Join our Mailing List

"For a happier, more stable and civilized future, each of us must develop a sincere, warm-hearted feeling of brotherhood and sisterhood."

How China is Weaker Than it Looks

October 17, 2010

By Kerry Brown
The Diplomat
October 14, 2010 14:10]

China could yet become a superpower. But a
surging economy can’t mask social strains that
only political reform can address.

There’s an old Chinese fable that was the
inspiration behind Andrew Nathan and Robert
Ross’s 1990s book, The Great Wall and the Empty Fortress.

Centuries ago, a king whose city was about to be
attacked decided the only thing he could do to
save it was to order the gates be flung open. He
then told the attacking force that the city was
empty and that they were welcome to enter.
Suspicious that the king’s words were a trick to
tempt them into an ambush, the enemy forces
decided to move on and the king’s empty city was saved.

These days, many looking at China from the
outside see its towering economic statistics and
assume that this growing wealth isn’t just about
money—that it’s about power as well. After all, a
country with growth rates in excess of 10 percent
per annum that’s now the world’s second-largest
economy, the largest holder of foreign reserves,
the largest exporter and largest consumer of
energy—surely it’s also a geopolitical powerhouse?

But take a look inside the gates, beyond the
headline economic figures, and two points emerge
that cast doubt on this notion of overwhelming strength.

One is the amount of money that’s being spent on
internal security. According to its official
budget, China spent about $80 billion on defence
in 2009 (although the United States and others
would argue that even this massive figure underestimates the true scale).

But more remarkably, it spent almost as much—$75 billion—on internal security.

Keeping the lid on Xinjiang and Tibet has clearly
required massive amounts of central government
cash, as has policing China’s restless provinces
has been an independent and dealing with public
unrest. Indeed, those who venture outside the
grand cities of Shanghai and Beijing see a
country with surprising levels of fractiousness
and casual violence. On a recent visit to the
central city of Xian, for example, I was
intrigued to see an enormous sign over a side
street bearing the words (in English and Chinese)
`Centre for Receiving Petitions.’ It seems there
are enough disgruntled citizens in the city and
the surrounding areas to warrant a whole street to deal with them.

The second indicator of trouble ahead is the way
elite leaders themselves are speaking. Yes, it’s
true that Politburo members and their local
equivalents fill their public pronouncements with
rosy statistics. Like their Maoist and Dengist
forebears, they live in a world still infected
with Utopianism—things will always get better,
the harvests will get bigger, the heaven on earth
promised under Marxism (albeit now called
Socialism with Chinese characteristics) will be
realised one day (even if that day has to be
pushed further and further into the future).

Yet even with these relentlessly on-message
leaders, a gloom still sometimes manages to push
its way through. In fact, no less a figure than
Premier Wen Jiabao appears to be taking a lead in
urging caution, reportedly declaring in the
southern city of Shenzhen in August that without
political reform, the Communist Party’s days in power could be numbered.

These comments follow an admission in a
government report earlier this year that
corruption, disputes and inequality were forming
a deadly cocktail that could jeopardise the
country’s prosperity. Lower level officials are
even more candid, talking of their puzzlement
over why the world is making such a fuss about
China’s rise when all they can see around them
are the awkward choices that will need to be made
to ensure more balanced growth.

Indeed, while the rest of the world watches
anxiously as China demonstrates an increasingly
assertive streak in its dealings with its
neighbours and the United States, the key slogan
of the current government isn’t about a
‘peaceful’ rise or how China hopes to create a better global environment.

Instead, the focus is very much inward, on
`harmonious development.’ China looks strong from
the outside, but internally there’s a potentially
devastating minefield of environmental problems,
inequality, ethnic tensions and social imbalances.

Travelling around China, it’s impossible to
escape the sense that the environment, for one,
is at a breaking point. Enormous cities sprawl
over arid northern plains where the rain hardly
ever falls. Beijing seems increasingly like an
artificial and parasitical aberration, feeding on
the constant stream of coal trucks entering the
city along the north-eastern highway while
sucking surrounding Hebei Province dry of water.
Shanghai, too, with its 20 million-plus
population, is placing a huge burden on the
surrounding areas. And, while the plan to balance
the country’s population by having a string of
mega cities running along the eastern coast looks
good on paper, these places are increasingly
subject to violent weather conditions.

So how is China responding to the environmental
challenge? Up until last year’s Copenhagen
climate change summit, officials stuck doggedly
to their position that environmental problems
originated in the developed world, and therefore
the developed world had the main responsibility
for tackling them. Officials played hardball,
avoiding targets and managing to alienate almost
everyone else by insisting that the United
States, EU and others take the lead in cleaning things up.

