A visit to China, where I have been for the last week or so, is in many ways a humbling and instructive experience. It has been a humbling experience because of the rapid economic progress that China has achieved in such a short span of time since its great leader Deng Xiaoping launched his policies of reforms and opening China to the outside world in December 1978. Thanks to the new direction given to it, China has been able to achieve the average GDP growth rate of 10 % per annum over the last forty years, doubling its GDP after every seven years. Consequently, as against GDP of $300 billion in 1978, China’s GDP was estimated to be $11.9 trillion in 2017 in nominal terms, making it the second largest economy in the world only after the US. Of course, in purchasing power parity terms, the China’s GDP had already overtaken the US in 2014. The Chinese economy has slowed down slightly more recently. Still, its GDP grew at the rate of 6.8% last year. The target growth rate for the current year has been fixed at 6.5%. If the Chinese economy continues to grow on these lines, it will become the biggest economy of the world in nominal terms by the end of the next decade.
The signs of this phenomenal progress hit the eye the moment one lands at Beijing airport. When I arrived at Beijing for the first time in my life in 1985 to assume my responsibilities as Minister and Deputy Head of the Mission in the Pakistan Embassy, Beijing, China had embarked upon the journey of its rapid economic growth just a few years earlier. At that time, Beijing airport was relatively speaking a much smaller affair just like the airport of any Third World country as China was at that time. But I soon learnt during my three-year stay at Beijing that Deng’s policies had ignited the Chinese economic engine hurtling it on the trajectory of rapid economic growth. China had already successfully carried out the first phase of reforms in the rural sector and was getting ready for the implementation of reforms in the urban sector in 1985. The successful implementation of these reforms, which unleashed the productive energies of the Chinese people through the introduction of the market forces and the element of competition in the working of the Chinese economy, accelerated China’s economic growth. By 1998, China’s GDP had increased five times compared with the figure in 1978.
China’s has not looked back since then. I have paid several visits to China even after 1988 when I was transferred to Islamabad as I completed my diplomatic assignment in Beijing. Every visit was a reminder of the rapid strides that China was taking on the road to economic progress with visible signs everywhere to see. My latest tour has served to reinforce my assessment that China’s economic progress is irreversible though it may experience some hiccups or slowing down on the way. It is not only the airports at Beijing and Shanghai, which can be compared to the best in the developed world. It is also the living standard of its people who are much better educated and much more knowledgeable than they were in 1980’s. It is also the state of transportation networks and infrastructure in general which have become highly advanced. Further, China’s progress is reflected in the high quality of its scientists, its engineers, its IT experts, and its scholars in general. China has become the biggest trading nation in goods in the world reflecting the strength of its industrial sector.
This is not to claim, however, that China has joined the ranks of the most developed countries in the world like the US, Germany, Japan, France, and Sweden. For reaching that stage of high development, China needs decades of hard work. But it is quite clear from the pronouncements of Chinse leaders, especially President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang, at the on-going National People’s Congress that they are fully committed to the goal of rapid economic development. They are well aware of the complexity of the task and are determined to overcome the obstacles that may confront them on the way. The Chinese people, in general, are rightly proud of their achievements in various sectors during the past four decades and highly motivated to join the ranks of the highly advanced nations of the world through commitment and hard work. However, even under the best of circumstances, it will not be before the commencement of the second half of the current century that China would reach that stage of high development.
A visit to China by a visitor from a developing country like myself does not just bring home the visible signs of development and progress in various sectors. It is also an instructive experience as countries like Pakistan can learn a lot from China. First, China since 1978 has accorded the highest priority to the goal of rapid economic growth subordinating everything else to this supreme national aim. In pursuance of this goal, China has pursued low-risk and non-adventurous foreign and security policies with the objective of minimizing the danger of engaging in external armed conflict. Further, China through appropriate strategies has achieved high national saving and investment rates to accelerate its economic growth. Second, China has paid the maximum attention to the task of educating its people, especially the younger generation, which represents its future. China is fully aware that in the modern knowledge-based world, high levels of literacy and education are indispensable conditions for rapid economic progress. Third, China has consistently allocated a high proportion of its resources to the building up of its physical infrastructure, especially its transportation system including roads and railways. It now boasts the existence of the most protracted network of bullet trains in the world besides high-quality highways and means of transport to facilitate commerce and economic progress. Fourth, Chinese leaders have focused on providing the right type of regulatory framework for encouraging economic growth through reforms in industrial, agricultural and financial sectors. Fifth, China’s leadership has placed a high degree of premium on elements of political stability and continuity of policies in the country in the interest of sustained economic progress at a rapid pace.
China’s policies as mentioned above have enabled it to achieve high rates of economic growth. Pakistan, on the other hand, has adopted precisely the opposite policies with predictably unsatisfactory results. Instead of determining rapid economic growth as the supreme national aim, we have become a security state where economic development in practical terms is accorded a low priority. We have also been prone to following high risk and adventurous security and foreign policies. Our national saving and investment rates pathetically low are depressing our economic growth rate. Education, which is the premium mobile of economic development, has received inadequate attention and low priority in the allocation of the nation’s resources. Why wonder about our low literacy rate? That there is no world-class university or research center in Pakistan speaks volumes about our misplaced priorities. Our physical infrastructure is in a poor shape. Successive governments in Pakistan have failed to provide a regulatory framework calculated to encourage economic growth in a corruption-free environment. Finally, the country has suffered from political instability and lack of continuity of policies due to a variety of factors for most of the time. Unless we take determined steps to overcome these shortcomings, our country will remain trapped at the stage of low level of economic development in the foreseeable future.
The writer is a retired ambassador and the president of the Lahore Council for World Affairs.