WASHINGTON — China’s top diplomat in the U.S. said his nation must take an untested path toward modernization and overcome social upheaval and environmental challenges to sustain its economic rise.
“People’s lives are improving every day,” Zhou Wenzhong, who became ambassador to the U.S. in March, said during a speech this month at Georgetown University here. “Democracy, rule of law and various other undertakings are making constant progress. However, China’s large population, weak economic foundation and regional imbalance are all potential hurdles.”
China’s intentions and desire to promote democracy and the rule of law are matters of debate among U.S. policy makers and international specialists. However, the country’s rapid economic expansion and its potential for further growth are matters of fact and awe.
Since China began to set policies that opened its markets in 1978, per capita gross domestic product surged to $1,200 from $190, said Zhou, who used a form of the word “peace” at least 33 times during the speech. Given that growth, he said China could reach basic modernization and become a moderately developed country by 2050, though officials in Beijing have since boosted interim growth projections.
China’s path to modernization is strewn with fundamental obstacles, Zhou said. The first two are a shortage of resources and ecological problems, such as pollution.
“The third challenge is reflected in a series of paradoxes, such as sustaining rapid growth of GDP while quickening the steps of social undertakings, promoting technological progress and industrial upgrading while increasing general employment, maintaining the strong growth momentum in the East Coast while encouraging simultaneous development of all regions,” he said.
To do this, Zhou said China cannot develop the same way the U.S. did over time, but, instead, must “blaze a new trail” and evolve in its own way, for instance, taking advantage of modern technological advances. A cornerstone of China’s development so far has been trade with the U.S.
“Apart from being the biggest buyer of American soybeans, wheat and cotton, China is also buying enough Boeing aircrafts to equip 70 percent of its civil aviation fleet,” Zhou said.
Given the growth rate and scale, he said frictions with the U.S. were “unavoidable,” but that China would work to settle its trade disputes.
Zhou did not address the textile area, but said China has stepped up its protection of intellectual property rights, which is a flash point with the U.S.
His speech is an example of broader efforts by Chinese officials to better articulate their country’s policies to the world.
Another top official, Cheng Siwei, gave an interview to “The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer” on PBS, which aired recently as part of a series on China.
Cheng, vice chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, said U.S. textile workers would be pressured by imports from other low-cost countries, even with restraints on Chinese goods.
“[The] textile industry in the United States is a sunset industry,” he said. “You cannot compete with developing countries. So the best way is you should…readjust your economic structure.”
Robert Sutter, a visiting professor at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, who worked for the U.S. government for three decades, said fears of China are exaggerated, not because the country’s intentions are noble, but because it is not in China’s interest to confront the U.S.
“Does China want to be the textile king of the world?” Sutter asked. “Maybe, but that doesn’t seem to be what they’re after. What they’re after is staying in power, developing their economy, and this is a good area to do that.”
China is also contending with domestic protests and is looking for ways to keep tabs on its people by patrolling the Internet, said Sutter.
“This kind of desire to keep internal control and stability is very consuming to the leadership,” he said. “They are trying to maintain a one-party political system, while encouraging and relying on a very dynamic economy that’s leading to social change. This has never been done before and political science theory would tell you it’s extremely hard to do, and so this keeps them busy all the time.”