Does the Life of the World Depend on China?

Fr. Sean McNulty
February 1, 2010
Challenging the Definition of Success

I live in Kunming, located in China’s southwest and home to nearly half of China’s ethnic minorities, or nationalities, as they are known locally.

All around me multi-cultural, multi-lingual, multi-ethnic, multi-religious China is alive, moving and bustling, beginning to take ownership of their success with a can-do confidence.

The traffic, however, is getting slower with the several hundred new cars which seem to hit the streets each day in this city.

Nothing is perfect.

Fr. Sean McNulty and friends

Fr. Sean McNulty and friends

However, one enormous, unprecedented achievement stands out: China has raised 900 million people out of poverty, according to Joseph Stiglitz, the 2001 Nobel laureate in economics.

In the current financial crisis, China’s response, in the face of falling world demand for its exports, was to increase its already substantial spending on infrastructure with even more stimulus (RMB 4 trillion or USD $586 billion) to keep the economy moving, increase internal consumer spending and keep people in employment.

The people of China have massive savings in the banks as insurance for the rainy day when they might need to pay for hospitalization.

Part of the stimulus is earmarked to set up a national health insurance system so that these savings can then be used by their owners rather than hoarded.

The influx of the money that is now sitting in savings will stimulate the economy further.

China is well on its way to becoming the largest economy in the world.

The bad news is that in becoming economically successful, China is following the path pursued by the rich countries of the world, such as those of North America, Europe, Japan and the Asian “Tigers.” Why this is bad news is that this economic path is harming the earth, warming the planet irreversibly, and impoverishing the majority of the people of the world.

Industrial smog covers much of China most of the time; the huge Yangtze River basin has been breaking records for sustained summer heat.

The future flow of the Yellow, the Yangtze, the Mekong, the Salween, the Brahmaputra and the Indus rivers is problematic as the Himalayan glaciers they depend on melt and disappear.

For perhaps 40 years now the UNDP (United Nations Development Program) has verified a fairly constant statistic that 20% of the people of the world consume 80% of its resources.

This means that it is impossible for China, which itself has 21% of the world’s population, to become as rich as the existing rich countries.

It is also an impossible dream for India, Africa, Latin America or any other country.

It also means that the success of the developed world is no such thing but is rather an unsustainable position.

What is China, and indeed, all of the world, to do? What is clearly needed is a drastic reorganizing of economic life and a condition for this is equally clear: a drastic re-visioning of the human good.

The existing rich countries show no evidence of any vision beyond continuation of the status quo and consequently no signs of making any serious changes.

They are prepared to tinker, to make cosmetic changes, but not to do anything to upset “business as usual.” The powerlessness of many western governments, stemming from their control by the unelected and unaccountable leaders of global financial institutions and global corporations, is becoming more and more apparent.

An illustration of this is their failure to regulate the financial sector, despite the evidence of incompetence if not unabashed criminality on the part of those financiers whose greed and recklessness caused the economic crisis that began in 2008 and continues in 2010.

Who is providing the kind of alternative thinking and revisioning that is sorely needed? One such group is, I believe, the independent Oxford Research Group, whose slogan is “Building bridges for global security.” They identify four global, interconnected trends:

• Climate change

• Competition over resources

• Marginalization of the majority world

• Global militarization

They characterize what is happening in our world as an attempt to maintain the status quo through military means and control insecurity without addressing the root causes.

They believe that this attempt is self-defeating, and they endeavor to devise an alternative approach.

An understanding of the many values that together make up the human good is implicit in their work.

However, I believe that an explicit comprehensive vision of the human good that does justice to all dimensions of human life, from religious, through personal, social, political, economic, technological and ecological, is needed to bolster any adequate response to the situation.

This has traditionally been the province of world religions, but it seems that the world religions have, at top institutional levels, not yet fully grasped the contemporary grim reality.

In the Catholic Church, some bishops’ conferences and many individuals, such as Columbans Sean McDonagh in Ireland and Pat McMullan in Korea, are at work developing appropriate responses to looming ecological problems.

Furthermore, groundbreaking work and breakthroughs were accomplished by Canadian Jesuit Bernard Lonergan (1904-1984) in re-visioning not only the human good, but also the foundations of a philosophy and theology that would measure up to the needs of our times.

Many people are following his lead in working out the implications for mission today, including Columbans Brendan Lovett in the Philippines and Pat McInerney in Australia.

For the mission of the Church is to continue what Jesus did: promote the life of the world.

This means being clear on where life is most threatened today, (evidenced in the four trends mentioned above), and on where and how the Spirit is at work within all cultures, communities and hearts, gently challenging people to be open to life, to be creative and radically “renew the face of the earth,” as the traditional prayer has it.

What is possible in China? If freedom is the principle of authentic progress (progress as described by Paul VI in Populorum Progressio and going far beyond “development” as defined by the World Bank), then China may lead the world, because, as I see it, China has two freedoms that are in short supply.

The first is a freedom from the false religion that grips much of the world: the worship of the gods of the market.

In China, true believers in any ideology are scarce on the ground; there is a tradition of pragmatism, of doing what works, and so China is by and large free of the dogmatism that characterizes the practice of global trade and the thinking of global banks and financial institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank.

The second freedom is that virtually alone among the governments of big countries, China is free for creative action.

It is not yet controlled by the unholy alliance of global finance and global corporations, although it is heading in that direction.

This double freedom, to believe differently and to act differently from the orthodoxy which makes global banks and corporations rich at the expense of the peoples and economies of the world, provides an opportunity for China to take a leadership role in finding the creative responses that are needed.

China has been creative already in minor ways.

It is alleged to listen to what the World Bank recommends and then do the opposite, but it is now challenged to be creative in major ways, to take on board, as a minimum, the insights of economist Jane Jacobs in The Nature of Economies, to redefine what economics mean and how economies may work so that there will be a future for all peoples of the world.

Fr. Sean McNulty lives and works in China.