Chinese Collapse?

Posted: May 13, 2010 by Scott Kistler in The World-Wide World, Uncategorized
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Joel sent me an article from World Affairs that presents a very unconventional picture of China: a country on the brink of revolution rather than waiting in the wings as the next superpower.  Gordon Chang argues that China is actually beset with problems:

  • An economy dependent on exports that is declining due to global economic problems
  • A laundry list of economic and social problems: “banks with unacknowledged bad loans on their books, trade friction arising from mercantilist policies, a pandemic of defective products and poisonous foods, a grossly underfunded and inadequate social security system, a society that is rapidly aging as a result of the brutally enforced one-child policy, a rising tide of violent crime, a monumental environmental crisis, ever-worsening corruption, and failing schools and other social services.”
  • A Communist party and government that is hated by many in the country, increasingly defied by groups of protestors, and staffed with opportunists and those who have survived the intentional removal of “charismatic leaders.”
  • A population of people more connected by technology and therefore more able to share information and coordinate protest.

Here are a couple of examples of the defiance of the government that Chang cites:

Expressions of discontent are expected in destitute places like Guizhou or Gansu or Ningxia, but now they are beginning to appear in prosperous cities like Beijing, Shenzhen, and Shanghai. One of the country’s most popular heroes—executed in November 2008—was a drifter who entered a police compound in Shanghai and killed six officers and wounded four others on the eighty-seventh anniversary of the founding of the party. In a development that did not make the evening news inside or outside the country, middle-class Chinese outside his trial chanted, “Down with the Communist Party!” and carried banners emblazoned with “Long Live the Killer.” Clearly, the country’s ruling organization has lost legitimacy, even among the relatively well-to-do in the important coastal cities.

Middle-class Chinese, the beneficiaries of decades of reform, now behave like activist peasants and workers whenever they think their rights are threatened. Yet Hu Jintao is repressing, not protecting, those rights. The humorless general secretary is now presiding over a seven-year crackdown on almost all elements of society, even the writers of karaoke songs, and the regime now attempts to control political speech more tightly than it did two decades ago. That is a sign of trouble to come. The party can censor and imprison, but it does so at the risk of creating even more enemies, both internal and external, and further delegitimizing itself.

Secondly:

Beijing has been more successful than any other government in creating a Big Brother–style Internet—with the help of American technology—but it is fighting a battle in which it will never be able to claim final victory. To consolidate his hold on the country, Mao divided up the Chinese people into small units and isolated each unit from the others. Now, in a modernizing nation, citizens are putting themselves back together with cell phones and laptops. On the Internet and in other forums, the Chinese people today are having national conversations for the first time since the Beijing Spring of 1989. Because so many share common grievances, demonstrations can erupt and engulf the one-party state.

The Uighur protests that erupted in Xinjiang last July, for instance, were sparked by news—which spread rapidly—of murders at a factory at the other end of the country, in Guangdong province. Worker demonstrations in early 2002 started in the northeast and spread to the center of China in a matter of days as laborers realized they shared common grievances. (“It’s the first time we have seen protests occur in the same industry, over the same issues, in different cities in China,” says Han Dongfang, a labor activist exiled from the mainland.) Telecommunications not only give new power to ideas but also supply new force to discontent. In a wired China, alliances can come together quickly, thereby making broad coalitions possible. As we are starting to see now, groups can be separated geographically yet still act in concert. Connected by phone or pager, people can meet at a moment’s notice for a common purpose.

This all raises a couple of interesting questions.  In some ways, Chang’s reasoning sounds like the predictions that Iran wouldn’t survive the demonstrations that broke out last year, but the regime there seems to have weathered the storm.  Iran, like China, seems to have a large number of people online and using other technologies, which were important in the Iranian Green Movement.  Chang’s analysis is mostly about the potential, while the Iranian Green Movement really did happen and has failed thus far.  On the other hand, Chang lays out a case that considers a number of different factors and suggests that he has a systematic understanding of Chinese society, and the complaints and criticisms of the Communist party by members of society, especially the party, can’t be easily dismissed.

Secondly, China is obviously involved in the world beyond its borders.  It props up North Korea and has been investing large amounts of money and building roads in Africa in order to get resources needed for its massive economy.  What would a Chinese collapse mean for the Korean peninsula and the African countries in which it invested?  What would it mean for India, another country that observers have pegged as a growing power?  What would this mean for Robert Kaplan’s prediction that India and China would police the Indian Ocean in the future?

Third, I’ve been linking to different stories about Christianity in China, trying to understand what’s going on.  I wonder what it would mean for the churches there if Chang is right.  Franscico Sisci suggested that Chinese Christians were “near a Constantinian moment for the Chinese Empire, as the government looks to Christianity—particularly Catholicism—for an instrument of social cohesion.”  If Chang is right about China’s troubles, this might give this search for a social “glue” an added urgency.  We shall see.

UPDATE (5/6/10): I added the link to my post on Francisco Sisci’s article.

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