China is both dangerously strong and weakand 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.
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.
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