Prof. Kenneth Lieberthal gave a speech on "the fundamental forces and challenges shaping China’s future" at the Hebrew University on Wednesday as part of the opening ceremony for the new Louis Frieberg Center for Asian Studies.

Xinhua’s reporter in Israel reports (China Daily, People’s Daily, etc.):

The political system of China, which is sufficiently flexible and competitive, is fundamentally attuned to maximizing its economic growth, a renowned US expert on modern China told the audience on Wednesday at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

At the inaugural ceremony of Louis Frieberg Center for Asian Studies at the Hebrew University, Prof. Kenneth Lieberthal from the University of Michigan gave a keynote lecture on China’s economic growth and its future challenges, namely "The Fundamental Forces and Challenges Shaping China’s Future".  […]

Lieberthal noted that although China has maintained a unprecedented GDP growth in recent years, it faces both internal and external challenges in the course of a sustainable development, including resource shortage, pollution, problematic social ethics and so on.

Following his lecture, the audience raised a broad range of questions over issues concerning China.  […]

Yeah, I was there.

The fundamental forces and challenges shaping China's future : Prof. Kenneth Lieberthal at HUJI

Before I comment on the lecture, allow me a few background observations :

  • For the first time I know the Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Taiwanese officials in Israel were invited to the same event.
  • On the first row, in the far right there were the Taiwanese officials. If you look closely, you might notice the big gap of empty chairs in the middle, as in the far left were the Chinese officials. I couldn’t make out the Korean and Japanese ambassadors, although I’ve met them before.
  • None of the 3 speakers from the Hebrew University managed to address the Taiwanese official directly. One referred to the Taiwanese ambassador as head of the "Taipei economic office in Tel Aviv", another welcomed the Japanese, Chinese, Korean and other delegates", and the last ignored Taiwan altogether. I’m still not sure how "face" works, but I think a lot of face was lost that evening.

The lecture was very well put. I can’t say that the Prof. said anything that was new to me, but seeing it all together did bring new insights. True, the Chinese stats are overwhelming no matter how you look at them. I don’t think there’s anyone who can really grasp what’s happening in China, but the presentation does manage to put some order in this whole thing.

I believe the key message the Prof. was trying to show to the audience wasn’t just about China being fine-tuned for success but rather about the unbelievable challenges that China is facing.

Although the Prof. was very polite and served a balanced presentation, I’ll just convey the main idea – scenarios look bad. Very bad. Here’s why (with some of my thoughts):

  • The environmental catastrophes are overwhelming. The water problem, as an example, is unsolvable.
  • Domestic social pressure that will be  incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to control. Some of the issues are :
    • Rural-urban tension.
    • Class tension.
    • Minorities pressure and growing nationalism.
    • An aging rural population.
    • Lack of social ethics system. Law and banking systems are still being defined.
  • The US-China relations will not sustain China’s growth. US has been losing dominance for years now, and has so far done a lousy job of adjusting to a world with a growing China. This already affects regional and international events (Taiwan, N. Korea, Africa).

The world has never seen anything like China before, which makes it hard to imagine a way out of all the issues raised. Audience attempt to compare this China growth to the Japanese during the 70-80s has been rejected, rightfully, by the Prof. on problems like globalization differences. Suggestions that I’ve heard from friends and colleagues after the lecture comparing what’s happening in China to what they remember from the martial law in Korea and Taiwan are even more problematic. Thinking of China as a a bigger scale of the Singapore model just doesn’t work.

These are obviously not domestic Chinese issues, these are global concerns. In a way, it’s clear to me that "the fundamental forces and challenges shaping China’s future" is actually "the fundamental forces and challenges in China shaping the world’s future". With the way China’s growing now, there is no middle road – China might either become the world’s biggest success story or it might become the world’s greatest tragedy. Time will tell.

Tags: Asia-Israel connections; asian_studies; audience; challenges; China; china_daily; economic_growth; fundamental_forces; hebrew_university_of_jerusalem; inaugural_ceremony; Israel; keynote; modern_china; opening_ceremony; political_system; speech; university_of_michigan; xinhua;

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