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Stumbling Giant: The Threats to China's Future

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While dozens of recent books and articles have predicted the near-certainty of China’s rise to global supremacy, this book boldly counters such widely-held assumptions. Timothy Beardson brings to light the daunting array of challenges that today confront China, as well as the inadequacy of the policy responses. Threats to China come on many fronts, Beardson shows, and by their number and sheer weight these problems will thwart any ambition to become the world’s “Number One power.”
Drawing on extensive research and experience living and working in Asia over the last 35 years, the author spells out China’s situation: an inexorable demographic future of a shrinking labor force, relentless aging, extreme gender disparity, and even a falling population. Also, the nation faces social instability, a devastated environment, a predominantly low-tech economy with inadequate innovation, the absence of an effective welfare safety net, an ossified governance structure, and radical Islam lurking at the borders. Beardson’s nuanced, first-hand look at China acknowledges its historic achievements while tempering predictions of its imminent hegemony with a no-nonsense dose of reality.

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Editorial Reviews

Forbes - Steve Forbes
“Timothy Beardson is a brilliant entrepreneur and investment strategist and his observations about China are sobering – and a must-read for the well-informed.”—Steve Forbes, Chairman and Editor-in-Chief, Forbes Media
Library Journal
Since the reforms of Deng Xiaoping from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, the world has witnessed the dramatic rise of China's economy. This reality has caused many to speculate about China's future role as a world power. Beardson (founder, Crosby Financial Holdings, Hong Kong) argues that China will not surpass the United States to become the world's next superpower. He makes a compelling case for this viewpoint by explaining in great detail the staggering variety of foreign and domestic threats that China faces, including environmental degradation, demographic challenges, conflicts with neighboring countries, and unhappy minority populations. Beardson maintains that many of these threats can be dealt with successfully if China's leaders adopt some unconventional solutions, such as voluntarily withdrawing from Tibet and Xinjiang to form a more ethnically unified Chinese state. VERDICT A realistic look at the difficulties that China's leaders will have to confront and resolve for continued success. Essential for all China watchers. Readers with a general interest in international relations will also find this title rewarding. For a different point of view, readers should also consult Stefan Halper's The Beijing Consensus: How China's Authoritarian Model Will Dominate the Twenty-First Century.—Joshua Wallace, South Texas Coll. Lib., McAllen
Kirkus Reviews
A Hong Kong–based executive suggests that the dreaded Chinese juggernaut has a few cracks in its armor. Some doubting Thomases of late have begun to wonder if China really has the stuff to run the world, and Beardson thinks they may have a point. He constructs a concise, readable, albeit finance-heavy roundup of Chinese successes and failures in order to assess its future potential. One important point he emphasizes is China's habit of reverting to old models. From the Ming dynasty to Mao Zedong, he notes, rulers have responded to outside pressures by turning inward rather than opening to new currents, and any stress prompts reversion to the top-down method of control, extending to the most local level. Beardson examines the Chinese political, financial and social structures, backing up his determinations of their good and bad aspects with impressive research and analysis. The rapid growth of the Chinese economy over the last 30 years, he finds, has been dogged by such systemic problems as unemployment, currency snags, massive environmental degradation and an inability to sustain the old cheap-export/fixed-investment model. While a new, innovative model is urgently needed, bureaucratic inertia and lack of integrity inhibit Chinese institutions in nearly every field, most notably science, education and research. Plagiarism, corruption, a vulnerable financial system, income inequality, gender disparities, organized crime, military aggression against its neighbors and cyberaggression against the U.S. all undermine Chinese stability. The nation needs to step up responsibly to its world role and defuse the instinct among many wary countries to "check" it, but ultimately, Beardson concludes, "China is weak where it should be strong and strong where it should be weak." A thoughtful reconsideration of China's actual place in the new world order, based on reality rather than fanciful speculation.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300165425
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 5/21/2013
  • Pages: 528
  • Sales rank: 958,524
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Timothy Beardson founded and ran Crosby Financial Holdings, at the time the largest independent investment bank in the Far East. He is a permanent resident of Hong Kong.

