Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The China Syndrome

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


Jonathan Dresner said...

Interesting stuff, and I'm glad you've put it together. I wonder, though, if the imminent fall of the Qing is the right analogy. Perhaps it's not one century ago, but two that we should be looking?

Madman of Chu said...

Dear Jonathan,

You are definitely right that there are parallels between Sino-US relations today and Anglo-Qing relations circa 1806. I think (I hope) that today's conditions are distinctive enough to preclude an open military conflict. However much friction the current trade imbalance may cause, it at least transpires in an environment in which both parties accept (most of) the same conventions of finance, commerce, and diplomacy. If the Qing fisc had been the second largest holder of British debt, for example, the Opium War might never have happened. That said, if in some dream reality our leaders would listen to my advice, I would urge them to examine as much of China's past history as possible.

I didn't point to 1906 as an analogy per se. I do see the devolution of the 1911 Revolution as exemplifying a kind of political pattern seemingly evident in the PRC today. Beyond that, though, I see today's PRC leadership engaged in a continuing process of state building (and re-building) that began with the collapse of the Empire. The end of the Empire saw China's political field descend into a maximally volatile and fluid state which only gradually (and through much violence) stabilized over the course of the 20th century. The PRC is the most stable state-formation to emerge from that process (though the ROC on Taiwan has arguably achieved greater stability on a smaller scale), but it does not seem possible that it will be the last. I could well be wrong, but I don't think the PRC has as much life left in it as the Qing did circa 1806. My sense is that US leaders take the continuation of the status quo in China as given, and I wish that they would remain open to and prepared for the possibility that radical change might occur in the PRC at any time.

Anonymous said...


Even if you are not really making an analogy with 1911 how far do you think such an analogy could be pushed? I mention this because you focus on politics here, but a lot of the recent stuff on the New Policies reforms of the late Qing focuses on the successes of the Qing in presiding over modernization. New armies were being built, new schools opened, new identities being formed etc. I usually focus on Liang Qichao rather than Sun Yat-sen in teaching 1911 and stress that what did the Qing in was a conviction that especially after 1909 they were no longer good managers of change. The result of course was a disaster, and one could argue that everything in China might have turned out much better if somehow the political problem could have been solved.
I’m not all that into counter-factuals, but I would be interested in hearing what you think of China’s course today outside of politics. If the Qing situation was everything going as well as could be reasonably expected but then the political situation disintegrates, how similar is the current situation? Do you see anything other than a lack of state legitimacy or whatever as being a problem? Or would you agree with the CCP that they are managing the process of modernization about as well as can be imagined, and that they have made and can be counted on to continue to make, the right/only choices?

Alan Baumler

Madman of Chu said...

Dear Alan,

You raise some very intriguing and challenging questions. So challenging, in fact, that I strongly suspect they are beyond my competence to address. That's never stopped me in the past, though, so...
I agree with you that the Empire (if not the Qing dynasty itself) only became an absolute dead letter very late. My sense is that 1895 was probably the "point of no return" past which no critical mass of support could be marshalled to preserve the system even radically transformed. Prior to that perhaps different leadership and different choices might have conserved the *political* legitimacy of the imperial institution itself enough to forestall an outright Republican revolution. Even if the Empire could have avoided the trap of political illegitimacy however, it was encumbered by very serious structural problems that would have had to be addressed if it were to survive. A revolution as profound as the Meiji Restoration in Japan would have been required to pull off such a feat, and only an absolute miracle could have seen such a transition occur in China with as little internal violence as occurred in Japan.

Pushing the analogy forward to today, I think that the vulnerability of the PRC is comparable to that of the Qing post-1895, in that the current system is likewise encumbered by problems of both political illegitimacy and structural dysfunction. My sense is that the political problems of the PRC post-1989 are not quite as intense (though nearly so) as those of the Qing, but that its structural problems are as bad or worse. I don't think that any future system will ever wholly disavow the legacy of the CCP and the 1949 Revolution, however I likewise don't believe that China can persist as a supercentralized, undemocratic, single-party state. Perhaps events will prove me an alarmist, but I sense that only a restructuring as profound as that which attended the transition from Tokugawa to Meiji in Japan can forestall collapse and terrible internal violence in China today. It is by no means impossible that the current leadership could direct such a transition, but it would take flexibility, courage, skill and commitment that I have yet to see any sign of from Beijing today.

Jonathan Dresner said...

I don't want to back you into defending analogies that are only intended to be taking lightly, and I freely admit that my own analogy has some serious flaws (the trade imbalance being one of them, though if Microsoft were to become as ubiquitous in China as it is in the US, it could well become the opium of the 21st century). While I largely agree with your assessment of the current situation, I'd note that the most dissatisfied constituencies are also the ones least likely (historically) to stage successful revolutions. I wonder if China could go the direction of some of the former Soviet satellites, the the facade of democracy but a former Communist party holding the reins....

I like the idea of conceiving of post-1911 Chinese history as a long unstable state-formation process, though I wonder if that translates the exceptionally stable structure of US history (US politics has reorganized substantially in the 20th century, as the state has transformed its relationship with citizens, etc., etc.) into a false dichotomy with the rest of the world.

Madman of Chu said...

Dear Jonathan,

I don't know if a partial reform like that which transpired in the former SSRs is workable (for very long) in a political domain as large and complex as China. Even so, if and when a new system emerges in China it is likely to be very different from anything currently operative in North America or Western Europe.

Couldn't one view ca. 1760-1880 in the US as a period of fluid state-formation comparable to that experienced in 20th century China? A somewhat less violent and tumultuous one, for sure, but those differences of timing and degree could be explained by many causes that don't hinge on some essential "weakness" in Chinese culture or society. If you took bets in 1787 on which system would last longer, the Qing or the US, I bet the casino odds would have favored the Qing by a substantial margin.

Madman of Chu said...

P.S. I should also add that the differences between the US's 18th-19th century period of state-building and China's experience of the 20th century don't hinge upon some exceptional strength in American culture or "national character." In other words, (in response to your concern about a "false dichotomy") we can view both societies as experiencing similar structural crises under comparable conditions, the differences being rooted in factors of demography, geography, technological and economic development, etc.

Anonymous said...

china in 20 century had three (3) government

1. Imperial rule

2. Republic of china

3. People Republic of china in short 1900-2000.

clearly, the PRC is based on a communist model of Unification of party, state, army model.

One party, ccp forms the state.
Party is state.
State is party.

For a free-market economy in 21st. century, this cannot last.

Party-state is relic of 20 century.

China now has 500-million cell phones and 200 internet users.
These numbers will double in 10-years.

75-million member ccp cannot keep 1.3 billion people down.

Taiwan, korea, japan (hiroshima, nagasaki were all military -ruled until the 80s, 90s.

The only reason ccp retains control is

1. economy
2. economy
3. economy

Once the economy slow down, all hell will break loose.

Multi-party state in 5-10 years.