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by William H. Benson

March 8, 2007

    Americans are bewildered by the rest of the world. Twenty years ago, Americans feared that Japan would swallow up America. These worries amaze us now, for Japan growth slowed in the mid-1980’s, “its feared dominance having dissolved into dreary ordinariness.”

     Today we are suspicious of China, for it has enjoyed double-digit annual economic growth over the past fifteen years, and one wonders how the Chinese can continue this phenomenal rate. “Is China now poised to turn the 21st century into its own century?” They may, and then they may not. However, nearly all Sinologists have pointed out the potholes that the Chinese people and government face in this and the next decade.

     Most worrisome is the environmental damage that this rapid industrialization is creating. Hundreds of coal-burning electric power plants spew volumes of waste into the atmosphere, and the Chinese are building dozens more, “turning the Chinese landscape into a wasteland.” This damage is bound to cripple future economic growth.

     Will Hutton, a British journalist, in his book on China, The Writing on the Wall, argues that it is the authoritarian, anti-democratic Communist regime that is holding back its citizens from the Information Age. “The PC (personal computer) is incompatible with the C.P. (Communist Party).” Without a free press to counter and oppose the government leaders’ decisions, orderly change is difficult and corruption is rampant. People have little voice in the decisions that affect them, and no free press will take up their causes.

     Inconsistencies between the country’s economic and social progress are so apparent. Education falls far short of the demand that a rapidly-growing economy demands. The problem is especially acute in the vast poverty-stricken rural areas. The illiteracy rate in those rural regions may be as high as 11.55% of the adult population. Health-care is woefully inadequate, again most pronounced in the rural areas, as is the cultural opportunities, such as access to libraries and theatres.

     The unemployment rate in the cities and towns may be as low as 4.3%, but in those rural areas there may be some 150 million redundant rural workers who need to find employment but who do not have the skills required by modern industry.

     Environmental damage, a lack of a free press, a heavy-handed government, lack of education and health care, and unemployment are all major problems, but they are dwarfed by an even bigger and most immediate problem—the population explosion.

     In the late 1970’s the government instituted the one-child policy as a means to curb the ever-expanding population. Official census figures as of July of 2006 placed the Chinese population at 1,313,973,713, but unofficial figures estimate that it may actually be closer to 1.5 billion. Because of the one-child rule, parents may hide the second, third, and fourth child when the census worker arrives in the village to count noses.

     Because of the historical preference for boys, the Chinese now have 119 boys born for every 100 girls, when the average in other countries is only about 106 boys. With modern technology, Chinese parents have been able to identify the gender and then choose to abort, if it is a girl. The difficulty with this current boy/girl imbalance is that in fifteen years China may have 40 million lonely and unhappy bachelors.

     John King Fairbank, in his book The United States and China, wrote thirty-five years ago, “the rate of population increase seems to lock the Chinese people irrevocably into their struggle to increase production through conformity and at the expense of personal choice. Pressure of numbers is still the most grievous part of China’s inheritance. Every year famine waits around the corner. Like it or not, the Chinese populace will have to put up with some kind of centralized and dictatorial planning.”

     The China of today is an eye-opening miracle, but it will need a series of miracles to sustain it going forward. America, the rest of the world’s nations, and the Chinese government will have to deal with what will soon be two billion Chinese people.