Sometimes this planet changes right under your nose and you still don’t notice. This sentence, buried in a New York Times piece on the Greek debt crisis, caught my attention the other day: “Greece, meanwhile, has suggested that it could turn to Russia or China for help if its talks on debt relief and a rollback of austerity measures break down.” Russia is, of course, an unlikely bulwark, being on distinctly shaky economic grounds itself right now, but I’m not surprised by the thought — at least from Syriza, the lefty party now in power in Greece. But China? Not since tiny Albania joined the Chinese camp in the Cold War have we seen a sentence that in any way resembled that one. And yet it certainly catches something of the changing face of our planet. After all, as time goes by, the magnetic power of the Chinese economy is moving ever closer to Europe. Just two years ago, the Chinese became the Middle East’s largest trading partner, leaving the European Union in second place and the United States in third. By then, China was already Africa’s largest trading partner, having displaced the U.S. some years earlier.
This may not be making headlines here, but it’s no small thing. The economic rise of China, especially in areas where the U.S. had committed so much in blood, sweat, and drones, should take anyone’s breath away. Fortunately, TomDispatch’s peripatetic Eurasian correspondent Pepe Escobar (the man who invented the term “Pipelineistan” for the web of energy conduits that crisscross that vast continental area) arrives in the nick of time to offer us a view from Beijing of an economy still staggeringly on the rise and the plans of the Chinese leadership, from Asia to Europe, for knitting together what, if it happened, might indeed someday be seen as a new world economic order. Tom
Year of the Sheep, Century of the Dragon?
New Silk Roads and the Chinese Vision of a Brave New (Trade) World
By Pepe Escobar
BEIJING — Seen from the Chinese capital as the Year of the Sheep starts, the malaise affecting the West seems like a mirage in a galaxy far, far away. On the other hand, the China that surrounds you looks all too solid and nothing like the embattled nation you hear about in the Western media, with its falling industrial figures, its real estate bubble, and its looming environmental disasters. Prophecies of doom notwithstanding, as the dogs of austerity and war bark madly in the distance, the Chinese caravan passes by in what President Xi Jinping calls “new normal” mode.
“Slower” economic activity still means a staggeringly impressive annual growth rate of 7% in what is now the globe’s leading economy. Internally, an immensely complex economic restructuring is underway as consumption overtakes investment as the main driver of economic development. At 46.7% of the gross domestic product (GDP), the service economy has pulled ahead of manufacturing, which stands at 44%.
Geopolitically, Russia, India, and China have just sent a powerful message westward: they are busy fine-tuning a complex trilateral strategy for setting up a network of economic corridors the Chinese call “new silk roads” across Eurasia. Beijing is also organizing a maritime version of the same, modeled on the feats of Admiral Zheng He who, in the Ming dynasty, sailed the “western seas” seven times, commanding fleets of more than 200 vessels.
Meanwhile, Moscow and Beijing are at work planning a new high-speed rail remix of the fabled Trans-Siberian Railroad. And Beijing is committed to translating its growing strategic partnership with Russia into crucial financial and economic help, if a sanctions-besieged Moscow, facing a disastrous oil price war, asks for it.
To China’s south, Afghanistan, despite the 13-year American war still being fought there, is fast moving into its economic orbit, while a planned China-Myanmar oil pipeline is seen as a game-changing reconfiguration of the flow of Eurasian energy across what I’ve long called Pipelineistan.
And this is just part of the frenetic action shaping what the Beijing leadership defines as the New Silk Road Economic Belt and the Maritime Silk Road of the twenty-first century. We’re talking about a vision of creating a potentially mind-boggling infrastructure, much of it from scratch, that will connect China to Central Asia, the Middle East, and Western Europe. Such a development will include projects that range from upgrading the ancient silk road via Central Asia to developing a Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar economic corridor; a China-Pakistan corridor through Kashmir; and a new maritime silk road that will extend from southern China all the way, in reverse Marco Polo fashion, to Venice.
Don’t think of this as the twenty-first-century Chinese equivalent of America’s post-World War II Marshall Plan for Europe, but as something far more ambitious and potentially with a far vaster reach.
China as a Mega-City
If you are following this frenzy of economic planning from Beijing, you end up with a perspective not available in Europe or the U.S. Here, red-and-gold billboards promote President Xi Jinping’s much ballyhooed new tagline for the country and the century, “the Chinese Dream” (which brings to mind “the American Dream” of another era). No subway station is without them. They are a reminder of why 40,000 miles of brand new high-speed rail is considered so essential to the country’s future. After all, no less than 300 million Chinese have, in the last three decades, made a paradigm-breaking migration from the countryside to exploding urban areas in search of that dream.
Another 350 million are expected to be on the way, according to a McKinsey Global Institute study. From 1980 to 2010, China’s urban population grew by 400 million, leaving the country with at least 700 million urban dwellers. This figure is expected to hit one billion by 2030, which means tremendous stress on cities, infrastructure, resources, and the economy as a whole, as well as near-apocalyptic air pollution levels in some major cities.
Already 160 Chinese cities boast populations of more than one million. (Europe has only 35.) No less than 250 Chinese cities have tripled their GDP per capita since 1990, while disposable income per capita is up by 300%.
These days, China should be thought of not in terms of individual cities but urban clusters — groupings of cities with more than 60 million people. The Beijing-Tianjin area, for example, is actually a cluster of 28 cities. Shenzhen, the ultimate migrant megacity in the southern province of Guangdong, is now a key hub in a cluster as well. China, in fact, has more than 20 such clusters, each the size of a European country. Pretty soon, the main clusters will account for 80% of China’s GDP and 60% of its population. So the country’s high-speed rail frenzy and its head-spinning infrastructure projects — part of a $1.1 trillion investment in 300 public works — are all about managing those clusters.
Not surprisingly, this process is intimately linked to what in the West is considered a notorious “housing bubble,” which in 1998 couldn’t have even existed. Until then all housing was still owned by the state. Once liberalized, that housing market sent a surging Chinese middle class into paroxysms of investment. Yet with rare exceptions, middle-class Chinese can still afford their mortgages because both rural and urban incomes have also surged.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is, in fact, paying careful attention to this process, allowing farmers to lease or mortgage their land, among other things, and so finance their urban migration and new housing. Since we’re talking about hundreds of millions of people, however, there are bound to be distortions in the housing market, even the creation of whole disastrous ghost towns with associated eerie, empty malls.
The Chinese infrastructure frenzy is being financed by a pool of investments from central and local government sources, state-owned enterprises, and the private sector. The construction business, one of the country’s biggest employers, involves more than 100 million people, directly or indirectly. Real estate accounts for as much as 22% of total national investment in fixed assets and all of this is tied to the sale of consumer appliances, furnishings, and an annual turnover of 25% of China’s steel production, 70% of its cement, 70% of its plate glass, and 25% of its plastics.
So no wonder, on my recent stay in Beijing, businessmen kept assuring me that the ever-impending “popping” of the “housing bubble” is, in fact, a myth in a country where, for the average citizen, the ultimate investment is property. In addition, the vast urbanization drive ensures, as Premier Li Keqiang stressed at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, a “long-term demand for housing.”
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