By Francesco Sisci
The resilience of the Chinese state and of the Chinese communist government has been for decades a source of deep misunderstanding in the West. One can find the first and most striking instance of this giant strength in the 1962 war against India. India, at the time, attacked China at the most difficult location (Tibet, where in 1959 there was a widespread uprising, and in 1962 there was still a quite active anti-Chinese guerrilla operation) and at the most difficult time (just after the massive 1960–1961 famine that had shrunk the population by about 10% and left everybody starving). Yet, India was thrashed in the war.
The defeat was surely due to important tactical mistakes by the Indian army. But what is significant is that in a moment of great weakness in Tibet in particular and in China in general, the Indian attack did not start a process of societal unravelling of the kind China had witnessed in the 1840 Opium war. Of course the first Opium war was a defeat for China and the Indian war had been a victory. But even discounting this, the Communist power in the early 1960s seemed more solid than its imperial power of a century before.
The same year, Nationalist general Chiang Kai-shek, defeated in the civil war in 1949 and confined to Taiwan, was planning to re-conquer mainland China (1). Chiang had clear intelligence about the poor state of the country in the wake of the great famine caused by the failures of the 1957 Great Leap Forward. Mao, the winner of the civil war, had been side-lined, so this looked like a golden opportunity. Yet the war with India proved that the analysis of China’s imminent collapse was incorrect. This was confirmed by the fact that some Nationalist probing – supporting Nationalist guerrillas in Amdo (the Tibetan part of Sichuan) and on the border with Yunnan—did not meet with much success, and with hindsight, the US was right not to back Chiang Kai-shek’s plans.
If one looks at China now, this is almost ancient history and is open to interpretations and different analyses. But as a modest chronicler of events in China for over a quarter of a century, I witnessed at least four events that might have caused the government to crumble, and yet nothing of the sort happened. Very briefly, the events are the protest in Tiananmen in 1989, the demonstrations of the Falun Gong in 1999, the SARS epidemic in 2003, and the political machinations of Bo Xilai in 2012. Except for SARS, the other three were caused by deep rifts in the top leadership and efforts of one faction to eliminate another. These were violent internal power struggles causing more damage to Chinese politics than any foreign interference, and yet nothing happened to society. The deep-seated reasons for this can be found in an essay written a decade ago(2). Maybe one should consider: 1) the fact that, true to that analysis ten years later and despite many predictions to the contrary, there still has been no revolution in China; 2) the fact that the three power struggles, mentioned above, didn’t produce a revolution; 3) the fact that while democratic protests have been raging for a month in Hong Kong, adjacent Shenzhen, where people receive uncensored news from the territory, has shown no sign of contagion.
In a nutshell, now is no time for revolution for the Chinese people, who are experiencing the best time in their history and have had no past experience with democracy to pine for(3). This does not mean that the possibility of revolutions or democratic demands can be ruled out forever. If my rough calculations are right, a mix of internal forces and international constraints could change the situation in about a decade. Then there will be two elements, which are present now: the Chinese economy will be roughly as large as that of the U.S., and this will draw increased attention and fear from other nations because China does not share the political framework of the countries that have dominated the world over the past two centuries – the U.K. and U.S. Moreover, a large portion of the Chinese population will enjoy Western middle-class purchasing power, and private enterprises will be required to pay a larger portion of taxes as they will represent a large share of the GDP. But as a whole, they will still have limited control over how their tax money is spent – that is, they will have limited political power, taxation but limited or no representation.
These two forces could coalesce roughly in a decade, yet the timeframe may be put off by another series of measures: for instance, better ties with the Western world, limited political reforms, or co-opting the best and most powerful private entrepreneurs as political participants. The party has proved time and again to be able to adapt with minimal concessions to difficult circumstances, and these may not be simple dilatory tactics.
For instance, the recent party plenum(4) showed that the party is more intent on addressing the corruption in the judiciary and the bureaucracy, which affects the results of trials and the official procedures through the use of bribes or favors from connections. This is of little relevance to Westerners, rather keen on seeing major apparent political shifts, but it is of major importance for the majority of common people in China, confronted every day by overbearing officials and rich people trampling on their own requests.
From all of this, however, there are several long-term causes of instability, and only one of them may cause sudden and unpredictable volatility.
The first is a power struggle at the top, which combined with lack of transparency about the internal political process may create unforeseeable sudden transformations. The case of Bo Xilai is such an event, although even that was seen coming by some pundits. Others may come and bring similar or even larger disturbances. Because of the nature of the party, only drastic political reforms can prevent the frequency and the danger of these plots and conspiracies. A disturbance on average once every decade or so (Tiananmen in 1989, the Falun Gong in 1999, Bo Xilai in 2012) could be a strong case to have open and thus more predictable elections. Short of public elections channelling and regularizing the power struggle, part of any political organism, sudden shocks could create abrupt earthquakes, which could have destructive power and are hard to predict.
