China: the reluctant giant
Mark Beckford, Online Content Coordinator
Despite China's economic power and continued growth which has seen that nation expand at an average of 10 per cent per year over the last 30 years, the world's most populous country is still claiming - and at times stressing - its developing status.
In its ownership of a developing tag, however, China's leaders and officials have pledged to forge a more equitable future for its 1.344 billion residents.
China, with a history of 4,000 years, has been strongly growing since initiating market reforms in 1978, resulting in decades of growth, poverty alleviation benefitting some 600 million people, and increased foreign influence and investment.
While the 2008 economic recession affected other major powers, slowing their economies or forcing some into recession, China recorded GDP growth of more than seven per cent per year during the period, lifting it to the enviable position of being the world's second-largest economy.
Despite these numbers, the country, with a GDP of US$7 trillion in 2011, says it still has a far way to go.
"Since 1978, every congress has been pushing the goal of a moderately prosperous China (however), imbalances and non-sustainability remain. China is still burdened with socio-economic challenges. In the areas of health and education, there is still a long way for China to go," Director of the Personnel Training Centre at China's State Council Information Office (SCIO) Hu Wei Ping told a group of journalists and communications specialists from developing countries recently.
During the seminar, held last month, several Chinese officials were quick to pair the country's economic and social success with the challenges they face.
Images of China's strong growth and development compete with those reflecting the challenges of rural poverty, environmental pollution and income inequality for the country which has 56 ethnic groups.
For instance, despite having the second-largest economy in the world and foreign-exchange reserves of US$3 trillion, World Bank figures for 2011 show China's gross national income per capita of US$4,940 ranked 114th in the world; and more than 170 million people still live below the US$1.25-per-day international poverty line.
According to World Bank data, Jamaica with a population of approximately 2.7 million as of 2011 had a marginally higher gross national income per capita of US$4,980.
"Despite the huge growth, China is still a developing nation because of the huge disparity," Professor Sun Qiming of the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunations said, during a session with the visiting journalists and communications specialists.
This disparity has been described by officials and academics as the gulf in wealth between affluent urban areas such as the capital Beijing and the city of Shanghai and the poorer western regions of China.
Many Chinese see this as a problem where urban residents, who are estimated to be 660 million people, live better off than rural folk.
China's communist leaders have acknowledged this and have set out to bring parity with a recent deadline of 2020 earmarked to double GDP income in both rural and urban areas.
shifts in focus
According to Professor Sun, China's leaders have decided to shift from a GDP-only focus to one that examines human development indices.
He said that while China's economy has been stable, the numbers have not stopped concerns among China's officials that industrialisation and high GDP growth is consuming too much energy and resources, affecting the environment in the process.
"(There must be) a shift from economic indices only to comprehensive public-service indices. The 12th five-year plan suggests taking human-development indices as the most important sign of building a well-off society," Professor Sun said.
Huang Youyi, deputy director- general of China International Publishing Group, believes a big challenge facing the country in overcoming its developing status is to close the income gap.
"Another issue we will have to take care of is narrowing down income differences and that is a big job to do," he said.
"The government is also spending more money developing the Western part of China, so in this way we hope that not only part of China but the whole country can enjoy a better life and this is the bigger goal."
He added: "Now we are in the second stage of development, where we shift our economic focus from pure economic growth to social development as well, which means giving equal opportunity to everybody, giving people, particularly in poor areas, a better opportunity to improve themselves," he continued.
Huang said China and its leaders would have to ensure that its development does not leave the people behind.
"We in China always have a great aspiration, which is to develop China's economy so that it can get the respect that is due to a large nation like us.
"We have done pretty well in the last 30 years, I must say, but again we face great challenges. China is simply too big. The way we have been developing China is at a huge cost to the environment. We spend too much energy and the result is not as welcoming as we hoped."
China is however expected to continue its strong performance with numbers in the near future. The country's top think tank, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, projected last Wednesday in its "blue book" report on China's economy that the country's gross-domestic-product growth could rise to 8.2 per cent in 2013 from an expected 7.7 per cent this year.