Issue #3, Winter 2007

Fragile China

China is both dangerously strong and weak–and the right response may just take a closer relationship with India.

Are China’s top leaders immune to jet lag? One week, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao flies to Bali, where he tells a summit of Asian leaders that the continent’s future depends on China, receiving a standing ovation. Another week, President Hu Jintao touches down in Latin America, where he woos political leaders with promises of massive Chinese investment and aid. Another week, Hu travels to Saudi Arabia, where he warrants an audience with the ruling family’s private council.

Wen and Hu’s globetrotting is only the most evident part of China’s new- found international assertiveness, a posture that American policymakers are taking seriously. American diplomats are frantically cabling assessments of China’s increasingly sophisticated diplomacy back to Foggy Bottom, while Foreign Service officers marvel at the new breed of Chinese envoys–suave, well-spoken young men and women, many with academic training in Europe and the United States. In its annual reports, the U.S. military highlights China’s arms build-up, while the Pentagon’s top brass worry about China’s strength. In short, as China scholar David Lampton notes, the American policy-making establishment seems to have adopted a “strong China paradigm”–namely, that China will continue developing economically while maintaining political stability and that it will increasingly use its strength to exert power abroad.

But the emergence of the strong China paradigm has led some American policy-makers to forget another China, the one that dominated discussions of the People’s Republic before the 1989 Tiananmen Square crack down: a weak China. And it’s one they would be wise to remember, because even as China flexes its economic and diplomatic muscles abroad, Beijing today faces greater internal fissures than it did before 1989–fissures rooted in a growing disparity between an urbanized rich and an agrarian poor, environmental degradation, and the pressures that openness to the free world brings to a still-authoritarian regime. Then, a weak or fractious China would have had a huge impact on American interests in the region. Now, China’s domestic social, economic, political, and environmental troubles will have major ramifications for the rest of the world.

The United States faces a monumental, double-sided, politically challenging task: dealing with a rising power that is at once strong and weak. It is a task comparable to that which faced the United States and Great Britain in the 1920s and early 1930s, when two other rising powers, Germany and Japan, emerged onto the global scene. Like China today, Germany and Japan were strong and weak at the same time, expanding abroad while facing internal tensions that could have empowered both liberal and conservative sections of society. In that era, London and Washington failed either to prepare for German and Japanese expansionism or to assist liberal, anti-fascist forces within those two nations.

Today, the United States faces a similar challenge: helping China help itself at home while simultaneously preparing for a China strong enough to rival American power. To accomplish the former will take strengthening elements inside China. To do the latter will take developing a strong alliance with the other country often lumped together with China as America’s newest economic threat: India. Indeed, the future of our Asia policy begins in the South: India could be the reliable, democratic, and economically strong ally the United States needs in the region. More important, it could be a force for democratization in Asia, a role other Asian democracies have been reluctant to play.

China’s Weaknesses

At the 2005 APEC CEO summit held in South Korea, Hu Jintao outlined China’s stunning progress. “Since the late 1970s, China has enjoyed sustained and rapid economic development, leading to greater national strength and a better life for 1.3 billion Chinese people,” he announced. Hu’s boasts are not untrue. From 1991 to 2003, China grew by nearly 10 percent annually, and by 2050 China may have the largest economy in the world. Between 1981 and 2001, according to the World Bank, growth in China lifted some 400 million people out of poverty. China also clearly has enjoyed success in winning friends around the world. Through more effective diplomacy, greater disbursements of aid, promises of increased investment, new trade agreements, and the promotion of Chinese culture, Beijing has drastically changed perceptions of China in many nations, from potential enemy to friend and partner. A 2005 British Broadcasting Corporation poll of 22 nations found nearly all believed China played a more positive role in the world than the United States. Similarly, in a 2006 poll of nine countries by Germany’s Bertelsmann Foundation, a majority of respondents believed that the United States would no longer be the world’s unchallenged power by 2020, because China would rival U.S. influence.