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Read an Excerpt





Copyright © 2013 Timothy Beardson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-16551-7



The Making of Today's China

China's history offers several insights into why the country is the way it is today and how it might behave tomorrow. I briefly examine the last thousand years, and then look more closely at China's two centuries of disastrous history – from around the 1770s until the 1970s. I would suggest that what has happened to China – and what the Chinese have done to themselves – has shaped and will shape their character and their future. This is a recurring theme in this book. As the contemporary writer Xiao Jiansheng has said:

the most important thing is that we Chinese strive to understand the truth about our own history in an objective fashion. This will help us to reform our own political system and improve our own quality as a people.

Whose China?

There is a common perception that China was a great country that was at the centre of world affairs; that over the millennia it has had periods of glory and periods of weakness, but – apart from the foreign incursions from the 1840s to the 1940s – was never conquered. However, this perception is inaccurate: it has never been at the centre of world affairs and it has spent much of its history under foreign domination.

China had a succession of imperial dynasties, each of which generally ruled for several centuries. A thousand years ago, the Song dynasty (960–1279) ruled for the first half of its history in a large part of 'China proper'. Many races have always lived in what is today's China, but the largest is the ethnic Chinese, or 'Han'. The Song dynasty was Han, although it coexisted with contiguous empires ruled by non-Han races. At various times these other dynasties occupied large parts of the Chinese 'heartland'. The Song's initial northern neighbours were the Kitan empire and the Tangut state. It was soon fighting both.

The Song was militarily inept and generally favoured peaceful solutions. From 1004 it paid tribute to the Kitan and from 1044 to the Tangut. By 1142, the Song had lost the northern part of its empire to a new foreign power – the Jin. So weak was the Song dynasty that, on the eve of the Jin invasion in 1126, the Song soldiers had their right arms tattooed to deter them from deserting. The Jin dynasty was founded by tribesmen from the far north (in today's Russia) called the Jurchen. The Kitan also came from the area where Manchuria and Mongolia meet. They were, like the Jurchen, of Tungusic stock. The Tangut were likewise non-Han. Thus the Song were surrounded by non-Han states.

Military weakness led the Song dynasty to pay off those non-Han states. In fact, 'at the risk of oversimplification one could say that the military history of the Song's 319 years is a record of retreat and defeat broken only by intervals of purchased peace.' Almost throughout its existence, then, the Song dynasty accepted a subordinate position and paid tribute either to the Kitan empire (from 1004), the Tangut state (from 1044) or the Jin empire (from 1142, after the loss of Hangzhou). In 1207, the Song had to increase their tribute to the Jin and the Emperor had to refer to himself as the 'nephew emperor' in addressing himself to the Jin 'uncle emperor'. This might be compared with current Chinese histories, which invariably refer to the Han people as the 'elder brother' of the other ethnic groups.

The origins of the Tangut are disputed, but they are probably Tibetan or quasi-Tibetan. One view is that they descend from the Qiang, who inhabited eastern Tibet; another is that they were a Mongol tribe that had long resided adjacent to Tibet. Many historians simply call them Tibetan. It seems that at various times Tibetan people and Chinese both gave and received tribute. This weakens contemporary suggestions that sovereignty over Tibet has been one-way.

It was under Jin rule that the habit began of foreign invaders ruling China from Beijing. The city had the advantage of not being in the traditional Chinese heartland, and it was close to the Jin's non-Chinese homelands. From the time China was unified (in 221 BC) until 1911, for 70 per cent of the time Beijing was not the capital. And when it was, for two-thirds of the time this was because it suited foreign rulers. It has been observed that 'the past has been so successfully rewritten that most Chinese are not consciously aware of the role Beijing played in their history ... Beijing owes its origins to the place where the Chinese came to deliver their tribute to their uncivilized neighbours'. Native Han dynasties (and Chiang Kai-shek) preferred cities such as Xi'an, Kaifeng or Nanjing, in the heartland. The ethnic Han Taiping rebels in the nineteenth century, rejecting the alien Manchu, chose Nanjing as their capital.

