How China became the biggest boy in the playground

After five emperors, two regime changes and millions of lives lost in a century, China has completed almost two-thirds of its great revival. To be precise, the job is 62 per cent done.

Chinese economist Yang Yiyong has it down pat. "If you can grade beauty in a pageant and measure emotional intelligence, I don't see why you can't count a nation's revival," he said, grinning.

A government researcher, he believed he had found the perfect statistical gift for a country obsessed about numbers and quantifiable benchmarks. He called it the Great National Revival Process Monitoring and Evaluation Indicators. It had six indices.

China did well in civility of the people and social development, scoring 81.1 per cent and 78.4 per cent respectively. But its economic development managed just 48 per cent and global influence 46.9 per cent. Taken together, based on 2010 figures, China has achieved 62 per cent of its long-held quest for "great nation" status.

It is a journey which started when the Qing dynasty ceded Hong Kong to the United Kingdom after a decisive British victory in the First Opium War in 1840.

The humiliation of the first of several unequal treaties signed between China and the Western powers has been marked in Chinese history books as the beginning of a decline which it must arrest and reverse.

It had been a century of disgrace, during which China went through five emperors, switched from imperialism to republicanism to communism and witnessed the ravages of the Japanese occupation and a civil war.

By the time Mao Zedong wrested control of the country from the fleeing Kuomintang in 1949, he predicted that it would take a hundred years for China to return to the centre of the world.

When new leader Xi Jinping assumed control of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in late 2012, one of his earliest speeches called the rejuvenation a "China Dream".

Yang provided the statistical route map of this dream. "We are on track. It shouldn't be a problem for us to be a great nation by 2049. We still have 30 over years," he said on a cold winter afternoon in Beijing in 2012.

"As long as China's domestic politics remain stable, there are no major mistakes in development, nothing like the Cultural Revolution and no world wars, it shouldn't be a problem."

The key to his confidence was the 2008 financial crisis. "After that recession, China was like a car in the overtaking lane, speeding along as Europe and the United States slowed down. There can be no denying that China became a strong nation after that recession," he said.

China was growing stronger. And regardless of the figure, or whether it could be calculated, there was no doubt there was an excitement in China of accelerated growth after 2008. The goal of achieving great nation status became more within reach. The return of China to the centre of global affairs, a role it believes it deserves, looked imminent.

The march towards purging a century of humiliation... from the Chinese psyche seemed to have turned into a sprint.

In the words of a Chinese scholar in early 2009 in Beijing, China was like a child on steroids - suddenly, it had strength it never knew. The words stayed with me for years because that was, in my view, one of the most apt descriptions of China in the years after the Beijing Olympics and financial crisis precipitated by Wall Street.

In many ways, it was still a child, not quite ready and mature for the world. But having been fed this steroid stimulus, it had grown at an unnatural pace and bulked up with overwhelming strength.

It was suddenly not only the biggest boy in the playground, but also eager for the rougher world of the backstreet alleys. Yet, without the worldly experience that came with years of exposure, it lacked the finesse of an aspiring superpower.

shpeh@sph.com.sg


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