Furthermore, there are more elements. Culture, moral, and civil societies are underpinned by a series of shared values. Because Maoism destroyed the old Confucian values, and then Deng’s modernization (starting in 1978) and cultural desertification of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) destroyed Maoism, Chinese people are left now in a huge cultural and ethical vacuum(5), which current president Xi Jinping is trying to address(6) in his latest drive for the establishment of a “new culture.”
The recent effort may be crude and ignores how difficult it is to build a new ethical and value system, as opposed to how easy it is to destroy one. But the efforts point to a real, long-term challenge. Chinese people are confused about what their rights and duties are and what is right and wrong, as standards for both have changed rapidly in a few decades. It is however difficult to create a stable new ethical system and worldview in just a few years. The effort will take decades and will have to be a system that while preserving the old culture it is integrated with the global culture, dominated by Western values for centuries. While this new system will take shape the lack of stable and “effective” value system will be a long-term liability as common people could be susceptible to any kind of new or old fanaticism.
Moreover, young people born after 1978 will represent most of the working force in China in about a decade. These people will be bought up in a social and political environment much freer than that of their fathers, with the aspiration of enjoying the same freedom as in the west, for this it will be hard to suppress freedom too much for too long.
Then there is the old problem of taxes and representation. Now medium, small and micro enterprises (mostly totally private) make up 45% of the total taxes levied, 65% for the GDP, 75% of the export and over 80% of the employment. State Owned Enterprises pay most taxes, but also own most assets and have most of the credit from the official financial institutions. In a decade or so their contribution to GDP will be even larger, and the state will allow it since it sees clearly their efficiency in creating real and efficient wealth with employment and export. But SMEs will have to pay more taxes, present tax evasion will be curtailed, something unpleasant for anyone. So people paying taxes will want to know how this money will be spent – they would require thus a degree of oversight, representation.
In the meantime, there is also a medium-term problem, exemplified in Hong Kong in these days. Roughly three elements provide stability in modern society: opportunities for social mobility, improving economic prospects, and political democracy and freedom. For a stable modern society, it’s desirable that all three must be in place. In Hong Kong, common people feel(7) there is little social mobility and decreased chances for improving their lives, thus demands for democracy grow even stronger. The same kind of problem may occur in China in a couple of decades as large economic groups may come to dominate the market and the GDP growth rate could stabilize. But again before that many other things may change.
In sum, in the short term, things should be stable for the next decade or so, short of any plots or disturbances. In the medium term (10-20 years or so), there is an issue of coupling freedom of political representation with social mobility and lifestyle improvements. In the longer term (30 years or more), it is about setting up a “new culture” that is both more traditional and more international, modern.
Lastly, in a decade or so China’s GDP will be larger than that of the U.S., this will bring objective pressure from all countries on China, whose political system is so different from those of other countries, and mostly from developed democratic countries. Chinese economic prominence and its political difference will stand out even more in the future.
All of this element could come to coalesce in a decade or so, when Xi will be going to retire and pass on to a new leadership. As we saw passages of power have always been moments of crisis; if Xi this time will not simply prepare for an institutional transition, along with a leaders’ transition, things may go very wrong, especially since the ongoing anti-corruption campaign will have made him a lot of enemies in the bureaucracy.
However, these problems are no secret. The leadership is well aware of them and it has time to prepare. The question is: will it prepare?
If China succeeds in coping with these challenges, then there will be a real ge ming. In very ancient times, that phrase possibly did not mean the change of the Mandate of Heaven through a swift uprising (this meaning came into use perhaps to justify 213 BC Liu Bang’s rebellion against the Qin dynasty and the founding of the Han dynasty 206 BC–220 AD). Ge means the shedding of the snake’s skin. That is, shedding a skin and replacing it with another, thus indicates a softer reform rather than a speedy revolution. In this way, perhaps a true reform of the Mandate of Heaven can be expected in a decade or so. If in the short term there are no major disturbances and the medium- and long-term challenges are met, China could be stable for a very long time. However, preparations for the transition to be smooth must begin soon.
(this is written on the basis of a shorter essay published on http://www.cps.org.uk)
(1) See for instance Dale C. Tatum. Who Influenced Whom?: Lessons from the Cold War. University Press of America, 2002.
(2) See my “China: The Impossible Revolution,” Asia Times, October 19–20, 2005.
(3) See also http://www.gatestoneinstitute.
(4) See in the reference in the official communiqué: http://news.xinhuanet.com/
(5) For a more comprehensive treatment of the subject see my A New Brave China, 2014.
(6) See http://www.scmp.com/comment/
(7) For this, see also Joe Studwell http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/
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