United States as the world’s largest polluter (something which, by some estimates, it has done already), and its hunger for oil has shown no signs of slowing. Coupling this with some of the most polluted cities and rivers in the world, China’s industrial success may prove its undoing.
Issues of a dwindling oil supply and resulting prices aside, the innumerable health consequences of extraordinarily polluted air and water, along with an increasingly geriatric population, will push one of the few relics of China’s Maoist past, the state-run healthcare and pension systems, to their breaking point.
Taking all of this into account along with the nation’s slow pace of reform (basic economic principles such as state protection of private property rights are a fairly recent development), it seems bizarre that the West is so cavalier to predict its own decline. What is it that pushes the image of Chinese supremacy to the forefront of our collective consciousness?
The answer lies in the Potemkin Village.
China made for the 2008 Olympics its own higher-tech Potemkin Village to show off to the world, with all the artificial trappings one could expect in the 21st century. The Chinese mixed illusory promises of media freedom with an iron-fisted approach to dissent and even replaced a little girl with a lip-syncing body double all in the name of projecting the image of Chinese supremacy around the globe.
To borrow a distinctly American term, the idea of China’s inevitable rise is all hat, no cattle.
To the Politburo in Beijing, all the deceptions were necessary, required lest the world perceive even the slightest imperfection, and perhaps it was this Machiavellian philosophy that undermined the world’s vision of what the Beijing Olympics really were.
Years from now, the XXIX Olympiad will probably not be remembered as China’s debut on the world stage. While we may remember the Olympic motto of One World, One Dream, the greatest memory will be of a different dream, ultimately left unfulfilled: Chinese ascendancy.
Nate Blevins is a freshman in Pierson College.