Why China Won't Collapse

Despite the proliferation of doomsday theories, China is more durable than it seems.

Unfortunately, important domestic-reform initiatives often receive comparatively little attention from Western media, fostering the perception that China is a radically illegitimate oligarchy powered by the blood of its treasured working class. This is a distorted picture that panders to democratic, wishful thinking about Chinese society. The truth is that however slowly and ham-handedly, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has accrued political capital by improving the lives of its people in ways many bygone regimes could not.

In late February, the World Bank issued a report entitled "China 2030.” Its suggestions for China’s economic health include decreasing state ownership of major industries, establishing protections for society’s most vulnerable citizens, as well as calls for tax reform, reduced carbon emissions and green energy. Lost in the foofaraw of a lone Chinese man interrupting a bank press conference to defend state-owned enterprises (SOEs) was the fact that the PRC’s State Council coauthored the report. A Chinese government body signed off on prescriptions counter to the interests of SOE monopolists—a milestone for the development of civil society there.

SOEs have been criticized in China as price manipulators and as magnets for rent seeking. For example, oil companies like Sinopec have stymied fuel-quality regulations and refused to supply petro to stations, running them out of business. Often shielded by nationalistic sentiment, SOEs have now come under assault by academics and newspaper editorials that echo the World Bank report, identifying SOEs as special interests, distinct from public interests.

Elsewhere in China, regional governments are having a crack at mending the controversial hukou system, which threatens to fragment China into two entrenched groups: legally recognized urbanites and migrant workers, the latter of whom generally enjoy no entitlement to medical care or education in the cities where they’ve come to toil. In a country of peasants, internal migration is not just a matter of civil rights. It’s a matter of economic transformation, as those former farmers have settled into cities and long forgotten tilling a field. As China’s population urbanizes, policy makers have proven adaptive and willing to experiment.

The CCP has demonstrated a concern for China’s social fabric. Beijing has decreed that television programming, including wildly popular dating shows, avoid the depths of crass sexual and material indulgence. Obviously, such policies might be in the ultimate interest of self-preservation (especially given Hu Jintao’s less than subtle warning about Western culture’s ideological penetration of China). And it’s debatable whether traditional, native values are what China or any country needs for stability or prosperity.

Granted, on some reform proposals, like liberalization of criminal law, conflict has emerged. But do these disagreements reveal cracks in the party leadership, as Chang implies?

Probably not. First, these are practical differences among technocrats who are after the same thing: stability via steady growth. Second, policy disputes are also a sign that China’s decision making is more consultative and decentralized than before. As the hukou example above illustrates, once delegated certain powers, provinces and municipalities can innovate on a smaller scale than the central government, as in the U.S. federal system.

Finally, interest groups and factions are nothing new to Chinese politics. Thus, it’s unrealistic to think factional tension could paralyze party leadership, military and police at the same time that protesters agitate and show potential for violence and greater lawlessness. What’s more, scholarly work on factional politics over recent decades, often with a focus on China, has shown how factions can coexist and even thrive by nearing some sort of competitive equilibrium. This may explain the relative quietude of Chinese elite politics since 1989.

Why China Won’t Fall

The political must be analyzed alongside the economic. China’s institutions are still significantly ahead of the demands of its society. Beijing’s apparent influence by Huntington’s theories is not surprising, as his works are popular among the PRC-establishment intellectuals, especially those on the government payroll.

Meanwhile, the authoritarian CCP junta keeps the trains running fast and on time. This means a lot to the swaths of China’s massive, aging population. Hard landing or soft, don’t look for the Beijing to suffer any hits to the head in 2012. Collapse theories are rooted in idealism, but they’re no more likely to pan out because of it.

David Lundquist is a lecturer of Western philosophy at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

Image: Patrick Rodwell