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Why Will China Collapse?
China’s political and economic system is unsustainable in a modern world. Mao Zedong, the founder of the People’s Republic, built an abnormal society and then isolated it from all others. His system could survive as long as China was kept apart from the rest of the world, but Mao’s successors have sought to open the People’s Republic to the outside. As the country becomes more integrated with other nations, the same forces that apply around the globe—political, economic, and social—also affect China. At some point in this process Mao’s abnormal system will give way because it is fundamentally incompatible with the role that China now seeks to occupy in the international system. Soon, the Chinese government will not be able to meet the challenges posed by an open and dynamic society.
What do you mean by “collapse”?
After the collapse there will be a new form of government and the Communist Party will no longer be in power. There will, of course, always be a China—but not one that is communist.
When Will China Collapse?
Within this decade—in other words, by 2011.
What will trigger collapse?
We do not know what will be the precise nature of events that lead to the fall of the Communist Party. Beijing faces many challenges—growing sovereign debt, social dislocations caused by accelerating economic growth, unreformed state banks plagued by nonperforming loans, an insolvent pension system that cannot provide for a graying population, a severely degraded environment, out-of-control corruption, skyrocketing crime, and broken educational and public health systems, just to name a few of them. Any one of these problems would be difficult for the central authorities to take. Add them all together, and we can see why the regime will eventually falter. We can dismiss talk of government failure as we downplay one concern or another, but the point is that the Communist Party faces many challenges all at once, not one challenge at a time.
How can a prosperous and reforming society collapse?
As an initial matter, the Communist Party is now sponsoring less reform than during the era of Deng Xiaoping, Mao’s successor. In the past, the central government’s policies resulted in the fastest economic growth in history. Change was impressive, and the country is a far better place today than it was at the beginning of the reform period in 1978. We shouldn’t take anything away from the Communist Party, but one point should nonetheless be mentioned. Chinese leaders, hoping to grow their way out of problems, switched their emphasis from reform to development at the end of the 1990s. The result, excessive building and production, is not the path to enduring prosperity. Sure, the economy is bigger today, but without a strong foundation it’s even more unstable.
Yet there is a more important point: reform does not always forestall revolution. In fact, history shows that reform is often a prelude to turmoil and ultimately discontinuous political change. Zhou Enlai, Mao Zedong’s premier, once said that it was still too early to comment on the French Revolution. He may have been correct, but there is one lesson that we can draw from that event: sustained change is tough for reforming regimes. There is nothing so destabilizing as modernization, which can radicalize even the beneficiaries of change—and especially them.
As Alexis de Tocqueville noted, peasants in pre-revolutionary France detested feudalism more than their counterparts in other portions of Europe, where conditions were worse. Discontent was highest in those parts of France where there had been the most improvement. Moreover, the French Revolution followed “an advance as rapid as it was unprecedented in the prosperity of the nation.” So, as Tocqueville stated, “steadily increasing prosperity” doesn’t tranquilize citizens. On the contrary, it promotes “a spirit of unrest.”
Senior Beijing officials now face the dilemma of all reforming authoritarians: economic success endangers their continued political control. Sustained modernization is the enemy of one-party systems. Revolutions occur under many conditions, but especially when political institutions do not keep up with the social forces unleashed by economic change. Nothing irritates a rising social class like inflexible leaders.
Beijing’s policies seem designed to widen this gap between the people and their government, thereby ensuring greater instability for the foreseeable future. Today, there’s unimaginable societal change at unheard of speed thanks in large part to government-sponsored economic growth and social engineering. Yet at the same time the Communist Party stands in the way of meaningful political change.
Because senior officials don't allow change of substance, the authorities must resort to force to stop the spread of unrest. But the use of the coercive power of the state is only a short-term solution — force just makes protests harder to control the next time. The leadershiip will not, or cannot, come to terms with the cause of unrest.
In fact, as China has become more prosperous, it has become more unstable. Since 2002 the demonstrations have become larger and more frequent. Moreover, demonstrators have become more defiant. And it is not just peasants and workers who are taking to the streets. Middle-class Chinese, big winners of the last quarter century of reform, are protesting as well. Across society, there is a new boldness in expressing discontent, something last seen in the Beijing Spring of 1989, the preclude to the massacre in Tiananmen Square.
Instead of collapsing, won’t the People’s Republic just evolve into a more humane society?
Many people hope that the People’s Republic will evolve like Thailand, Taiwan, and South Korea. Leaders in those countries were not burdened by Marxism, however. Marxism not only gives their Chinese counterparts the right to rule but also demands that they do so. The leaders in Beijing believe they have a destiny, and that is to govern for all time.
It is my wish, and the wish of most other Chinese, that the People’s Republic gradually evolves into a better society. No one wants to see the turmoil and bloodshed that accompanies upheaval. The Chinese have suffered enough in the past two centuries. Nonetheless, when leaders rule out the possibility of peaceful change, people eventually resort to forceful tactics.
The renewed emphasis on Marxism and Maoism by Hu Jintao, China’s current supremo, substantially decreases the possibility of peaceful transformation of the Chinese political system. Today’s leaders may make changes here and there, but Mao Zedong’s system remains in place, and, to borrow his infamous words, politics remains in command of society.
Hasn’t Beijing learned important lessons from the fall of Soviet Communism?
It is true that the Chinese are taking a different route to rejuvenation than the Soviets. China’s economic restructuring has solved some problems that the Soviets could not handle but has created other challenges. One essential fact remains: the essence of the Marxist system in both the Soviet Union and China was, and remains, unreformable.
What effect will the 2008 Olympics have on China?
The awarding of the Olympic games both strengthens and weakens the regime. Of course, many Chinese think better of the Communist Party for winning the right to host this event. There is an added inflow of foreign investment and sponsorship money. Tourism will increase for sure. On the other hand, the regime will be weakened as ordinary citizens are further exposed to the outside world. Finally, the cost of the games and related infrastructure (US$34 billion in total) has strained, and will continue to stretch, the central government’s finances, which have already been weakened by a massive program of deficit spending. China can ill afford all the monuments that it is building to itself, especially when tens of millions of Chinese are not receiving education, health care, and other essential social services.
One thing the games will not do is change the leadership. Beijing has already won its prize, and senior officials see little or no need to yield to world opinion. The regime won’t change; the people will.
One more point about the Olympics. Beijing will employ every resource at its command to ensure stability in the run up to the games. It is unlikely, however, that the central authorities will be able to maintain a high level of vigilance indefinitely. Squeezing too tight now, the Communist Party will eventually have to relax its grip. The latter part of this decade promises to be a time of greater instability for China.
Why did you write Coming Collapse?
While living in Shanghai I realized that the analyses of foreign experts were not consistent with what I was seeing around me. For example, the central government in Beijing would announce many reforms, but little was actually being done. Nonetheless, foreigners were uncritically repeating what Beijing was saying. I then wanted to provide a more accurate assessment.
What do you hope Coming Collapse will accomplish?
Talking about the demise of the Communist Party was long overdue when Coming Collapse was released. The book has succeeded in stimulating discussion of instability in the world’s most populous country. We need to think about the consequences of the fall of the Party. Almost everyone was caught by surprise by the disintegration of communism in Europe and Mongolia. We should be better prepared this time.
© 2006 Gordon G. Chang