Enter the Dragon: The Story of the China Miracle by Ali Mahmood is a valuable addition to the scholarly books published in Pakistan on China. In an engaging style, the book provides a quick overview of China’s emergence as a modern socialist state after suffering a century of humiliation at the hands of Western powers and Japan, and a violent struggle between the communists and the nationalists.
The victory of the Communist Party, under Mao Zedong’s leadership, led to the creation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on Oct 1, 1949. Meanwhile, Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek fled to Taiwan, which remains beyond the control of mainland China.
As Mahmood notes, the history of modern China since October 1949 can be divided broadly into two parts. Mao was the supreme leader from 1949 till his death in 1976. This period was marked by China’s unification and stabilisation, and its restoration to an honourable place in the comity of nations. The author provides a fairly detailed account of the challenges Mao and other Chinese leaders faced in the establishment of the PRC, the consolidation of the rule of the Communist Party of China, and the stabilisation of the situation in the country.
Despite such upheavals as the Korean War (1950-53), the Great Leap Forward (1958-60) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), the period on the whole witnessed reasonable economic growth and improvement in the standard of living. China’s gross domestic product (GDP) increased from $30.55 billion in 1952 to $153.94 billion in 1976, the year Mao died.
On the external front, besides the Korean War, other significant developments were the Sino-Indian War (1962), PRC’s assumption of the seat of China in the United Nations in 1971 and the Sino-Soviet split, leading to China’s rapprochement with the United States, resulting in then American president Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972.
A recently published book is a useful introduction to modern China and its phenomenal rise
Mao’s death heralded the era of Deng Xiaoping, who initiated the policies of economic reforms and opening to the outside world, based on his concept of socialism with Chinese characteristics, which were approved by the Third Plenum of the 11th Central Committee of the Communist Party in December 1978.
These policies, which combined a gradual move towards the incorporation of practices of a market economy internally, with the opening to the outside world while maintaining the Communist Party’s rule, unleashed the miracle of China’s rapid economic growth. Even after Deng’s death in 1997, the fundamental policies of socialism with Chinese characteristics have been continued with some variations by his successors, including Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao, and Xi Jinping, who is the current paramount leader of China.
Mahmood elaborates these developments while providing a wealth of useful information about China, the internal and external challenges confronting it, its leaders and policies. His book takes note of the growing US-China tensions as well as the country’s internal problems with Tibet, Xinjiang and Hong Kong. It also provides useful background information about President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and contains a fair account of China’s achievements in economic and technical fields.
China’s dramatic rise over the past four decades has radically transformed the world. Its GDP — estimated to be $306 billion in 1980 — rose to $14.4 trillion in 2019 and is expected to reach $16.64 trillion in 2021 as against the expected GDP of $22.68 trillion for the US during the same year.
China maintained an economic growth rate of about 10 percent during the period 1980-2010, thus doubling its GDP every seven years. In the process, it has raised 800 million people out of poverty. China’s share of the world GDP rose from about two percent (1980) to 18.34 percent (2020). While China’s GDP in terms of purchasing power parity surpassed that of the US in 2014 to assume the top global position, it is expected to overtake the US in nominal dollar terms also before the end of the current decade.
The 21st century’s defining feature will be the growing US-China rivalry. Economically, China has already taken a pre-eminent position on the international scene; militarily, it is fast catching up with the US. China’s defence budget, currently lagging far behind that of the US, is expected to surpass the US defence budget by 2035.
The country is also making rapid progress in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects, to provide a solid base for its long-term economic, scientific and technological progress. The tipping point is likely to come by 2050, if not earlier, by which time — if the present trends continue — China will emerge as the world’s single-most powerful economic and military nation.These far-reaching developments are redrawing the geopolitical map of the world at regional and global levels. As China rises, it will inevitably demand the accommodation of its interests in the global, political, security and economic architecture, with worldwide repercussions. In the past, when a rising power challenged the supremacy of an existing hegemon, it often led to conflicts and wars because of the perceived clash of interests. The main question, therefore, is: will the US lean towards the accommodation of China’s legitimate interests, or will it choose the path of confrontation?
According to present indications, the US is pursuing a policy of containment of China, by repositioning its forces in the Asia-Pacific region; building up strategic partnerships with Japan, South Korea, Australia and India to encircle China; destabilising China internally in Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang; resisting the expansion of China’s economic and technical relations with the rest of the world, and opposing the BRI, which is aimed at developing China’s economic, commercial and strategic links with Eurasian and African countries.
The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), envisaging Chinese investment amounting to $62 billion in Pakistan from 2015 to 2030, is an important component of the BRI, which would lead to trillions of dollars of Chinese investment abroad over the next three decades.
These developments raise critical foreign policy and security issues for the consideration of Pakistan’s leaders and policymakers. The main foreign policy challenge confronting Pakistan would be how to deepen its strategic cooperation with China in the face of the growing US-India strategic partnership, while maintaining friendly relations with the US-led West, which has its own importance in Pakistan’s political, economic and security calculations.
The ramifications of the global geopolitical transformation in the Middle East, in the backdrop of the growing Indo-US-Israeli political, security and economic footprint in the region and the deep political divide between Iran and some of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, will pose their own set of difficult foreign policy choices for Pakistan.
Under the circumstances, it is vital for Pakistan’s people and policymakers to understand the developments in China and the likely directions of its future policies, which will inevitably have far-reaching consequences for Pakistan’s security and economic well-being. Unfortunately, Pakistani scholars have not paid enough attention to understanding China, its history and culture, its social, political, security and economic challenges, and the evolution of its internal and external policies, especially as they impact Pakistan. Mahmood’s Enter the Dragon would help overcome this void.
However, there are occasional factual errors in the book. For instance, on page 202 we are told that China’s trade was only $29 billion in 1979, while later on page 204 it is mentioned that China’s trade a year earlier in 1978 was $206 billion. Quite apparently, the latter figure is inaccurate. Similarly, it is claimed on page 255 that the National People’s Congress meets once every five years; its meetings actually take place once every year.
On the whole, though, Enter the Dragon is a useful introduction to modern China and its phenomenal rise. China’s economic miracle offers important lessons for Pakistan’s leaders and policymakers. Perhaps the most important lesson that Pakistan can learn from China is the adoption of policies of self-reliance and austerity if we wish to acquire a dignified position in the comity of nations. Austerity is a must for achieving a high national saving rate, so as to raise the level of national investment for accelerating economic growth without getting caught in the external debt trap.
Like China, we also need to pursue a low-risk and non-adventurist foreign policy, to avoid a major armed conflict, allowing us to allocate the lion’s share of our resources to the goal of rapid economic development while maintaining a credible security deterrent.
Finally, as the Chinese experience demonstrates, rapid economic progress will remain elusive unless we bring about structural economic reforms and enhance manifold our national expenditure on education, especially STEM subjects, and research and development.
The reviewer is a former ambassador
Enter the Dragon: The Story of the China Miracle
By Ali Mahmood
Sapphire Books, Pakistan
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 9th, 2021