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China’s Journey to Modernity

Mar 22, 2021
  • Zhou Xiaoming

    Former Deputy Permanent Representative of China’s Mission to the UN Office in Geneva

March has been a busy and productive month for both legislators in Washington and their Chinese counterparts. Members of Congress, having battled day and night, passed a $1.9 trillion rescue package that will potentially turbocharge the economy of the United States.

On the western side of the Pacific, the National People’s Congress, China’s legislature, wound up its seven-day annual deliberations on March 11, having made a number of transformative decisions.

This year’s event was held at a historic juncture, a transitional point in China’s development. Last year saw the goal of a well-off society largely achieved, with the country’s GDP rising to approximately 70 percent of the U.S. economy, and its GDP per capita rose to more than $10,000. Absolute poverty in the country was eradicated, with more than 700 million people lifted out of poverty over four decades. 

As one of the most important political gatherings in China, the NPC session signed off on the annual plan for this year. More important, it gave a green-light to the country’s 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025) and its long-term objectives through 2035, laying out a blueprint for economic and social development over the next 15 years and ushering in a new phase in the nation’s development.

Chinese leaders view economic growth as the key to meeting all the challenges of the country. Despite some skepticism among pundits on the advisability of setting a numerical figure for GDP, the NPC did anyway, with a growth target of 6 percent or above for 2021. Some observers in and outside the country consider that to be conservative.

Unlike much of the world, the coronavirus pandemic is largely under control in China. As of March 14, more than three weeks had gone by without a single locally transmitted case. Life has on the whole has returned to normal, with motorists in cities like Beijing complaining again about traffic jams.

Meanwhile, the Chinese economic recovery appears to be gaining momentum. The economy grew 6.5 percent year-on-year in the last quarter of 2020. And China’s foreign trade expanded by 32.2 percent in the first two months of this year, compared with the same period last year.

In view of such developments, the IMF’s forecast put  the country’s GDP growth for the new year at 8.1 percent, while the OECD predicts 7.8 percent growth. The more modest target set by the NPC reflects Chinese leaders’ emphasis on the quality of growth, rather than speed.

Going forward, China seeks to maintain GDP growth in a “reasonable range,” with varying annual targets to be determined at each year’s NPC. The current Five-Year Plan does not include a GDP growth target for years beyond 2021. But the broad consensus among economists in the country is an annual growth rate of 4 to 5 percent. If that prediction comes true, China’s GDP per capita by 2025 would top $13,000, placing the country among the ranks of high-income countries.

Further afield, the NPC calls for the country to become modern, in the main, by 2035. Economically, this objective means achieving per capita GDP on par with that of midlevel of developed countries. Although no numerical figure is spelled out in the plans, the objective is taken by many to mean doubling China’s GDP per capita from the 2020 level to around $20,000, the current level of Portugal or Greece.

It appears that China’s role as a locomotive for the global economy will continue for many years to come. However, high economic growth alone is no longer considered a sufficient or even desirable outcome. Instead, Chinese leaders now call for high-quality development that is innovative, balanced, green and inclusive.

In this context, innovation — critical to improved productivity — is seen as central to the success of the Vision 2035 plan. As such, support for it is expected to beef up. As the long-term plan shows, the government will strive to increase the country’s spending on R&D by 7 percent annually during the 2021-2025 period.         

Moreover, under the new development strategy, China’s economic growth is to be achieved with an eye toward the environment and climate change. In addition to continued reductions in the emission of major pollutants, China projects a drop of around 3 percent in energy consumption per unit of GDP during the period. Moreover, it pledges to reduce energy consumption by 13.5 percent and carbon dioxide emissions by 18 percent per unit of GDP, in line with its commitment to hit peak emissions before 2030 and to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060.

Beyond economic growth, the plans call for substantial progress to be made in the social sector, and binding targets are set in quite a few areas. For example, the government aims to speed up urbanization by nearly a full percentage point per year, pushing it to over 65 percent by 2025. A total of 11.8 million new jobs are to be created this year, compared with 9 million last year.

It may also be of interest for some to learn that over the next five years, life expectancy in the country is expected to rise by one year to 78.3 years, compared with 77.5 years in the U.S. in 2020. All this requires an increasing proportion of resources to be channeled to the social sector.

The blueprint also envisions sharing as an important value underpinning China’s future development. Over the past four decades and more, the government’s policy has been to allow some people to get rich before others. But it has now determined that it’s time to get serious about delivering prosperity to all. It has vowed to make substantial progress in narrowing the disparity between regions, and between cities and rural areas in infrastructure, public services, job opportunities, education and the social safety net. It is also committed to improving income equality.

To really get a handle on how common prosperity would materialize, the government plans to conduct experiments in Zhejiang, a prosperous province adjacent to Shanghai.  

With ambitions come challenges. To achieve the objectives laid down in the plans is anything but easy. China’s journey to becoming a modern country will likely prove to be exciting and, sometimes, fraught.

The NPC also decided to improve the electoral system in Hong Kong by introducing changes in the size and composition of the city’s legislature and the Electoral Committee. The revamp aims at ensuring that “patriots” govern Hong Kong; however, it has ignited an uproar, including condemnation from the United States and the European Union.

In contrast, more than 70 countries voiced their support for China’s stand on Hong Kong at the 46th session of the United Nations Council on Human Rights, indicating a clear division between the West, the self-styled champions of human rights, and the rest of the nations of the world, many of which are at the receiving end of condemnation and sanctions for alleged violations of human rights.

Commentators note that the strong reaction in the West reflects frustration and dismay at the painful loss of its influence in Hong Kong and its desperate effort to keep the city a war zone against the local government and a launching pad for subversive activities against the Chinese mainland.

Meanwhile, China’s resolve to prevent a repeat of the failed “color revolution” that rocked the city in 2019 will only serve to contribute to the long-term stability and prosperity of the special administrative region.

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