But the tragic floods in Gansu and the searing
heat and prolonged drought in the north and
north-east of the country this summer underscored
a point made recently by Hu Angang, a government
advisor and economist at Qinghua University: the
main victims of global climate change will be
inhabitants of developing countries, and of
these, Chinese citizens will likely bear the
brunt of these effects. This reality will at some
point force change, and the Five Year Programme
due to come into effect next year will no doubt
outline further energy efficiency targets and other measures.

But while there seems to be inexorable pressure
for a shift on the environment, the prospects for
political change are less clear.

Since as far back as the 1970s, the Communist
Party’s leadership has recognised that there
needs to be a fundamental readjustment in the
structures of power and administration of the
country. Indeed, since 1978 they’ve been
promising to spell out more clearly the divisions between Party and Government.

In the meantime, they’ve striven to introduce
some kind of rule of law, moving gradually closer
to an independent judiciary, while on civil
society they have, if nothing else, created an
enormous grey area where non-government
organisations can at least operate (even if they
lack legal status and safeguards). So, while
innovation might be risky, it’s not

completely taboo—there are even some wild ideas
being floated about having special political
zones along the lines of the Special Economic
Zones, where new ideas could be tested to see if they deliver.

The trouble for the Chinese leadership is that it
might not have as long as it thought it would to
put implement such changes. Why? Because China is a victim of its own success.

The country’s economy has rocketed ahead of the
forecasts, making even the apparently rosy
projections delivered in the late 1990s seem
reserved. It’s ironic that leaders once accused
of being too optimistic were, in hindsight, being
far too coy. China in 2010 is perhaps a decade
ahead of where it was thought to be heading back in 1999.

But this success means that Communist Party
leaders once certain that they’d have two or
three decades more of economic reforms to go
before getting down to political changes have
found themselves confronted with the need to do
something far more quickly than expected.

Chinais on target to become a middle income
country by as early as 2020. But while this
transition may be welcome, it’s also a stage in
any country’s development when various
elites—whether business or political—will likely
start to experience far sharper disagreements
with each other. Lawyers and civil society
groups, as the colour revolutions in the former
Soviet bloc states show, start to gain much
greater social traction, while entities that look
and act like an authentic political opposition start to appear.

So far, the Communist Party has fallen back on
tried and tested methods to keep a lid on things.
Repression, albeit on a much more focussed scale
than in the past, has been used against
problematic groups, including signatories to
Charter 08, which is championed by jailed Nobel
Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo. Other activists
have been cowed into silence or detained. The
case of lawyer Gao Zhisheng, who disappeared,
briefly resurfaced, and was then silenced again,
highlights Chinese censorship at its very worst.

It’s not all bad. On some issues, the Communist
Party has in fact made some modest changes,
allowing more information about government out
into the open while carefully experimenting with
some forms of elections, particularly at the
grassroots level. But on the big issues—the legal
status of civil society groups, judicial
independence, proper elections for township level
officials and above and fiscal restructuring
between the centre (which is still immensely
powerful) and the provinces—it’s clear there’s no elite consensus.

The problem they have is a belief that reform in
any one area will mean that the other issues will
also need to be addressed at the same time. This
all-or-nothing approach heightens the risk of
mistakes and, for a Politburo and elite that’s
naturally cautious (and which lacks the political
capital of some of its predecessors), such
boldness is a tough thing to call for. Indeed,
there’s a growing appearance of a leadership
that’s simply tolerating the status quo, hoping
the country can muddle along until the propitious
moment when any necessary changes can be made in a single swoop.

Of course, this is theoretically possible. But
the problem is that stronger courts, greater
civil society action and greater public
participation are all necessary prerequisites for
the future economic reforms that all know are also necessary.

And it’s unclear how much longer these demands
can be resisted. China is already suffering high
levels of internal discontent—one estimate has
put the annual number of mass protests at 90,000,
while a spate of killings at schools earlier this
year indicates a worrying level of social
alienation and anger. Meanwhile, the 12 million
individual petitions filed since 2005 suggest the
courts are simply being buried by civil cases.

If China can manage its transition well, then it
will almost certainly become, along with the
United States, one of the dominant global powers
of this century. But it’s a big if, and if its
leaders mishandle this tricky transition—and an
angry and frustrated population—the repercussions
will be felt far beyond its borders.

China has every right to celebrate its successes
and achievements. But the backslapping should be
tempered by the reality that the complex problems
arrayed in front of its leaders need tackling—quickly.

* Kerry Brown is a senior fellow with the Asia
Programme at Chatham House in London.
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665
Developed by plank