There are many observers who see China as the economic, military and even political juggernaut of the 21st Century. China’s economy has weathered the recent global economic downturn better than most and its GDP appears on course to grow by more than seven percent in 2013. Beijing continues to provide annual increases to the People’s Liberation Army’s defense budget of ten percent or more. The Chinese military has deployed or is developing a range of advanced weapons systems including anti-ship ballistic missiles, fifth-generation fighters, its first aircraft carrier and multiple classes of surface combatants and attack submarines. The political system has managed a peaceful transition of power with Xi Jinping as heading both the Chinese Communist Party and military and Li Keqiang as premier. China continues to expand its foreign investments around the world. It is also asserting its rights to territory and access in disputed waters from the Spratly to the Diaoyu Islands. All in all, China appears poised for a decade that will see its global power increase.
Based on thirty years of experience in national security analysis and with a full two weeks in China under my belt, I feel confident in my ability to make broad observations about the current state and potential future of this country. My first observation is this: any country that does not provide clean public bathrooms with toilet paper cannot be a great power. When it comes to public restrooms – and even many of those operated by businesses – China is a developing country. I am not speaking only of places in the interior but of the facilities in large cities, including Beijing, and at leading tourist sites such as the Great Wall. All the tourist guides warn visitors, correctly I might add based on my somewhat imperfect survey of such facilities, that the vast majority of restrooms consist of holes in the floor for toilets, only cold running water for hand washing, if any, and a total absence of toilet paper. Perhaps the lavatories for the nation’s leaders such as Xi and Li are better. But for the overwhelming masses of Chinese citizens and most tourists who venture from the safe confines of major hotels you are basically on your own.
The contrast between public restrooms in Hong Kong and China is telling. Now both countries have a demonstrated culture of conspicuous consumption. The only place one can see more high performance luxury cars on the street than Beijing is Hong Kong. But unlike Beijing, Hong Kong has public facilities that work and are decently maintained.
How does the state of public restrooms relate to a nation’s great power status? Simply put, it is a clear reflection of China’s uneven development. There is over investment in such areas as industrial production and transportation. At the same time, there is massive under investment in public services. Also, the public toilet situation is an indicator of the government’s skewed priorities with respect to the well-being of its people. In essence China is a brittle system that has achieved growth and an improving economy by extensive development, in particular the exploitation of cheap labor in classic mass production industrial sectors. But it has not seen fit to take care of its most important resource, its citizens.
The Chinese government is already facing pressure from below to do more for its people. This pressure will only grow over time. It will be difficult for Beijing to pursue an aggressive foreign and security policy or even to take on the role of a great power when it has so much more to do at home to give its people a decent life. Based on my public restroom index, China is barely a mid-level power.
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