If modern China bases its self-image partly on China's history, then we should reflect on that history. The dynasty that ruled for longest in the last thousand years was the Song. A critical feature of the Song is that it paid tribute to its non-Han neighbours and never received tribute. For 70 per cent of its three-century hold on power, the dynasty acknowledged its subordination to a succession of non-Han neighbouring states.

The Song dynasty was finally ended by Khubilai Khan, founder of the new Yuan dynasty and grandson of the Mongol leader Genghis Khan, who invaded and progressively conquered all of China proper. The ground had been prepared in 1215 by Genghis, when he destroyed ninety cities and left Beijing burning for a month. The widespread acceptance by the Han elites of non-Han rule over China was to dismay subsequent generations of Chinese historians. Under the Yuan dynasty the Han found their role in government severely circumscribed: they retained few positions other than as local officials, and were largely out of national power for a century. Khubilai regarded race as a potential source of disloyalty and preferred not to rely on Han elites in government. The Yuan dynasty created a vast multiracial and syncretistic pan-Asian empire, and it brought artists from all of West and Central Asia to interact with their Chinese peers to produce a great flowering of artistic innovation, resulting in 'the creation of new art forms that would provide models for the arts of China in all subsequent periods until the twentieth century'.

The Yuan were dethroned in 1368 by the Han founder of the native Ming dynasty. Hongwu had grown up in an anti-Mongol Buddhist sect, and the Ming dynasty consciously represented ethnic renewal. It acknowledged no foreign superior, but the dynasty lived in constant fear of another invasion from the north and its heavy spending on the Great Wall undermined its rule. When the Ming dynasty was ended by the invasion of the Manchus, who inaugurated the Qing dynasty in 1644, foreign rule over China resumed and lasted until 1912. If we want to ask the pertinent question of how does China behave when it is powerful, rich – and governed independently by Chinese – the only time we can find in the last thousand years is during the first half of the Ming dynasty – a period of scarcely over a hundred years. The answer was a continual series of wars against neighbours. The entire dynasty, across both strong and weak periods, engaged in an average of 1.12 wars per year. Alastair Johnston at Harvard notes that Chinese strategic culture 'places a high degree of value on the use of pure violence to resolve security conflicts'.

The differences between Han and non-Han dynasties were not minor ones. The language of the non-Han rulers was not a variant of Chinese but derived from a different root. They were not only racially different from the Chinese but usually originated in lands to the north which even today China does not claim as Chinese. Accordingly, they were not ethnic rebels emerging from Chinese soil, but were from lands outside who invaded China and consciously imposed foreign rule. The new rulers may have co-opted Confucian, or Chinese imperial, practices, but this was purely to consolidate and perpetuate their non-Han rule.

China bore a marked resemblance to Italy: for a millennium all sorts of powers – Saracens, Normans, Spanish, French, Austrians – ruled over large parts of Italy, and the greater part of Italy was under the rule of non-Italians until the late nineteenth century. Similarly China was under foreign rule for two-thirds of the last thousand years of imperial history.

When not under foreign rule, namely during the Ming dynasty, China was so obsessed by the fear of invasion that it conducted one of the most remarkable – and yet ultimately futile – exercises in world history: construction of the Great Wall. It did not immure today's Inner Mongolia, Manchuria, a significant part of the Yellow River, or indeed anything much north of Beijing.

Only with the Mongol conquest of China did suggestions of an international cultural superiority and political supremacy emerge; the Song could not have asserted it. The Ming maintained this congenial line of thought, and it was further developed by the Manchus. In fact it was not so much a Han construct as a belief easily held by strong (largely non-Han) emperors who governed most of China as well as other territories. In the last thousand years, periods of Han cultural achievement frequently occurred at odd times, such as during the weak reign of the Song or the foreign occupation by the Yuan. Perhaps an analogy might be Robert Brasillach or Jean-Paul Sartre happily writing in 1940s German-occupied Paris.

