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Does history favour freedom?

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James Reynolds | 17:43 UK time, Friday, 21 November 2008

police_203_getty.jpgIn the absence of crystal balls, tea leaves, or time machines, it's hard to know for sure what'll happen in the future. Some guesses turn out to be fantastically incorrect (remember the professor who declared that rail travel at high speed was impossible because passengers would be unable to breathe; or the mathematician who assured the world that heavier-than-air flying machines would never work).

Anyway, the fear of being wrong hasn't stopped anyone from predicting the future course of China.

Since the end of the Cold War in 1989, one school of thought has dominated the predictions made by China's chief rival, the United States: the belief that democracy is bound to come to China, because free trade leads to political freedom, and because the steady march of history favours freedom. Let's call this the history-says-freedom-will-come camp. It's been championed by the last two American presidents:

"I have told President Jiang that when it comes to human rights and religious freedom, China remains on the wrong side of history. Unlike some, I do not believe that increased commercial dealings alone will inevitably lead to greater openness and freedom. We must work to speed history's course."
- President Bill Clinton, Washington DC, 11 June 1998

"I'm optimistic about China's future. Young people who grow up with the freedom to trade goods will ultimately demand the freedom to trade ideas, especially on an unrestricted internet. Change in China will arrive on its own terms and in keeping with its own history and its own traditions. Yet change will arrive."
- President George W Bush, Bangkok, 7 August 2008

A pretty clear position, then. But there is another school of thought. Let's call this the don't-bet-on-it camp. This viewpoint argues that democracy in China isn't inevitable at all. It argues that free trade actually strengthens authoritarian regimes instead of bringing them down (this school of thought is vividly argued by the journalist James Mann in his book The China Fantasy). It looks like the don't-bet-on-it camp has had a say in the drafting of a new US Intelligence report which guesses what the world might look like in 2025 ...

"Other discontinuities are less predictable. They are likely to result from an interaction of several trends and depend on the quality of leadership. We put uncertainties such as whether China or Russia becomes a democracy in this category. China's growing middle class increases the chances but does not make such a development inevitable."
Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World, US National Intelligence Council (published November 2008)

So, there are two competing viewpoints. The history-says-freedom-will-come camp believes/hopes that China will end up being powerful and democratic (ie - just like America). But the don't-bet-on-it camp suggests that China will be powerful and probably not democratic (ie - not like America). We wait for the position of the incoming Obama administration.

Setting the march/non-march of democracy aside, there is a consensus that China will get more and more powerful by 2025:

"China is poised to have more impact on the world over the next 20 years than any other country. If current trends persist, by 2025 China will have the world's second largest economy and will be a leading military power. It also could be the largest importer of natural resources and the biggest polluter."
Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World, US National Intelligence Council (published November 2008)

So, that's what the US thinks. But how does China see its own future?

In many ways, this country is still following a famous bit of advice given by Deng Xiaoping in 1991 as the Soviet Empire was breaking up. His advice is known as the "Twenty-four character directive":

"observing with a cool head, securing our position, dealing with the situation calmly, hiding our capacities and biding our time, being good at defense, and never being in the limelight"
(quoted in "China and the Legacy of Deng Xiaoping," by Michael E Marti)

In 2003, China's next set of leaders built on Deng's advice when they came up with a phrase designed to explain the country's re-emergence as a global power: "peaceful rise". In other words, we're not out to invade your country and make you all speak Chinese.

The Communist Party always likes to point out that China is still a developing country that still has a long way to go before it challenges or even overtakes the United States.

The figures show that China has a point. The two most immediate measures of any country's power are money and guns. At the moment the US economy is more than four times the size of China's. And the US spends about 10 times as much on its military than China does on its own armed forces. So, in terms of the power to spend and the power to shoot, the US is still a long way ahead.

But China does have its ambitions. It's clear that the country wants to assert its authority - particularly in East Asia. Politically, the country wants to make sure that the self-governing island of Taiwan doesn't declare independence. Economically, China is determined to protect its trade routes (a large percentage of China's imports comes through the Strait of Malacca between the Indian and Pacific Oceans).

The Communist Party believes that the best way to achieve its aims in this respect is to develop a strong navy. Recent reports suggest that China is keen to buy its first aircraft carrier. China's military ambitions worry some in the United States (I once interviewed a US Congressmen who compared China to the shark in Jaws). At some point in the future the two countries may jostle for position in the Pacific.

In the long term, China, the US, and other countries may also find themselves competing for and even fighting over resources. China's dramatic rise has been fuelled by raw materials provided by other countries - particularly those in Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America. In order to keep on growing, China needs to keep on importing resources. So, what happens if everyone ends up chasing the same set of raw materials ?

The answer is that we don't know. As I said at the beginning of this post, predictions often turn out to be wrong. Remember that the US intelligence community predicted neither the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961 nor its collapse in 1989.

So, no one knows for sure what will happen in 2025. Unless, of course, you happen to have a time machine.


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