The default Western strategy towards China’s rise as an economic and military superpower appears to be to sit back and wait for it to fall apart. That isn’t going to happen, as the dean of Beijing’s foreign press corps, Francesco Sisci, observes in this short essay entitled, “The Great Resilience of the Communist State:”
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.
China will need to reform at some point, Sisci argues:
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.
Dr. Sisci, the first foreigner to complete a Chinese-language doctorate at China’s Academy of Social Science, has been my colleague at Asia Times Online almost since its founding. He was right about China ten years ago and he’s right now.
For background on China’s economic resilience, see the presentation “China’s Two Economies” prepared by my colleagues and me at Reorient Group.
A word of advice to my conservative friends: don’t hold your breath. China’s economy and political system aren’t going to collapse. China will continue to gain power. We need to worry about our own sorry state of affairs: we couldn’t replicate the 1968 moon shot today. Investment in R&D and basic science is a shadow of what it used to be, and our shrunken military budget is biased towards white elephants like the F-35. Our “Common Core” curriculum stops with algebra, while 90% of Chinese have a high school degree including at least one course in calculus.
There is a myth in the West that the Chinese only copy but don’t create. The past generation, to be sure, found it more cost-effective to adopt than to reinvent the wheel. That was then. A new generation of young Chinese with first-rate scientific qualifications is entering the market with ambitions to found the next Alibaba.
This is real competition, and we can’t make it go away by closing our eyes and wishing for revolution. We should be having a Sputnik moment right about now–I refer to the national mobilization after Russia beat us into space in 1957. Instead, we crank up the volume and listen to the theme from “Rocky.”