The fact that China's neighbours may have been occasionally militarily formidable, but were frequently culturally less advanced, fed the growing sense of superiority of the inhabitants of empire, regardless of their rulers' origins. This, combined with the curious Chinese habit of treating foreign traders as though they were paying tribute, erected an edifice of superiority which largely prevented the reciprocal cultural exchange that developed in Europe. This self-proclaimed superiority and lack of stimulating neighbourly competitors have been a weakness in China's scientific development.

The Manchu Seize China

Who were the Manchu? In the seventeenth century, the Jurchen chief Nurhaci merged a number of Jurchen tribes north of the Ming dynasty's protective Liaodong Wall and north-west of today's Vladivostok. The Jurchen had ruled much of northern China as the Jin empire, following their final defeat of the northern Song in 1126. In 1235 they were themselves crushed by Khubilai Khan's Mongols. Nurhaci called his reign the Later Jin dynasty, renamed the people Manchu and then, in 1636, renamed the dynasty 'Qing' (meaning 'pure'), before riding south to invade and conquer China again.

If the Manchu were originally Jurchen, who were the Jurchen? They probably descended from Korean, Mohe and Merkit stock. The Mohe lived in what is now Primorsky Krai, in the Russian Far East, and the Merkit lived between Lake Baikal and the Sea of Okhotsk, in today's Siberia, where they opposed Genghis Khan's Mongol expansion. None of these areas is currently part of China, or claimed by China. The Jurchen spoke Tungusic, an Altaic language. They later came to inhabit the Mongol empire of the Kitan but rebelled in 1113 and established their own state, which expanded southward, and eventually invaded China. There was nothing Chinese about either the Jurchen empire of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries or their later descendants the Manchus.

The Great Wall did not impede the Manchus, and they also benefited from a Han peasant uprising. Ming finances had sharply deteriorated for a variety of reasons: self-imposed interdictions on trade with Japan and the Philippines, wars and the cost of constructing the Great Wall. Financial pressure caused the Ming to raise taxation sharply, which undermined their support. Corruption among severely underpaid officials further intensified the dynasty's unpopularity. To make matters worse, record cold and devastating drought accompanied famine, which even led to cannibalism.

When the Qing conquered, they maintained much of the traditional culture and policy bequeathed by previous dynasties. When new leaders take power anywhere they often assume the characteristics of their predecessors. This is particularly true of new foreign rulers. However, these non-Han rulers decided to embark on conquest to create a larger empire that would not be as ethnically Han as the Ming had been.

The China ruled by the Han Chinese Ming dynasty had been a shrivelled version of the China ruled by the alien Yuan dynasty: Ming borders on the north-west, north, north-east and south-west had been withdrawn by between 160 and 600 miles. This was the only Chinese sovereign state between the tenth and the twentieth centuries. The subsequent Qing empire grew to almost twice the size of the Ming and lost the features of a nation state (though China was scarcely even familiar with the concept). Not being Chinese, the Qing risked nothing by building an imperial state transcending racial definition. The dynasty pursued successful military campaigns in Xinjiang and Tibet, and against Burma and Nepal. At its height, the Qing empire 'constituted one of the largest and most sophisticated empires in the world at that time (along with the Ottoman and Mughal empires)'. Paradoxically, the Qing and other foreign rulers' colonial wars often form a basis for contemporary Chinese claims to sovereignty. What is a mystery is how China today decides which of its previous foreign rulers' subordinate territories to claim and which not to claim.

