Filtering the China filters

Studying up on the Middle Kingdom: An online avalanche.

Published January 11, 2006 7:22PM (EST)

I currently subscribe to 15 China-related blogs on my blog-reader. Most of them are filters that point to hundreds of other sources of information. Add in a couple of Google News alerts on specific Sino-related topics, and my daily info-dump on the Middle Kingdom is staggering.

Indeed, there are plenty of days when I experience what is likely a common woe in the blogosphere -- that sense of guilt that derives from the sight of a huge number of unread items listed in my reader. On some days, just to get on with life, the only option is to mark everything as "already read" and move on. This always makes me feel like less of a man, but so be it. I can take the shame.

But then there are days like today, when I take the time to follow the links and am rewarded with an avalanche of insight so rewarding that even now, after more than 10 years of using the Net to troll for information about China, I am boggled.

A Google News alert pointed me to a 55-page paper on the current Chinese semiconductor market from PricewaterhouseCoopers. China Digital Times linked to a three-part Technology Review series on China's efforts to promote basic science. SimonWorld reproduced a Stratfor report analyzing the potential for economic catastrophe in China, and billsdue led me to a New York Times article on the growing worldwide demand for Chinese-language studies.

Taken together, these articles and reports add a considerable amount of nuance and raw information to the ongoing narrative of China and globalization. The semiconductor paper, a follow-up to an even more comprehensive analysis published by PricewaterhouseCoopers in December 2004, supports a key observation numerous analysts made to me when I was reporting on the Chinese chip market last year. Chip consumption in China for products aimed at the domestic market continued to surge in 2004, encompassing 40 percent of China's total demand for chips. That's significant growth, testament to the growing maturity of China's domestic economy. But the gap between what China consumes and what it produces continues to grow -- from 2003-04 that disparity went from $7.7 billion to $25.8 billion. What this means is that, far from disemboweling the rest of the world's chip industry, China's hunger for chips is good for everyone -- especially top-of-the-line American chip and chip equipment makers.

The overall stats for Chinese chip growth continue to amaze, but much of what is produced domestically is still second-tier, behind the cutting edge of modern chip technology. Which leads to the next question. A great deal of attention and concern have been devoted to the sheer number of engineers and scientists graduating from Chinese universities -- with the omnipresent subtext being that if the U.S. doesn't get its act together, it will be eclipsed by a new technological power. But how much progress is China really making in bringing its scientific establishment up to the standards set by the U.S., Japan and Europe? That's the question that Horace Judson investigates in his illuminating three-part series for Technology Review. He provides an excellent overview, with a lot of firsthand reporting, but the nut is this: China's scientists are hampered by their Confucian hierarchical heritage, which does not allow for the kind of questioning independence at the core of the Western scientific ethos. China's leaders know this, however, and the process of globalization in which young Chinese engineers and scientists go to the West for advanced educations and then come back to China, indoctrinated in a different value system, is ongoing. But it will most likely take generations for long-term change to set in.

Can China wait that long? Stratfor analyses tend to emphasize the apocalyptic downside to whatever they are focusing on, and while the current piece "dissecting the Chinese miracle" is a welcome antidote to China-taking-over-the-world hype, it may also go overboard in its predictions of wide-scale rebellion and chaos. But the points it makes are well worth mulling. Chinese economic growth has been staggering, but there are fundamental structural problems in China that in the long term appear well nigh insolvable. Not least is the ongoing and accelerating tension developing between local regions and the central government. Under Premier Jiang Zemin, local leaders were encouraged to promote growth at all costs. Under Zemin's successor, Hu Jintao, the emphasis has been targeting development that will grapple with the growing disparities between rural and urban regions. Can Hu rein in the provinces? Can China continue to grow fast enough to outrun increasing social instability? It's a high-stakes race.

But then, finally, there comes what to me is the most intriguing of all the new info-nuggets I gathered today. In Howard French's New York Times piece on the growing popularity of Chinese-language studies, there is this paragraph:

"In a 2003 survey of American high schools, the College Board found that 50 said they would like to add advanced placement courses in Russian, about 175 said Japanese and 240 said Italian -- and 2,400 said they would prefer Chinese."

That's some grass-roots attention to globalization right there, folks. People know: It's time to study up.

And that's your China update for today.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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China Chinese Economy Globalization How The World Works Science