Focusing as we do so intently on China and its growth, it is always welcome to have a dose of balance and perspective. Countries get wrapped up in their own dynamics and can forget the wider context. It is not surprising that this happens with China, with its mesmerizing growth and pace of change.
Recent weeks have brought any number of reminders of a greater reality – tainted food, recalled toys, collapsed mines, environmental horrors. A number of puzzling steps backward in the midst of the general rush forward. All isolated incidents are in a way surrounded by many positive signs of progress. But nevertheless they have reminded people at home and abroad of the issues China still needs to make progress on, even while it continues to become more transparent, accountable and responsive – in short, more in line with international norms – by the day.
This still has the potential to be China’s century. But it will not be a straight-line ascent. The Olympics opening ceremony in August next year will represent a crystallized moment of truth – the return of an almost lost country to the international stage. But the negative news of recent weeks is a reminder that the Olympic spotlight will also be a painful experience in some ways, highlighting elements of China’s economy and society that were easier to hide in the days when information control did not involve armies of online filterers.
The good news is that for reasons of face and stability, the government is taking action to correct many of the problems and the publicity no doubt helps to speed up the needed raising of standards.
More could always be done. The World Health Organization could receive more assistance on pig health concerns; China could cease its water muddying moves to stop various US products on grounds of safety concerns.
But the trend lines remain clear. China has become the world’s factory, and India will not be able to replace it in that role in the foreseeable future at least. Investment funds are shifting from the West to China. Chinese society is becoming more transparent, and Chinese people’s sense of control over their own destinies becomes ever more clear. In fact, the food and toy stories are most interesting in that they are fundamentally not China-versus-the-world issues, but domestic issues with a foreign angle.