The biggest threat to stability in China is not a hard, soft or crash landing—it’s greater prosperity without reform. A slowing economy will not rain revolution upon China in 2012, especially if Beijing’s underrated reforms continue.
China is said to be headed for collapse for several reasons, any and all of which might combine to overwhelm its increasingly expensive repressive apparatus. Within this supposed house of horrors is corruption, exorbitant housing prices, costly education, an antsy middle class and college graduates with dreams deferred—not to mention frustration stemming from China’s shortage of females, dubbed China’s “bachelor bomb.”
But those reasons take a narrow view of political change, assuming dissatisfaction will morph into regime change. For a more nuanced perspective, economic analysis has to give way to political analysis.
One well-articulated China-collapse theory comes from Gordon Chang, who says that the country is enjoying the tail end of a “three-decade upward supercycle” spurred by Deng Xiaoping’s reforms, globalization and demography. Chang’s analysis might be entirely on point, but it doesn’t suggest a dramatic collapse.
For one thing, although China is slowing, a hard landing is looking less likely. But Chang has more than economic arguments. And that’s where his case weakens severely; he foresees economic weakness aggravating deep-seated tensions in Chinese leadership and society, tensions which in turn will bring conflict among decision makers and general discontent among the masses. It’s a plausible picture, but the evidence behind it is lacking. We must ask: How exactly could an economic crisis destabilize China? That is, how do graphs and pie charts become chaos in the streets?
The textbook example of a similar change might be Iran’s 1979 revolution, widely thought be propelled by a dramatic fall in global oil prices. But the Chinese economy is no oil-addicted dictatorship, and China has no Ayatollah Khomeini antagonizing it through sermons on scratchy cassette tapes. Contrary to the banal collapse theories, there are reasons to believe that a slowing Chinese economy will bring a chill of calm to the simmering cauldron of society.
China is a modern, complex polity with an adept, agile government. In his landmark work Political Order in Changing Societies, Samuel Huntington argued that violence is a mark of modernizing societies. To Huntington, modernity meant three things: the government gains recognition as the legitimate wielder of force; the division of labor is divided between military, administrators, scientists and the judiciary; there is mass political participation, by which Huntington meant all forms of participation, be it democratic or totalitarian (as in the Cultural Revolution).
By Huntington’s standards, the PRC is a quite modern polity, one he would deem “civic” because its institutions are developed beyond its level of political activity. In short, the system can withstand economic pressure.
Indeed, Beijing is well-prepared to confront, divert or grant concessions to popular discontent. With firm institutions established, a state is less susceptible to economic vagaries, something Chang’s argument doesn’t consider. By proactively heading off economic distress, the PRC might even stand to gain trust and legitimacy in the eyes of its citizens.
After all, as Western governments rushed to ease the liquidity crunch of 2008–2009, baffled and nervous citizens said nary a word of protest as unelected bureaucrats worked their money-printing and bailout magic. Only after the crisis, years later, did diverse Occupy Wall Street movements include this as a minor detail in their failed campaign against capitalist excesses.
A faltering economy does not necessarily cause disorder, even when effective institutionsare absent. A recent New York Times editorial opposing Western sanctions on Iran broaches this notion, arguing that the Iranian people might stand up to oppression once well-fed and prospering. The same very well could be true for China.
Reform in China
There are hundreds of thousands of conflicts between the Chinese people and the state every year. But putting aside egregious land-grab cases like the one in the southern Chinese village of Wukan last year, they rarely rise to the level of violence—much less regime-change—as many such events are simply labor disputes. The participants have little notion of a future democratic China, unlike some of their middle-class counterparts, who in contrast have few material incentives to protest but much to lose.
“Chinese people generally do not have revolutionary intentions,” Gordon Chang recognizes. But reform is another story. No Chinese citizen goes unaffected by the government’s heavy-handedness—the paternalistic, technocratic, socialist or vulgarly utilitarian blemishes in its laws and administration. That means there’s a lot to fix.