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Grading the developing world’s rising powers

by Frank Ching

The United Nations has issued its latest Human Development Report, which shows “a profound shift in global dynamics driven by the fast-rising new powers of the developing world,” of which China is the most prominent. In fact, the developing world now produces about half of global economic output, up from a third in 1990.

Major emerging economies are developing at an astonishing rate. China and India, for example, doubled per capita economic output in less than 20 years, or twice as fast as European and North American countries during the Industrial Revolution.

The report projects that, by 2020, the combined output of China, India and Brazil will exceed the gross production of the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Italy and Canada.

The world’s economic pie is getting bigger. While the developed nations may not be producing less, their total output is declining as a percentage of global output as the developing countries rise.

According to the report, by 2030, up to 80 percent of the world’s middle classes will live in developing countries. Hundreds of millions of people have been lifted from poverty as a result of higher economic growth in more than 40 developing countries, with 500 million being lifted out of poverty in China alone.

However, the report warns that continued progress cannot be taken for granted. In fact, it warns about the possibility of a halt or even a reversal of human development progress if action is not taken to protect the environment.

While the report did not single out China, clearly it is a country where action needs to be taken to prevent environmental disasters.

China’s new prime minister, Li Keqiang, at his first press conference on Sunday, declared that growth has to be balanced with reality. While ensuring jobs, he said, there is a need to take care of the environment.

Premier Li was asked if the media would be allowed a greater role in solving problems. In response, he said “the pollution of water and the soil need clear understanding and will take resolution to stop,” but he said nothing about allowing the press more freedom to monitor the situation.

Recently, China decided that soil pollution was a “state secret” amid an uproar over carcinogenic rice. The rice had been purchased in Hunan province by a state-owned company in Shenzhen, which allegedly proceeded to sell it knowing that it was tainted with cadmium, a highly toxic heavy metal.

It is disturbing that the Ministry of Environmental Protection should claim that information from a nationwide soil-pollution survey is a state secret. Beijing must put the safety of the people above the “face” of government officials.

It would have been great if the prime minister, at his first press conference, had taken a stand against abusing the concept of state secrets and endorsing a greater role for the press.

The U.N. report includes a Human Development Index, which goes beyond economic development to measure the quality of life for countries worldwide, including comparative measures of life expectancy, literacy, education and standards of living.

Countries fall into four categories in terms of human development: very high, high, medium and low. China is in the medium category.

Norway, Australia and the U.S. lead the countries ranked in the very high human development category.

Hong Kong, which is part of China but is rated separately, ranks 13th. Taiwan is not formally rated but, according to the U.N. Development Program, it would be ranked 18th if included. Both are in the “very high” category.

Of course, these societies have fewer people — and smaller problems — than the mainland, with 1.3 billion people.

On a per capita basis, China’s GDP ranks about 90th in the world, so its ranking of 101st of the 187 countries and regions covered in the Human Development Report is roughly of the same order of magnitude. The U.N. report says that despite China’s rapid growth, it has become a more unequal society, both in terms of income and human development. It says that extending equal rights to migrants in cities can help them access social services.

Moreover, in many parts of the country, quality health care has become unaffordable for the poor as disparities have grown. What this shows is that China, despite becoming the world’s second largest economy, still has a lot of catching up to do in many areas. As China keeps reminding the rest of the world, it is still a developing country—the world’s largest developing country.

Frank Ching is a political commentator and journalist based in Hong Kong. Email: Frank.ching@gmail.com Twitter: @FrankChing1