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Modern China's Precarious Existential High-Wire Act

In this June 5, 1989, file photo, a Chinese man stands alone to block a line of tanks heading east on Beijing's Changan Blvd. This "Tank Man" photo is an iconic image of the Tiananmen Square Massacre of June 3-4, 1989. (AP Photo/Jeff Widener, File)

Authoritarian and totalitarian states in their prime always look so imposing, don’t they? Think of Nazi Germany in the years before WWII. The National Socialists built up the country’s infrastructure and its military, putting on a show (and it was mostly a show) of economic supremacy while much of the West languished in the Great Depression. Think of the Soviet Union in the three decades after WWII. The Red Army, fresh off winning the bloodiest campaign in history against the Nazis, loomed as a constant threat over the rest of Europe. The Soviets launched the first artificial satellite, put the first man into space, built a huge arsenal of nuclear-tipped ICBMs, began work on a blue water navy to threaten the West’s trade lifelines, and became politically and militarily active from Europe, to Africa, to Southeast Asia, and even in the Americas. But even all that turned out to be just for show, as the USSR faded away with barely a whimper one December night almost 30 years ago.

Now think of China in the 40 years since Premier Deng Xiaoping loosened the reins on his country’s economy, setting off an economic boom powerful enough to lift hundreds of millions out of poverty, faster than anything in history. In recent years, China has modernized its military, is building an air fleet of stealth jets, and recently commissioned its second aircraft carrier — the first to be produced domestically. Beijing now uses its economic might to virtually colonize resource-rich central and southern Africa, and attempts to make dependencies out of a series of nations with a string of megaprojects along the “New Silk Road.” Perhaps most ominously, China is back under something like one-man rule as President Xi Jinping has consolidated power like no leader since Mao.

But is it all just a show?

Well, no — but like Nazi Germany circa 1936 or the Soviet Union during its Space Race heyday, there might be less substance to China than meets the eye. Forget for the moment China’s growing seapower, and imperial ambitions in Africa and southern Asia. Closer to home, cracks have appeared in Beijing’s fearsome facade.

Hong Kong exploded in protest more than six months ago, with the introduction of a Beijing-approved bill to allow Hong Kongers to be extradited to the mainland for trial. The bill was withdrawn. The protests continue. The presence of approximately ten million smartphones and about 300,000 foreign nationals prevent Beijing from cracking skulls the way they’d probably like to.

Tawain is another case in point. For decades after the Chinese Civil War-losing Nationalists fled to the island, both the Kuomintang (Nationalists) and the Communists saw themselves as the “real” Chinese government. But the people of Taiwan have been separated politically and geographically long enough now that they tend to see themselves less as Chinese who happen to live on an offshore island, and more as Taiwan nationals who happen to be culturally Chinese. Last weekend’s election was something of a referendum on the notion of Taiwan-identity versus Chinese-identity. Simplifying the election greatly, the new-identity thinking was represented by DPP incumbent president Tsai Ing-wen, the older mindset by Kuomintang’s Chang San-cheng. With voters keeping a wary eye on events in Hong Kong, Tsai’s “strong response to Beijing’s increasing pressures on Taiwan to accede to a unification agreement” helped her win in a landslide with a massive 75% voter turnout.

The one place where Beijing thought they could get away with a crackdown outside the world’s prying eyes, they nearly did. The country’s Muslim-majority Xinjiang province has always been more Central Asian in identity than Chinese, but Beijing is waging “the equivalent of cultural genocide” there with a high-tech police state, unlike anything the world has ever seen. More than a million Uighurs are believed to be under some kind of detention, including reeducation camps, forced drugging, gang rape, and organ-harvesting. The world learned of all this after a major leak two months ago, but it remains to be seen if world opinion about Beijing will budge very much.

When China enters one of its periodic times of disorder, it tends to begin in the provinces. Or, “Heaven is high and the emperor is far away,” as the Chinese proverb goes. But in Xinjiang, the emperor — the Chinese party boss — is all too close. What I’m reminded of however is Princess Leia’s warning to Death Star mastermind Grand Moff Tarkin: “The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers.”

Whatever the fate of the Uighurs turns out to be, a quick scan of China’s periphery shows a government without much loyalty from the hearts and minds of its people.

ASIDE: Economically, there’s just no comparison between the moribund USSR in its final years and the People’s Republic of China today. On the other hand, there are some political similarities along their peripheries. It’s sometimes forgotten, but by 1987-88, Moscow was losing control of its mountainous Caucasus provinces, with ethnic fighting breaking between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. The Baltic States, illegally occupied and annexed by Stalin, were starting to sow some wild oats, too, agitating again for independence. The Soviet Union’s restive subjects became a big part of its undoing.

The bright spot has been China’s economic rise, which forms the foundation of what passes for a social contract in the Communist state: “We’ll keep you growing rich and you won’t demand political freedom.” But Trump’s trade war has revealed certain weaknesses in China’s economy. At a time when its biggest trade partner is enjoying solid growth and booming wages, China can’t capitalize on happy American shoppers. Growth is down significantly in China, and that’s if you buy the official figures. In what might prove to be a leading indicator for future growth, Chinese vehicle sales — private and commercial — slid 8.2% in 2019 from a year earlier, according to a new Wall Street Journal report. The “car recession” began in mid-2018, and is expected to continue into 2020. It isn’t just due to trade pressures, either. Beijing has introduced new emissions standards which are making new cars less affordable, at a time when Chinese are feeling less economically secure for the first time in decades.

So, yes, China graduates tons of engineers every year from some very fine schools. Yes, they’re investing heavily in infrastructure at home and abroad. Yes, they’re sitting on tons of foreign currency reserves. And worst of all, it’s also true that China leads right now in high-seed 5G communications technology. But what does any of it mean if that poor excuse for a social compact begins to fray in places closer to home than Hong Kong or Xinjiang?

The genius of democratic republics like our own is that they tend to be self-correcting. For example, just enough traditionally Democratic voters were turned off by Barack Obama’s eight-year-long sequel to the Carter Administration, “Malaise II: The Un-Quickening,” to take a chance on Donald Trump in 2016. The turnaround since then has been pronounced. But even when voters don’t exhibit such wisdom, elections allow citizens to vent their frustrations by throwing the bastards out — without, and this point is key, overthrowing the whole system or starting a civil war.

That’s why authoritarian regimes are always more brittle than they appear. All governments make mistakes, but the subjects of authoritarian countries have no legal means of venting their frustrations. In some cases, like the long twilight of the Soviet Union, public apathy compounded communism’s economic failures until the whole thing collapsed into little but sawdust, like an old hollowed-out tree. At other times in other places, the result has been failed states or violent revolution, or sometimes both.

Maybe China’s Communists have divined the magic formula for spectacular growth and innovation completely divorced from political liberty. Maybe Xi knows how to walk the tightrope between political repression/ethnic cleansing at home and not pissing off/frightening all his trade partners abroad. Maybe the thugs behind Tiananmen have learned a soft enough touch to run an overseas empire better than the British did. But history and common sense suggest otherwise.

The economic calamity that would result from a collapsing China is almost too awful to imagine. But until Beijing liberalizes politically to something like the degree they’ve liberalized economically, that’s the risk they run for themselves and the world entire.