But this record of achievement does not elicit similar pride in China’s hinterlands, among its millions of low-wage laborers and displaced agricultural workers, where violent unrest, rather than development and harmony, is becoming the norm. Take Dongzhou, in southern China, where police shot 30 people last December after villagers protesting land seizures clashed with security forces. Or the workers at the Jilin oil fields, who found no state institutions they could approach to protest being laid off from work. After traveling to Beijing in a fruitless attempt to petition Communist Party leaders, the oil workers committed mass suicide. Incidents like these reveal another story: the institutional weakness plaguing the People’s Republic. China today faces five major fault lines, which are weakening state control and, one day, could lead to state collapse.

Urban-Rural Divide First, even as China’s economy booms, it is leaving behind vast numbers of Chinese, primarily farmers. Most have small plots, a vestige of communal farming, which cannot compete as China opens its markets to the world and faces agriculture giants like Australia. Beijing also has focused state funds on cities, leaving less public money for rural areas. As a result, according to one report, roughly three-quarters of rural Chinese have seen their income dwindle since 2001, when China entered the World Trade Organization.

Unable to survive on agriculture, peasants are undertaking one of history’s largest mass migrations, making America’s 1930s Dust Bowl exodus look like a family vacation. According to several studies, some 300 million Chinese will migrate to cities within the next 20 years. China’s cities are already home to some 140 million migrant workers, who are either unemployed or employed in construction, mining, and other largely unregulated industries. In turn, these migrants are forming a massive urban underclass, with no social welfare net, job security, legal rights, or unions. (China allows only one state-dominated union.) The Chinese government itself estimated in 2004 that migrant workers together are owed at least $12 billion in back wages, and most migrants work more than 11 hours a day, in jobs that are often hot, dangerous, and exposed to poisons. To take one example, more than 6,000 Chinese miners die each year in accidents, making China home to the most dangerous mining industry on earth (no small feat, given the horrific state of mining in places like Congo).

It is even worse for those who stay on the farm. As farmers lose their capital and their clout, they fall prey to rapacious local officials who want to expropriate their land to build new housing developments and industrial parks, which often offer sizable kickbacks to Party members. Since land tenure in much of China remains uncertain, a legacy of Mao-era collectivization, these officials have little trouble. One estimate suggests that as many as 40 million farmers have lost all or part of their land, receiving only minimal compensation in return.

China today risks turning into an Asian version of Latin America–a highly unequal society in which elites, primarily in eastern cities like Shanghai, enjoy developed-world standards of living while hundreds of millions live in poverty. While Beijing boasts of the hundreds of millions lifted out of poverty, China’s uneven growth also threatens to push some 200 million beneath the UN-defined poverty line. In fact, while China once had among the smallest Gini coefficients in the world (a measure of inequality), now it has one of the largest, with urban incomes three times that of rural income.

This growing divide, and increasing migration, will only foster instability. Already, Chinese cities have witnessed rising crime levels, attacks on business people and other elites, and massive protests by laid-off workers. In the long run, this divide could topple the government, as it did in the nineteenth century, when social unrest, catalyzed by the Taiping Rebellion and other movements, helped bring down the last emperor.

Environmental Destruction Rapid migration, swelling cities, and growing consumption all lead to the second fault line: a looming environmental catastrophe. China’s megacities simply cannot cope with the simultaneous influx of new people and the consumption habits of an expanding middle class, which will soon make China the world’s largest consumer of oil, copper, iron ore, aluminum, platinum, and timber. As Elizabeth Economy, an expert on the Chinese environment, writes in her seminal book The River Runs Black, pollution from China’s growing car culture, factories, coal usage, and urbanization has resulted in two-thirds of Chinese cities having air qualities below World Health Organization standards. China has 16 of the world’s 20 most polluted urban areas, and 90 percent of its cities suffer from polluted water systems. Industrialization, combined with deforestation, is expanding China’s deserts at an unsustainable pace. Growing by almost 4,000 square miles a year, they are swallowing farmlands and causing massive dust storms.

The World Bank estimates that this pollution cuts as much as 12 percent off China’s annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP) because of lost productivity from diseases. The environmental crises could hinder China’s rise in other ways, too. Environmental disasters will exacerbate popular mistrust of the government, especially when officials hide the scope of the catastrophes. The lack of clean water and clean air will only heighten the conflict for scarce public services in growing Chinese cities, a common problem in other Asian megacities.

