China: Why Should You Care?

Mark Stone, China Correspondent
China: Why Should You Care?

As you open your Christmas presents, glance at where they were made. The chances are many of them came from China: a country that feels far away; a culture that seems far removed.

:: The People

The size of China is mind-boggling: 1.3 billion people live here - that is one fifth of the world's population. There are 160 cities in China with populations of more than a million. In the UK, there are just two: London and Birmingham.

That alone should surely to make you stop and wonder. But in China, the superlatives are never-ending: five times more people are learning English in China as there are people in the UK.

The point is that this is a country with staggering potential. That old adage that the Chinese will one day take over the world may be rather wide of the mark, but with this many people in a country that is increasingly powerful, increasingly mobile and increasingly developed, it is entirely inevitable that they will, to a large extent they already are, exerting their influence right around the globe.

:: The Economy

Some figures for you: 80% of the word's zips are made in one small area of China; 60% of the world's buttons are made here. There's a one-in-three chance that the socks you're wearing now were made in one Chinese town called Datang.

But China is now making much more than socks, buttons and zips. Its electronics industry is booming. Huawei is a perfect example. Not yet a household name in the UK but you'll find their electronics inside at least one item in your home.

Suddenly 'Made in China' doesn't necessarily mean 'cheap and cheerful'.

China's economy is second in size only to America's. If all goes to plan, it'll be the world's biggest economy by the end of the decade. Manufacturing in China hit a 14-month high this month. And so while most of us in the West have been limping along, China is still booming.

With all that economic power comes global clout. The Chinese are buying up Africa; they are the largest foreign buyer of American government debt; and they're buying up companies all over the UK too: Thames Water, Superdrug, MG Rover. More than 400 Chinese businesses own or part own UK companies.

The West is increasingly investing in China too. Jaguar Land Rover is the latest UK company to announce massive expansion into the Chinese market.

And so, the West is entirely wrapped-up in China's success.

That's all very well while China continues to boom, but what if the oriental bubble bursts? It's hard to know how secure China really is because of the entirely opaque way it is run. But a bust China could break us all.

:: The Environment

The US Embassy in Beijing has an air monitor on its roof. They publish the quality of the city's air on Twitter. It's not something the Chinese government appreciates because it's rarely good. Have a click and you'll see - @BeijingAir

It is estimated that more than 1,000 new cars hit the roads every day in Beijing alone; a staggering figure.

Multiply that by the number of cities in China and you begin to see why the air is so bad here. Then add the fact that China is the world's factory floor: it's the recipe for a frightening environmental mess.

The Chinese need tons and tons of raw materials to make everything they sell to us and consume themselves. And so, to get that fuel, China is digging up and cutting down large swathes of Asia and Africa.

They've done a deal with corrupt African governments: Give us your wood, minerals and metals and we'll exchange it for investment. It may sound fair enough, but the environmental impact is huge.

All those raw materials are shipped to China to fuel factories. That creates smog in the cities and frightening amounts of carbon dioxide: emissions are set to double by 2030. That affects us all.

:: The Military

China's Great Wall is perhaps the country's most famous symbol. Built over a period of 1,000 years, its job was simple: it was designed to stop invading foreign armies. 

Its success at that may have been limited but psychologically it was a triumph, acting as a barrier between Chinese civilisation and the rest of the world.

Today China has pushed those barriers far from the Great Wall and out well beyond its land borders.

But as China's ancient emperors used psychology to play their people and their enemies, today's leaders seem to be doing just the same.

China now has the largest fighting force in the world - 2.3 million people. They have nuclear weapons, a growing naval fleet, an impressive air force and with all that a new assertiveness.

China has a new aircraft carrier from which Chinese-made jets fly. Footage of the new ship loops on big screens in Tiananmen Square and on State TV. It is, as the Great Wall was before it, a symbol of China's enduring strength.

All this may stoke nationalism at home but it makes China's neighbours and governments in the West pretty anxious.

:: The Politics

China has changed beyond all recognition over the past two decades with development at a quite staggering speed.

But there's been one constant throughout: this is still a communist country. As western consumers of the 'Made in China' brand, its easy, perhaps convenient, to forget that fact.

But as you buy into China as we all are whether we realise it or not, here's something that's worth considering: the Chinese don't get to choose their leaders; there are no elections here.

This is a one-party Communist state whose members make up just 6% of the population, and only a fraction of them choose the people who make it to the top.

The party runs every facet of life: the education system, the legal system, the media, the lot. Every decent sized company has a party department who keep watch on things.

:: The Discontent

As China has morphed into this odd mix of capitalist opportunities within a communist system, its people are supposed to have accepted a deal with their leaders who say: "You can do what you want as long as you don't question our leadership and legitimacy."

But that's exactly what they did in 1989 in Tiananmen Square. There are thousands of protests every day across the China.

The people may not be asking for the democracy we are used to but they want to be heard.

There are frequent rumblings that the protests could explode. It's not happened yet, but if it did and it pulled the Communist Party down, we'd all feel it, because we have all bought in to China.