Charting China's meteoric rise was rich and rewarding
PUBLISHED: 12:49 17 July 2008 | UPDATED: 15:14 07 September 2010
Although Islington author John Farndon has written many books on contemporary issues, being asked by his publishers to write about China was something special. Here, just a few weeks before the opening of the Beijing Olympics, he explains why his new book
Although Islington author John Farndon has written many books on contemporary issues, being asked by his publishers to write about China was something special. Here, just a few weeks before the opening of the Beijing Olympics, he explains why his new book, China Rises (Virgin £7.99), was such a rich and rewarding journey
Next month, the Beijing Olympic Games will open and China will become the focus of the world's attention.
For a few weeks, at least, everyone will be looking at China and will become aware for the first time just how astonishingly China has been transformed in the last decade.
As the TV cameras roll into Beijing and Shanghai, it will become clear these are no longer slow-paced ancient cities of bicycle-filled streets. In the last decade, much of old Beijing and Shanghai has been swept away in a frenzy of new building the like of which the world has never seen.
In just a decade, Beijing and Shanghai have been almost magically transformed into startlingly modern cities, with gleaming skyscrapers and high-tech rapid transit systems, and shopping malls filled with the latest luxury goods. Eleven out of the world's 20 tallest buildings are now in China and visitors to Shanghai are whisked into the city from the airport by a magnetic levitation train - the world's fastest train.
The whirlwind of construction that has blown through Chinese cities has been fuelled by an economic boom which makes even Japan's postwar 'miracle' seem pedestrian. It all really began in the early 1990s when Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping decided to open the closed communist economy to outside business.
Deng's 'open-door' policy proved such a success that in 2006, China overtook Britain to become the world's fourth largest economy and will very soon rip past both Japan and Germany.
Indeed, China alone has been responsible for more than a third of all global economic growth since 2001. Within a decade or so, it may outstrip even the USA to become the world's largest economy.
But even the sheer size of China's economy doesn't convey its overwhelming impact on the world economy. More than half of its earnings come from exports and China is now the world's third largest exporter in monetary terms behind only Germany and the USA - a fact all the more astonishing when you consider that so many of China's exports are low value goods.
The simplest and most complete reason for China's astonishing growth is manpower. China has the world's biggest labour force by far. In the biggest mass movement of humans in history, hundreds of millions of poor Chinese have moved from the country to the cities to supply their cheap hands.
The second reason is investment. The Chinese government has poured in huge sums to push the country forward, but so too have foreign investors, believing both in China's low manufacturing costs and the vast potential market China could be. Indeed, China has been by far the world's largest recipient of foreign investment.
There's no doubt that the sudden and dramatic arrival of China on the world economic stage has had a huge impact elsewhere. Numerous American and European manufacturers have found themselves unable to compete with the 'China price' - the low costs achievable by manufacturers in China, where labour is plentiful and cheap.
Since the turn of the century, America's manufacturing sector has haemorrhaged more than three million jobs. The loss in Britain could be comparable. Now there is concern that as China develops more and more it will take away not just manufacturing jobs but the services and hi-tech jobs on which Britain now relies so much.
However, it is completely wrong to think of China's impact as being all negative.
The flood of cheap goods from China has helped fuel the retail and financial boom which has underpinned the remarkable prosperity of Britain over the last decade. Our homes are filled with all kinds of sophisticated goods, from iPods to microwaves to stylish clothes, affordable mainly because they are made in China.
And the worrying recent dip in the British economy now is nothing to do with Chinese competition. Indeed, it is quite possible that the sheer energy and scale of Chinese economic may save the West sliding into economic recession as it did in the 1930s.
There are those who worry that the Chinese boom is unsustainable, however, because it is based on massive loans and investment that will soon have to reap dividends - or fail altogether.
These prophets of doom point out that China is not the giant lucrative market investors imagine, but a country with 800 million very poor people, ruled over by a communist government that gives its people only limited economic and political freedom.
When China's economic bubble bursts, the pessimists say, it could indeed plunge the world into recession.
At the same time, there are tremendous concerns about China's human rights record, and many argue that we should not do business with a country that gives its citizens so little political freedom and treats dissidents in such a harsh way.
However, the prosperity that economic growth has brought is not simply changing China's urban scenery.
It is also changing Chinese society fundamentally as more and more people, especially among the younger generation, interact with the rest of the world.
When the terrible earthquake in Sechuan killed tens of thousands, China's willingness to share its grief with the world was something new - and in stark contrast to the brutally restrictive approach of the Burmese government in the aftermath of the flood disaster.