What's Up in China: Hint, It's Not War With the U.S.

By James Fallows

There is a lot of big news in and from China right now, and to touch on a few elements before signing off for a while:

1) The outright rebellion that has erupted in the southern coastal town of Wukan is a powerful illustration of the economic, political, environmental, and social tensions that have built up inside China during the recent boom decade -- and that, if anything, may intensify as the boom slows down. For one-stop Wukan updates, I direct you again to ChinaGeeks. Also WSJ and BBC, BBC being source of this picture today:

Wukan.jpg

For recent arguments about whether a big slowdown is at hand, I direct you to items last month by Bill Bishop and Patrick Chovanec, each in Beijing and each with links to the various analyses pro and con by Arthur Kroeber, Michael Pettis, and others.

2) The military showdown that wasn't. Everyone [in politics] heard last week that China's president Hu Jintao had urged the Chinese military to prepare for the inevitable military showdown with the United States. According to a convincing analysis in The Diplomat, everyone was overreacting. The hubbub appears to have turned on a mistranslated phrase in Hu's comments. The words junshi douzheng, or 军事斗争, were taken in many Western accounts as a recommendation that China begin preparing for war. But M. Taylor Fravel of MIT says:

[A] literal and more accurate translation of junshi douzheng would be "military struggle" or, simply, "warfare."   In the phrase "preparations for military struggle," the term refers to the characteristics of future wars that China may have to fight and the implications for the development of operational doctrine and training.  It's similar to the concept of operational readiness. Nevertheless, it does not refer to a desire to go war, much less preparations for specific combat operations....

More generally, the phrase "preparations for military struggle" is a standard, boilerplate formula used in Chinese military writings and speeches by Chinese leaders on military affairs.  The phrase appears frequently in articles in the print edition of the Jiefangjun Bao, the PLA's official newspaper (though, interestingly, its use has been decreasing since 2005).

In addition, the [alarmist Western reports] missed the broader context in which this routine phrase was used.  In particular, Hu urged the PLAN [People's Liberation Army Navy] to deepen preparations for military struggle within the broader context of "closely focusing on the main theme of national defense and army-building." The term "army-building" (jundui jianshe) refers to long-term force development goals, including personnel policies and force structure...

In sum, Hu's statement didn't reflect a change in policy or a new emphasis on preparing for war.  His routine statement received more attention than it warranted.

3) All those hidden nukes? A front-page article in the Washington Post last month said that a Georgetown University professor and his student researchers had found, via the internet, evidence that China's arsenal of nuclear warheads might be ten times greater than previously reported, and hidden in underground tunnels. Gregory Kulacki of the Union of Concerned Scientists has gone at this story and its allegations very hard, with this initial report and further analyses collected here. The first one began this way:

My son is a student at our local public high school. As a rule, his teachers do not allow him to use Wikipedia as a source in his research papers because the information it contains can be unreliable. Students are instead expected to find and evaluate the original source material on which the statements contained in Wikipedia entries are based. They are taught that evaluating sources is the essence of competent scholarship.

Unfortunately, the standards for academic integrity appear not to be as high at Georgetown University. 

His summary page includes some of the responses from the Georgetown team.

4) Supercomputer dominance? Last week, the NYT published a big story by two reporters I know, like, and respect, David Barboza in China and John Markoff in the tech world. They argued that the fast rise to dominance that Chinese firms have established in so many manufacturing fields might soon apply in the highest level of advanced computing.

James Landay, a computer-science professor who has been working in China, has made the contrary "hey, it's not that easy" argument, as does a followup post by Tricia Wang at Bytes of China. Both Landay and Wang present what I think is point of tremendous importance about China's technological and economic potential: that if industries like super-computing (or bio-tech or aerospace) are to become areas of real Chinese excellence, many aspects of the current Chinese "soft infrastructure" -- rule of law, civic trust, institutional accountability, academic independence -- will need to change, too. Put another way: a China that is dominant in these fields would be a very different sort of country. As Wang says:

The three things holding China's computing industry from creating disruptive innovation is the
 1.) lack of trust between individuals, groups, and institutions,
 2.) lack of organizations that foster creativity and community, and
 3.) lack of common myth among technologists, engineers, and programmers.

Further implications for another time -- indeed they are a big theme in my forthcoming book. But the various articles on computing suggest ways to examine the "soft" and "hard" elements of China's strength -- and fragility.


5) The ongoing tragedy of Chinese beer. Latest installment from Jing Daily.
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For-real this time, no updates here for next five or six days, because of realities in our evolving magazine schedule.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2011/12/whats-up-in-china-hint-its-not-war-with-the-us/249826/