This week's meetings between presidents Hu Jintao of China and George W. Bush of the US have drawn new press attention to Sino-US relations. Today's media reports underscore the degree to which China's accelerating oil consumption will figure prominently in the discursive agenda. I agree with those who note the inconsistency of rebuking China for its fossil fuel consumption while that of the US goes on unabated. Aside from its diplomatic shortcomings this tack is an error in "grand strategy," in that it affirms and endorses a form of political inertia that poses a serious threat not only to China and the US but to the world at large.
In brief, the greatest danger in China is not the pace of her economic liberalization and growth, but the extent to which it has exceeded the pace of desperately needed political liberalization. China's political system is snared in a structural deadfall that is taking an ever-increasing toll on its ecology, social institutions, and communal stability. Unless something is done to alleviate the situation the system is sure to experience dramatic collapse, and the longer that cataclysm takes in coming the worse it will be.
The question raised by such conditions is, of course: what sign is there that China's current leaders are aware of the present danger and are moving to respond? Unfortunately, the answer can only be "not much." Last year Hu Jintao's government launched a mass campaign to reaffirm Party authority by compelling all CCP members to study the written works of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping (an ideological shotgun wedding if there ever was one). In March a colloquium was held to debate the merits of economic reform at which calls for further political liberalization were shunted aside. Abuses within the judicial system and rural unrest continue to intesify and accelerate and are met with purely tactical, short-term responses from Beijing (for example, the deterent beating and intimidation of those who attempt to bring lawsuits before China's high courts).
China is obviously on the cusp of a major historical change (when exactly that change will occur I wouldn't venture to predict, in chronological terms China can remain on "the cusp" of a major change for 50-100 years), the current system cannot persist as it is and will eventually give way to another. The only open question is whether that change will go hard or easy. In this regard it is perhaps instructive to compare the situation in China today to that one-hundred years ago. By 1905 the legitimacy of the Qing dynasty had so eroded that the need for fundamental change was obvious to virtually all actors along the entire political spectrum. In that year the Zhonghua Tongmeng hui (Chinese Alliance) was formed under the leadership of Dr. Sun Yat-sen. That group was dedicated to the very radical proposition that the 2200+ year-old Empire should be replaced by a Chinese Republic. As unlikely as this must have seemed at the time, it in fact transpired a mere 6 years after the Alliance's formation.
Though its practicality or achievability is an open question, there can be no doubt that the Alliance confronted the collapse of the Empire with a clear and proactive agenda. In simplistic terms the Alliance program had three basic components- nationalism, democracy, and socialism (these would, in fact, become the "Three Principles of the People" after the Alliance was restructured as the KMT). The 1911 Revolution only minimally carried through on the first goal of nationalism, the latter goals of socialism and democracy were aggressively and violently quashed. This was not because the Alliance failed to play a key role in the transition from Empire to Republic, but rather because it members were compelled to cooperate and share power with constituencies whose economic, social, and regional interests clashed with the imperatives of democracy and socialism.
The Alliance's debacle exemplifies a common pattern in Chinese political history. China is such a vast, diverse, and complex realm that substantive changes require the coordination of widely and at times antipathetically divergent forces. Most mass movements tend to collapse or implode in the face of such obstacles. Those that survive and carry through to an enduring outcome spontaneously narrow in focus and effect until they settle upon the "least common denominator" among the interests of the myriads involved. Thus the Alliance's threefold program of nationalism, democracy and socialism in 1911 won through to a partially realized expression of nationalism.
The situation of China today is quite comparable to that of the Qing Empire in 1906. The People's Republic is deeply disfunctional and must be transformed. Economic liberalization and modernization must continue, but they must be coupled with a robust program of democratization and political decentralization. Unfortunately, the same type of inertial forces that derailed the 1911 Revolution seem to be at work in the PRC today. Many leaders within and without the government recognize the need for democratization and decentralization, but institutional energies and policy initiative remain exclusively focused on the more broadly palatable goal of continued economic reform.
This situation poses dire peril not only for China but for the world at large. The failings of the 1911 Revolution led ultimately to complete collapse and an extended period of anarchy and partisan civil war. It is far from impossible that a failure to address the mounting crisis in China today could lead to an equally cataclysmic and violent outcome, only this time within a strategic domain containing nuclear as well as conventional weapons. As apparent as this urgency is, it does not afford obvious or easy choices for US leaders in the shaping of America's relationship with China. It is clear, however, that US leaders should be less focused on the dangers of China's economic growth and more concerned with its political stagnation. Rather than warning Beijing about its expanding economy, Washington should express concern about the growing sources of instability and unrest within Chinese society