What's Chinese for "sustainable"?

I've just returned from hosting the HRO Summit, a global sourcing conference in Singapore.  We started the conference with video on the pace of change in Asia-Pacific and its impact*.  Dr. Chris Chan, Dean of the MBA program at Hong Kong University capstoned the event with his keynote on the Resurgent Asian Economies.  Sprinkled in between were numerous case studies and presentations from Asia-Pac and global multi-national companies.
Any one of these sessions would blow your mind with the incredible growth -- and the incredible speed of that growth throughout the region.  A few fast facts courtesy of Dr. Chan:
 

  • At 11.9% sustained year-over-year growth China and Hong Kong have the world's fastest growing economy... sustained in the face of a currency dispute, sourcing challenges, asset bubbles, inflation etc.
  • Southeast Asia has over 550 million people and some of the fastest growing economies.  Singapore's GDP alone grew by more than 30% in the first quarter of this year
  • Since the 1980s the Indian economy has grown from $32 billion to more than $1 trillion today.  The Mumbai metro-region alone will exceed the GDP of Thailand or Hong Kong by 2030.  The health care industry will grow by 23% annually reaching $77 billion by 2012 and India plans to become one of the top five pharmaceutical hubs by 2020.
  • 64% of Chinese, 50% of Hong Kong-based, and 54% of Singaporean businesses expect to increase hiring in 2010.

When anything goes this fast -- an engine, a country, an economy, or an entire region -- I start wondering about overheating, or when the wheels will start to come off the tracks.  In its Friday May 7th Editorial, Wall Street Journal Asia pointed to the growing social unrest in China, evidenced by recent suicide attacks on schools, as a sign that the social contract there may be fraying.  Deng Xiaopeng and the Communist Party leaders made an implicit bargain with their citizens: let us keep power and we'll let you get rich.  A generation later, the Party's still in power and a lot of people are rich... but a lot of those people are in the Party.  Corrupt officials have expropriated lands in the name of public works and progress and pocketed the profits.  As the WSJ's editors point out, the blogosphere in China lit up after the attacks with a form of sympathy for the attackers, not because anyone favors killing children but because many people understand the frustration.  Stifled in their political expression, many born into the Deng-era understand how frustration can manifest at the margins into people willing to act out in desparation. 
Moreover, petitioners, mostly people from China's vast interior who come to Beijing to seek redress under an ancient custom dating back to the Imperial period in which anyone could petition the powers-that-be (once the Imperial Court, now the Communist Party) are often deemed insane.  Not just in the overt sense of being clinically diagnosed, but in the implicit sense that anyone who resists the status quo must by definition be crazy.  This long-ignored underclass, though increasingly in the spotlight (see 
coverage of the plight of petitioners">recent coverage of the plight of petitioners), highlights those displaced by the Chinese economic miracle.  As the WSJ editorial asks, can there truly be economic freedom without political freedom?
While this is not a political blog, I do want to focus on the issue of sustainability, in all its forms: environmental, political, and economic.  Unfortunately, right now China is anything but an open book on many things, including its politics, currency, economy, and environment.  Granted, China is not Asia and there are established and emerging democracies throughout Asia from Japan to South Korea to the Philippines.  But China by far eclipses them all.
Today the papers are filled with the unmitigated environmental horror that is the BP oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico.  Countless such disasters may exist in China's closed interior.  The green haze that hangs over Beijing, the near desertification of Outer Mongolia, the resource exploitation of Tibet... these are all debts that will come due and no one outside of China -- and I wonder if anyone inside China -- knows the true costs of its growth.  In the West a lot of people are wondering how to keep up with APAC.  It's a legitimate question.  A more worrisome question, though, may be how, in an inter-connected world, do we keep from getting pulled under?  News travels in an instant, financial turbulence in one country can infect entire regions, and winds and water can carry particles and pollutants around the world.  What happens in China will most certainly not stay in China.
 
* Note.  A caveat: I have not third-party verified all the stats in this video.

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