BJCG Article: From Ugly Duckling to Graceful Swan

China has come a long way in the last thirty years, but where are the gaps?

Cecilia Fan discusses whether China’s growth is sustainable, and where there may be room for improvement.

As China continues to experience unprecedented growth, Cecilia Fan asks how sustainable China’s current economic miracle really is.

If we leave China’s baggage behind her – that is periods of imperialism, civil war and the Cultural Revolution, and count the country’s lifespan from the late ’70s and early ’80s, China can now be considered a lady in her 30s. And certainly, China – the lady – has a lot to be proud of in terms of the achievements of the last 30 years.

But what of China’s long-term growth and sustainability? And how is this best to be managed?

‘Sustainable’ is a word with great flexibility and means many things – from ‘durable and lasting’ to ‘ongoing and continuously improving’.

So when describing the Chinese economy as ‘sustainable,’ it would seem a safely ambiguous word to pick.

In terms of how we quantify the term “sustainable”, the judgment can be fairly subjective – some may say, it is so long as there is no negative growth. Others may say it is growth on parity with population increase.

It is not difficult to imagine China’s own assessment of her place in today’s world economy – comparing the country’s vast currency reserves and historically unprecedented rate of growth with the troubled economies of some more developed nations. China is in a position to turn her head away, cover her mouth and giggle quietly, in an effort to preserve a humble image.

The Chinese Government is primarily concerned with sustainability in terms of the ever larger gap between rich and poor, urban and rural. In an increasingly integrated world economy, the world is concerned with China’s sustainability in terms of market size, capacity for foreign investment and demand for resources.

Sustainability to an average person could mean holding a white-collar job and affording a mortgage, or not having to walk miles each day to fetch clean water to drink. It could mean listing a business on the Hong Kong stock exchange, to, after years of separation, migrant worker parents finding a city school to accept their children.

After three decades of development, almost all Chinese have enjoyed significant improvements in the quality of their life. Modern China is a super confident nation, and with the awe of the world, China has subconsciously moved from considering herself an ugly duckling, to becoming not merely a swan, but a swan with a crown on her head.

Sometimes, however, we forget to acknowledge that there are defects shadowed under the glory. – there are areas where China is far behind other parts of the world and needs fundamental reform rather than sustainability of the status quo.

Amongst the crowd of other nations, China is certainly not amongst the most beautiful with its poorly designed buildings in hundreds of cities across the country showing little individual character to over-developed tourist sites packed with identically designed shops and souvenirs. Nor can China, in its modern history, boast it is at the forefront of arts or science as it has been in past times.

China’s education system is still like a processing line, with little emphasis on teamwork, creativity or practical problem-solving.

For a first-hand peek at China’s modern public health system, take a midnight trip to any decent public hospital in Beijing and you will see the queues already forming for the next day’s appointments. In some hospital car parks, you will find the patients’ family members from outside Beijing already camped there for the morning’s queue.

The western world is eager to help China with her “sustainability” by introducing carbon trading and clean technology, and it seems sufficient power stations, highways, supply of natural resources, and cleaner air and water will be what ensures China’s sustainability.

Meanwhile software parts have been largely ignored and China is going to struggle to be sustainable when her entire education system is built on rote learning, or when the country can produce so many highly-trained Olympic champions but can hardly provide any space or system for the average Chinese child to kick a ball or learn to swim in their own neighbourhood.

When there is general lack of appreciation for beauty and elegance amongst the city planners, developers and architects, when dedication to precision and fine quality seem to belong only to the craftsman of ancient centuries, China still has a long way to go in a modern sustainable world.

The Americans had their belief in “Freedom, Liberty and Equality.’ The Japanese had their “Bushidao Spirit.”

But one question we have all have to ask ourselves is at what point does the spirit of modern-day China coincide with the support of the country’s economic miracle to become truly sustainable? Blinded by China’s GDP growth, RMB and foreign currency deposits, we might all have developed our own illusions about what China’s status is today – but when a nation’s steps are faster than its mind, it is walking into a risky zone.

Just as a human’s growth and maturity is interlinked back to DNA, there are certain constraints to the growth of any nation. China, and the world may have to acknowledge there is a limitation in growth, as has happened to Japan and other South-East Asian countries.

Eventually it will happen to China also as the nation slows down from its 30-year boom. This won’t be a recession, but a re-charge.

China can’t expect to keep its 8 percent to 10 percent growth rate forever, but if China is continually exercising, improving and enriching herself as a nation, then she should be able to retain her charm and beauty, and continue to move ever forward –perhaps slower, but steadily, more gracefully, and, with a more long-term view and understanding of what a sustainable future really is.