Niall Ferguson: China in the Future Channel 4 26.3.12

The previous episodes in this three part series have told the story of how China came to be where it is today. This one tackles the question of where it is going next.

China’s Industrial Revolution is the biggest and fastest in history leading to a massive shift in power from West to East, and it is going to change all our lives.  China’s exports penetrate every country in the world, and the money this has earned China means that it now has the capital that the rest of the world needs.  This could give the Chinese the power to impose their views on the rest of us.  Not everyone sees it this way.  Some think that China might collapse.  This could be even worse, so dependent is the rest of the world on Chinese manufacturing.

China has certainly changed.  To show it, Ferguson visits a poodle parlour in a part of the country where not too long ago poodles might have appeared on the menu. The Chinese now have money for luxuries that in the time of Chairman Mao would have been unthinkable.  But can China’s growth continue?  Is about to be derailed by a massive property bubble for instance?  Also levels of inequality are now huge and getting worse.  Migrant workers still live on miserable wages while billionaires rise in number.  Could this lead to civil strife?   This is certainly one of the things that concerns the Chinese government.  They need huge economic growth in China just to stop unemployment rising.  There is also a problem of a rising number of old people. China is growing and developing rapidly but it is still far from rich on a per capita basis.  Could supporting the large number of old people choke off economic growth?   And the record breaking economic growth is producing a lot of pollution.   Will environmental constraints stop development?

Nobody anywhere knows the answers to any of these questions, but one thing is certain.  Economic growth is bound to slow at some point.  But it would be a problem if it were to happen any time soon. They need to keep growth at 7% just to keep unemployment from rising.  And rising unemployment could be the trigger for some serious unpleasantness.

There is one way that growth can be kept positive, and that is overseas expansion.  But as Ferguson points out, this has some implications for those of us who live overseas from China.

Ferguson visits a factory making copper pipes in Beijing.  It is the biggest copper pipe factory in the world.  China consumes two thirds of the world’s copper.  They need to get these resources from overseas.  Ferguson follows the trail of the metal to Africa.  Zambia is one of the bigger copper suppliers and the Chinese have got involved there in a big way.  The copper mines are miles under the ground, supplying the copper that keeps Chinese workers busy and requiring considerable capital investment and technical expertise.  China bought the mine at a knock down price in 2009.  The Zambians needed the money because of the financial turmoil on Wall Street.  The purchase proved to be a pretty good investment with the copper being smelted locally and sold onto a world market where thanks to Chinese demand the price of copper has been high and rising.

So Chinese entrepreneurs are getting rich on Africa’s resources, employing locals to do the manual work while Chinese manage and supervise.  And it isn’t just Zambia, it is happening all over the globe.  It looks a lot to Ferguson like the foundation of a new world empire.  (While watching this bit I couldn’t help but be reminded that the hero of the Thirty Nine Steps made his fortune as a mining engineer in Africa.) We meet a Chinese farmer who manages a Chinese state owned farm.  He has bought his family. They have come to stay. It reminds Ferguson of when the British used to own the same copper mines and sent out their engineers to organise things. The British too thought they had come to stay.

Of course the British never made any secret of the fact that they were building an empire.  Communist China on the other hand is officially opposed to the imperialism of a former age.  And China is providing productive investments that benefit local economies, and seem to do a better job of it than aid from the West.

The Chinese are certainly there to work.  They put in very long hours.  They also have a distinctly colonial attitude to the Chinese.  The Chinese regard the Africans as not really being willing to work, they prefer to enjoy life.  The workers in the mine, who wouldn’t have jobs at all if it weren’t for the Chinese reopening it after 13 years closure, don’t have a high opinion of the Chinese as employers.

Does this have any relevence in the West?  The Chinese are getting into innovation as well.  Lenova is now one of the world’s biggest computer manufacturers, and also is becoming one of the most innovative.  They show off to camera a lap top whose screen detaches to become a tablet.  The Chinese now lodge more patents than Britain, and even than Germany.  The West’s technological edge over the rest of the world is eroding quickly.

And with huge stacks of cash in reserves and in private hands as well, the Chinese are now able to operate anywhere.  We see them buying up flats in Canary Warf.  They are also being courted by European governments desperate for funds to save the Euro.  So will the situation soon arise where European workers are working for Chinese employers making Chinese designed goods under working conditions determined by Chinese norms?

As the Chinese get richer will they get more like us, more democratic and peace loving?  Ferguson thinks not.  He doesn’t pick up much appetite for democracy.  But there is a growing nationalism.  For instance there are attacks on the way the Western media cover China.  A group of activists have made a video that puts the Chinese point of view on the occupation of Tibet.  They feel the Chinese government is too weak about this kind of thing.  (That would be the Chinese government who gave us Tiananmen Square.)   Some of them have taken to the internet to patriotically hack into Western governments and companies.  Ferguson finds and speaks to a Chinese nationalist hacker who tells him there is an all out war against the US.

Could a slowdown in economic growth lead to a crisis in which the nationalism is used to mask internal problems?   China wouldn’t be the first country to seek a foreign enemy to maintain internal unity.  And Niall could think of an example….

And that was it.  The rise of China and its implications in three hours.  The last programme was the best of the three by quite a margin.  It was fast paced, thought provoking and brought up lots of facts it is as well to be informed about.  I was really disappointed he ended on that comparison between Germany and China.  I also thought he copped out a lot by raising a lot of questions without putting his neck out and saying what he thought was the most likely outcome.  I keep an eye on Ferguson’s work so I am pretty sure his conclusion is that China will become the world dominant power without it leading to any conflict, but it would have been stronger if he had said that outright rather than trying to play up the scare story of a world war without actually justifying it.

But as ever, it was great telly and worth the hour invested in watching it.  And again as ever, you need to find some other accounts to balance it.

Further Info

Here are my reviews of the first programme in the series and the second one.

China’s role in Africa is discussed by Dambisa Moyo in Dead Aid rather more even handedly.  Ferguson wrote the foreword so he must be aware of her views.

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