The broad tenor of Qing society had been set during previous dynasties. The emphasis was on order over innovation, stability over development. The country was large and populous even then and rulers chose to prioritise control over experimentation. Little changed over the decades, and at the end of the eighteenth century society was still largely agrarian, with pockets of industry and banking. Overseas travel was discouraged, although regional maritime trade blossomed, and the sale to Europe of tea, porcelain and lacquer goods is estimated to have led to half of all the silver shipped from Mexico and South America to Europe between 1600 and 1800 going on to China. It has been noted that 'in the 1840s more tonnage passed through the port of Shanghai' than through the port of London. Life expectancy of a Chinese at birth was 28 and at ten was 42. Socially and politically there was quiescence. The Qing and Chinese inheritance customs discouraged manorial estates, and the Qing instituted a system of generational degradation of aristocratic rank that avoided the rise of a hereditary Chinese aristocracy independent of the throne.

Distrust of strong and independent private interests is not just a communist characteristic; it is often the hallmark of proponents of the mighty state – imperial, Napoleonic or Marxist. The Qing justice system resembled post-1949 China: there was no independent judiciary, torture was practised and confession generally preceded trial. Magistrates were judge and jury.

Features of Foreign Rule

There are certain recurring features of foreign dynastic rule in China from Kitan in the tenth century to Qing in the twentieth. For instance, there was a tendency to exclude or restrict Han in government. The Jin would employ Han, but normally only if they had served the Kitan empire. The Mongols, plagued by illiteracy, employed West Asians – 'Uighur Turks', Arabs and even some Europeans – and Chinese who had served the foreign Jin dynasty, but carefully avoided using southern Chinese from the Song state who might have had independent interests. (The southern gentry were in any case unenthusiastic about serving a foreign regime.)

When the old civil service examinations were resumed by the Mongols in 1315, the Chinese were treated differently: they constituted most of the successful candidates but were appointed to minor posts in offices of no importance. In all cases, the occupiers were far less numerous than the indigenous Han, and yet the foreign rulers maintained their reign for prolonged periods. The Chinese gentry tended to spend their lives in literary pursuits out of public life (rather like the nineteenth-century émigration intérieure of the French aristocracy). Probably the only benefit of this is that we have more scholarly works than if the authors had been engaged in government.

The dynasties naturally wished to maintain the use of their own language alongside Chinese. In Qing times, 'much important documentation was in Manchu.' However, there were strains owing to the sheer weight of literature in Chinese as opposed to, say, the Tungusic languages, such as Manchu. 'Eventually the formula was to have capable Chinese do the work and loyal Manchus check up on them.' The occupying and occupied races were treated differently: Manchu males were not allowed to marry Chinese women, and strict segregation was enforced between the victorious 'banner people' – Manchu, Mongol and descendants of pre-1644 Chinese adherents – and the defeated Chinese.

When the Qing forces captured the Ming capital [Beijing] in the seventeenth century, they expelled all of the residents of the Inner City, which they took over entirely for their own people, and they relegated the Han and other non-banner people to the old walled addition to the south known as the Outer (or 'Chinese') City.

Excerpted from STUMBLING GIANT by TIMOTHY BEARDSON. Copyright © 2013 by Timothy Beardson. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Acknowledgements....................     vi     

List of Abbreviations....................     viii     

Introduction: Facing Multiple Challenges....................     1     

1 The Making of Today's China....................     7     

2 The Broken Economic Model....................     50     

3 The Elusive Knowledge Economy....................     79     

4 Finance....................     115     

5 Social Welfare: Missing Umbrella....................     137     

6 The Environment....................     162     

7 Threats to Social Stability....................     191     

8 Threats to Civil Stability....................     212     

9 Identity: Future of State and Party....................     243     

10 America and China: Common Interests, Mutual Antagonisms.................     269     

11 Great Power Relationships....................     284     

12 Central Asia....................     321     

13 Undeclared War in the Fourth Dimension?....................     339     

14 Nervous Neighbours....................     354     

15 China in the World....................     373     

16 Outcomes....................     398     

Notes....................     436     

Bibliography....................     477     

Index....................     494     

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