Does anyone remember Gary North? In 1999 I was a regular visitor to his site, which hosted thousands of links to articles presenting entirely plausible scenarios of global financial catastrophe at the end of the year. Embarrassing to admit now, of course, but I was actually quite frightened.
All the more chastening, in fact, to find out soon after that Gary North was a bit of a nutter. Actually, he was a fully-fledged hysterical fundamentalist lunatic who had already, in the early eighties, but without the benefit of the internet, happily predicted that AIDS would lead to a decimation of the decadent human species. He was a full-time doom-mongerer, with his own silly agenda.
These days I’m much more careful about believing predictions when I don’t know who’s making them and why, particularly when I come across them on the internet.
Now, Gordon C. Chang is a writer on Chinese affairs, and from what I know of him he’s been in a good position to make predictions about the future of the Chinese economy. His book, which I don’t think is on general sale in the People’s Republic, but which you can read an extract from here, is a very detailed account of what exactly is rotten about China’s economic miracle, and he provides a number of possible scenarios, all entirely plausible, for how things could go horribly wrong for the Chinese government in the not too distant future.
It’s obviously something he feels very deeply about. In fact, it is this which puts me of the book, which often reads like a rant. The individual stories he tells tend to get lost in the general sweep of his argument, making it compelling to read in short bursts, but over 200 pages he often comes across like somebody with a vendetta.
Could he be another Gary North? His name is not one that crops up much in the increasing amount of articles equally sceptical about the sustainability of the economic miracle, unlike that of Jasper Becker, whose book The Chinese I unfortunately won’t have the chance to read more of until I leave the country for good – hooray! – in the summer, but who turns up in this excellent BBC radio documentary.
Now I think I agree with a lot of what Chang says. My feelings cloud the issue, however – I’d love to see the C C P humiliated and overthrown, although I know that whatever challenges may emerge may not necessarily be to my liking. The general feeling, for example, that the Government is insufficiently anti-Japanese
(there is an eye-witness account of yesterday’s Beijing demonstration here) could be the spark for a firestorm of grievances against corruption, unemployment and economic inequality
But ultimately I’m not best placed or qualified to say. I only read what I choose to read and believe what I choose to believe. However, I do live in China and I do reflect on what I see around me. From this local point of view, then, and given that I don’t speak much Chinese and I miss most of what goes on around me, does all this apparent growth and prosperity look sustainable? Can the momentum be maintained, or is it heading like Chang says for an inevitable collapse?
Since in our college of 16,000 students there is nowhere to go and socialise, I spend a certain amount of time in the gym. I’ve been going for about three or four months now. I had to change gyms because the better equipped gym at the neighbouring University ceased to be better equipped when some of the machines stopped working. A week or so went by and when they weren’t fixed I had to switch to the gym on our campus.
At first this was much better. After 6 months in China I’m getting used to the same song being repeated at great volume for hours on end, and over time I persuaded the staff that it was better to close the doors on very cold days. The staff seemed quite friendly, given that they have what is in China considered a dream job, namely sitting around slurping noodles and sending text messages. The most important thing was that the machines worked.
All good things end eventually. When I asked when the machine would be fixed, the answer was ‘bu yi ding’. I asked someone what that meant. It means ‘not necessarily’.
I switched to another machine, which seemed at least to be hurting adjacent bits of my arms and shoulders. Truth be told I’m not much more of an expert on body-building than on the Chinese economy, but it was fine for two days. Then it broke. I asked again about the chances of it being fixed any time soon, and this time I was pleased that I understood the answer. Bu yi ding.
Armed with this new bit of vocabulary things are becoming clearer. Now when the state-of-the-art DVD PC facilities stop working, I know there’s no point asking if they’ll be fixed and if we’ll be able to use the classroom again. And the smell that comes out of the bathrooms and fills the corridors of the school’s brand new buildings, will anything be done about that? Bu yi ding.
It’s a simple question of maintenance. Because nobody knows what to do when these new fangled machines and these shiny new buildings get broken, damaged or worn, the authorities do all they can to prevent this happening. In the brand new language labs the students have to put little blue cloth slippers from a cardboard box by the door over their shoes so the floor doesn’t get damaged. In the 12-storey main building, it’s not possible to take the lift to or from the 2nd, 3rd, 4th or 5th floors in case it breaks down. As for the toilets, the solution is to leave all the doors and windows wide open at all times, which has the added advantage of affording the curious students even more access to the habits of Westerners than they get at the average English Corner.
As I said, I’m no ‘China hand’ or expert. I know what I see and I try not to generalise too much or let my opinions shade my judgments. But if the different parts of the economy are managed in a similar way to our college, the Government will have, in fact probably is having huge problems maintaining the appearance of economic momentum.
Do I think they’ll be able to continue making the economy grow without risking surplus production, over-investment and economic collapse, and without provoking massive social unrest in the not too distant future?