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Is China’s rise premature?

May 26,2017
I’d like to respond to the May 19 opinion piece titled “China’s premature rise” by Professor Kim Byung-yeon from Seoul National University. While I largely agree with the premise of his argument that China will never unseat the U.S. to become the world’s leading superpower, I vehemently disagree with his argument that China’s rise is “premature” and the world should be leery of such a rise.

Is China rising? Sure, it is a fact that China has become far more prosperous compared to 30 years ago and more developed in almost all facets of its society thanks to the rapid economic development it enjoyed in the last three decades. To those of us who are within China, our standard of living has sure risen along with our income and purchasing power; despite not having free national elections and totally free press, our freedom has grown exponentially compared to what we had 30 years ago. Together with the perceived raising of its geopolitical profile, China has been billed as a “rising power” by the West. In recent years, some in South Korea went even further to label China one of the so-called “G-2” powers, a moniker which, by the way, was never recognized or adopted in China.

If this is the rise that Prof. Kim Byung-yeon was referring to and being so wary of, so be it. China’s “rise” does not hinge on the will and the approvals of the other world powers and China’s neighbors. Premature? In what way? Shouldn’t the Chinese enjoy better standard of living and better things overall? Does Prof. Kim rather prefer that China stays as the poor and underdeveloped neighbor where South Koreans can go and flaunt their money and feel good about themselves?

China doesn’t seek to establish the sort of world order known as Pax Americana which has the United States actively and aggressively pushing its agenda, beliefs and values to the rest of the world, sometimes shoving it down their throat. Prof. Kim was right to point out that China currently lacks values, culture and systems that it can sell overseas; however, this evidence used to substantiate his main argument does not hold any water because China does not intend to sell any of those anyway. Does China force South Korea to adopt its values and systems in order to conduct business? China doesn’t care what systems and values you have in South Korea, as long as you are willing to respect hers, she is going to deal with you. Of course, one can argue that an authoritarian state will never enjoy the kind of respect and reverence associated with a democratic country. I’d also argue that in today’s world of realpolitik, everyone is pretty much for himself, including the United States, which places its own national interests above everything else. There are no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests, as the saying goes.

Again, Prof. Kim is right that China has some serious debilitating issues ranging from worsening demographics to a relatively rigid system that is not friendly to fostering and incubating innovations (that said, it would be wrong for Prof. Kim to wholesale dismiss China’s ability to innovate and I actually wish his dismissive verdict would be more widely echoed in South Korea, which definitely works in our favor) which will prevent it from usurping the U.S., a country in my opinion will remain the dominant No.1 superpower for many decades to come, if not more.

But why should China fret over that? Very few sane and reasonable folks expect China to overtake and replace the U.S., most of us will be content with a prosperous China with a bigger voice and more say in the international arena, a country that can decide its own destiny. Not that China will shun its responsibilities as one of the big powers, but I think most of us will be perfectly fine with the United States shouldering the most for the rest of us.

As I correctly speculated upon reading the title of that piece by Prof. Kim, it had a lot to do with the current state of Sino-South Korean relations in the context of Thaad deployment. I knew it. What more can I say than what I have said already before? If Prof. Kim had seriously expected China to do nothing about what it considers serious infringement of its national security interests and to just put up with it, I guess I could say South Korea should have no beef with North Korea developing nukes. Who cares about national interests, right?

China’s rise is premature? I am afraid there will never be a good time for China to rise to Prof. Kim and many folks thinking like him. They probably prefer a China that disregards its own interests and holds the national interests of other countries such as those of South Korea’s dear to its heart. I am sure a China like that will finally earn Prof. Kim’s praise, but I am afraid the country called China will cease to exist if we were to embark on that, which probably will make a lot of people happy. Sorry, not going to do that.

*Beijing citizen.

Fan Xiao