6 November 2014

Why China won’t fall apart


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 in the 1962 Sino-Indian War. Brij Mohan Kaul tried to exploit China’s weakness: in Tibet, which in 1959 experienced a widespread uprising lasting three years; and at a difficult time, just after the massive 1960–1961 famine had shrunk the population by about 10%. Despite this, India was thrashed in the war.

The defeat was surely due to important tactical mistakes committed 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 seen with 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 that the imperial power a century before.

In the same year, Nationalist general Chiang Kai-shek, defeated in the civil war in 1949 and confined to Taiwan, was planning to re-conquer the Mainland. Chiang had clear intelligence about the poor state of the country in the aftermath of the great famine caused by the failures of the 1957 Great Leap Forward. Mao had been side-lined, so it looked like a golden opportunity. Yet the war with India proved the analysis wrong. This was also confirmed by the fact that 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.

These seems distant history, 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. These include the protest in Tiananmen in 1989, the demonstrations of the Falun Gong in 1999, the SARS epidemic in 2003, and the political attempt 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. They 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 I wrote a decade ago. True to that analysis, ten years later, and despite many predictions to the contrary, there still has been no revolution in China. The fact remains that while democratic protests have been raging for a month in Hong Kong, adjacent Shenzhen, whose 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 a golden age in their history and have had no past experience with democracy to pine for. This does not mean that revolutions or democratic demands are impossible in China. A mix of internal forces and international constraints could change the situation in the next decade. There are two elements which could drive change. The Chinese economy will be roughly as large as that of the US, and this will draw increased attention and fear from other countries because China does not share the political framework of the countries that have dominated the world over the past two centuries – the UK and US. Additionally, 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 mighthave limited control over how their tax money is spent.

These two forces could coalesce but the timeframe within which this happens may be extended or totally eliminated by a 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 not only with simple dilatory tactics.

For instance, the recent party plenum showed that the party is more intent on addressing the corruption in the judiciary and the bureaucracy, which affects the results of trials and official procedures through the use of bribes or favours from connections. While this is of little relevance to Westerners – more keen on seeing major political shifts – 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.

In spite of these efforts, however, there are three 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 regularising the power struggle (part of the political process in any country), sudden shocks could create abrupt earthquakes, which could have destructive power that would be hard to predict.

Culture, moral, and civil societies are underpinned by a series of shared values. Because Maoism destroyed the old Confucian values, and then Deng’s modernisation (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, which current President Xi Jinping is trying to address in his latest drive for the establishment of a “new culture.”

While these recent efforts may be crude and ignore how difficult it is to build a new ethical and value system – as opposed to destroying old ones – 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. 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 Chinese culture integrates with a global economy that has been dominated by Western values for centuries. While this new system will need a time to take shape, the lack of stable and “effective” value system will be a long-term liability, making the Chinese body-politic possibly susceptible new or old fanaticism.

The recent unrest in Hong Kong has demonstrated a separate medium-term problem. In general, three elements provide stability in modern society: opportunities for social mobility, improving economic prospects, and political democracy and freedom. In Hong Kong, common people feel there is little social mobility and decreased chances for improving their lives. Demands for democracy will naturally grow stronger. The same kind of problem may occur in China in a couple of decades as large economic groups come to dominate the market and economic growth stabilises.

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 ought to begin soon.

Francesco Sisci is a commentator on international affairs for China Central Television