Delicate China

Lawrence Solomon: China’s coming fall | Full Comment | National Post

The Chinese economy today parallels that of the latter-day Soviet Union — immense accomplishments co-existing with immense failures. In some ways, China’s stability today is more precarious than was the Soviet Union’s before its fall. China’s poor are poorer than the Soviet Union’s poor, and they are much more numerous — about one billion in a country of 1.3 billion. Moreover, in the Soviet Union there was no sizeable middle class — just about everyone was poor and shared in the same hardships, avoiding resentments that might otherwise have arisen.

In China, the resentments are palpable. Many of the 300 million people who have risen out of poverty flaunt their new wealth, often egregiously so. This is especially so with the new class of rich, all but non-existent just a few years ago, which now includes some 500,000 millionaires and 200 billionaires. Worse, the gap between rich and poor has been increasing. Ominously, the bottom billion views as illegitimate the wealth of the top 300 million.

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The government tries to tamp down the outrage over the abuses inflicted on the public by banning demonstrations and censoring the Internet. But it is failing. Year by year, the number of demonstrations increases. Last year alone saw 100,000 such protests across the county, directly involving tens and indirectly perhaps hundreds of millions of protesters.

China is a powder keg that could explode at any moment. And if it does explode, chaos could ensue — as the Chinese are only too well aware, the country has a brutal history of carnage at the hands of unruly mobs. For this reason, corrupt officials inside China, likely by the tens of thousands, have made contingency plans, obtaining foreign passports, buying second homes abroad, establishing their families and businesses abroad, or otherwise planning their escapes. Also for this reason, much of the middle class supports the government’s increasingly repressive efforts.

What might set off that spark? It could be high unemployment, should China be unable to control inflation or the housing bubble that now looms. It could be another natural disaster such as the 2008 earthquake which spawned outrage — rapidly organized via cellphones and the Internet — that the government had difficulty containing. It could be a manmade disaster — many fear that a “tofu dam” might fail, leading to hundreds of thousands of downstream victims.

Whatever might set off that spark, it is only a matter of time. The government shows no interest in relaxing its grip on power — if it did so, the officials in power might face retribution.

Meanwhile, we in the West see a China that by all measures is becoming stronger and stronger, not realizing that it is also becoming more and more brittle. The Soviet regime, when it fell, went out with a whimper. China’s will more likely go out with a bang. No regime can contain the grievances of a billion people for long.

 


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  1. China could have evolved peacefully into a wealthy, democratic state. My own observations led me to believe that the Beijing Spring movement was enormously popular. Here is a paragraph from Chapter 2 of my THE BLESSED HUMAN RACE:

    And then politics happened. If I hadn’t seen it I wouldn’t have believed it. The popularity of the Democracy Movement was overwhelming. On Friday, May 19th, Miriam and I went to Beijing for the weekend in order to buy airplane tickets. Even before our train arrived, we could perceive the spirit of the place. Houses facing the railroad tracks were covered with big-character posters: “We love students.” In Beijing posters were on the walls, on subways, everywhere: “The people love students,” “Workers love students,” even “Communist Party members love students”! Ambulances were going back and forth, carrying unconscious hunger strikers to the hospital. The demonstrators had assumed the almost impossible job of directing traffic, in order to keep lanes open for the ambulances, and were succeeding beyond anyone’s wildest expectations.

  2. George Jochnowitz wrote:

    China could have evolved peacefully into a wealthy, democratic state.

    A wonderful demonstration and it sped up the evolution in China away from rigid authoritarianism and nudged it in the direction of democracy.

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