Unrest Furious at losing their land, frustrated at being unable to find decent urban jobs, exploited by officials, living in the worst areas of increasingly polluted cities, China’s underclass has begun to strike back. Increasingly, they are joined by middle-class Chinese who share their anger at officials’ expropriation of land, corruption, and horrendous environmental mismanagement, and who believe that, in an increasingly modern China, citizens should enjoy greater rights. Since the early 1980s, these middle-class Chinese have seen the country develop a more sophisticated legal system, which some have used to settle commercial disputes, giving them a taste of the rule of law.

Together, the poor and the middle class are creating a third fault line: aggressive, popular unrest. To an average visitor to China’s glittering eastern cities, the People’s Republic seems a blissful place, with few of the noisy street demonstrations one might find in, say, France. But that’s because many of China’s protests take place away from the east coast cities, in the vast hinterlands, where they are becoming routine events. According to the central government’s own figures, China faced some 87,000 protests in 2005, up from 74,000 the year before. The protests are becoming larger and more sophisticated, with leaders using text messaging and the Internet to organize and to contact reporters. They also are turning violent: Dongzhou marked the first time Chinese police had shot protestors since the Tiananmen crackdown. Chinese media and advocacy groups have documented a litany of recent violent incidents, from 10,000 workers in the city of Dongguan smashing up their factory to mobs in the town of Guiyang destroying police cars after the authorities beat up a migrant worker. As weapons increasingly leak into China from lawless nations like Burma, the potential for social instability and violence will mushroom.

Some impoverished Chinese have tried to salve their material pain by rediscovering God, but this too has created a fertile environment for protest. Buddhism, a traditional religion in China, has undergone a revival as the Communist Party has loosened some restrictions on freedom of worship. In 2001, thousands of Chinese decamped upon a remote Buddhist monastery in western China called Sertar, living communally and receiving teachings from prominent monks. (Alarmed at the vast numbers of Chinese moving to Sertar, the government eventually forced most worshippers to leave.) At the same time, many Chinese have embraced evangelical Christianity. China today boasts as many as 100 million Christians, and its most popular evangelical movements can draw 5,000 worshippers for one church service.

In other Asian nations, such as Taiwan and South Korea, Buddhist organizations played a vital role in political change, uniting nascent civil society organizations; the same could easily occur in China. Christian groups, too, could prove a force for change: Chinese Christians first began organizing in order to challenge state restrictions on assembly and worship. But, in recent years, as the government has jailed and even executed Christians, the groups have crossed over from challenging restrictions on religion to broadly challenging the government, from protests against specific grievances to broader anti-state campaigns not unlike those seen during the anti-communist period in Poland.

Political Stasis Part of the reason Chinese protests turn violent more quickly than those in democracies like France is that China does not yet possess the political culture and institutions to handle them. In fact, in some respects China’s political institutions, political elites, and political culture actually are less open and less able to channel popular consensus than a generation ago. In the 1980s, Chinese officials created a task force of liberal intellectuals designed to push for political reforms, while Zhao Ziyang, the second most important Chinese leader at the time, advocated for elections. But Zhao was placed under house arrest after 1989 and died last year, and no leaders since have exhibited such liberal tendencies. Meanwhile, the Communist Party has essentially bought out liberal intellectuals who might have reformed the political system. In a new book, my Carnegie Endowment colleague Minxin Pei notes that the Communist Party now “showers the urban intelligentsia, professionals, and private entrepreneurs with economic perks, professional honors, and political access ” Nationwide, 145,000 designated experts, or about 8 percent of senior professionals, received ‘special government stipends,’ or monthly salary supplements in 2004.”

Issue #3, Winter 2007
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India is a weak reed for U.S. Imperialism to lean upon. Gini Coefficients are rising in India as well as China, and long- run trends of savage Neoliberalism in India are such that its present competitive advantages in terms of cheap educated labor will evaporate due to systematic underinvestment in public education and social overhead capital. The Indian bourgeoisie, like its Chinese and U.S. counterparts, will balk at paying the requisite taxes to sustain a modern, highly- educated society; the proportion of the population with baccalaureate or higher degrees will be lower, not higher, in India ( and perhaps in China and the U.S. as well) 20 years hence. As Karl Marx once said, \"the greatest barrier to capitalist production is capital itself\".

Mar 5, 2007, 9:22 PM

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