[For those of you subscribing to my blog, I apologize for the long delay since my last post. My short move to my lovely little corner of Indianapolis was accompanied by two unexpected stays in the hospital. Everything should be just fine now, though. On to the blog . . .]
Back in 1998 or so, when I was a graduate student at the School of Foreign Affairs in Georgetown, I took an interesting course called World Politics in the 21st Century with this man. As the name suggests, the course was largely about predicting what was going to happen in World Politics in the upcoming century. I remember the Professor commentating that I was subscriber to the “Rise of China” thesis suggesting that this century would eventually be dominated by the U.S.-China relationship. I still am a believer 15 years later, and I think we are going to start seeing some big changes in the coming years.
There are several things happening in China these days that point to some sort of change occurring. First, there are longer term trends. The middle class has grown in China every year for thirty years, and continues, for the time being, to do so. It was this burgeoning middle class that gathered at Tiananmen Square now almost 25 years ago, and it has been this middle class that has largely accepted being ruled in a quasi-police state in return for rapid economic growth ever since.
As countries grow wealthier, however, the demands for democracy tend to increase. Statistical work associated with these guys in particular suggests that countries reach a tipping point at about 15,000 dollars per capita (in today’s money) when it becomes more difficult to sustain non-democratic governments and much more difficult to overthrow democratic ones (Of the non-petroleum dominated economies, Belarus may arguably be the “wealthiest” non-democracy, with an average income almost exactly at this level). China is not there yet, but adjusted for PPP, the average person in China makes about 9,000 dollars and, were trends to continue, that number would hit around 15,000 in around 2020.
Another factor that political scientists look at when considering political stability is how repressive countries governments are or are not. Over time, political democratic AND politically repressive countries tend to be more stable than the in-between cases — the anocracies, or soft autocracies.
Increasingly, China fits this description of an anocracy. Despite its lack of democracy, China is by no means the repressive place that, say, its neighbor North Korea is. There is an increasingly active and conscious civil society in China, and the number of open protest events increase every year. Recent events in the Arab World in places like Tunisia and Egypt illustrate how autocracies cannot survive indefinitely when some degree of free speech is accompanied by one-party rule.
Events over recent months also suggest that political instability in China may arrive sooner rather than later.
First, many who study the Chinese economy closely are suggesting that the Chinese economy is teetering, if not on the brink of collapse, at least at a point of much slower growth. The Chinese government is consideration a range of emergency measures to head off these economic problems, but, in the end, if the perception arises among international investors that the Chinese economy is about to start spinning downward, outward flight of capital is conceivable. This could really spark unrest among a Chinese populace use to the idea of rapid and seemingly perpetual economic expansion.
Second, and even more unpredictable, is the new leadership of China under Xi Jingping. Xi appears to be much different type of Chinese leader; a populist and would-be reformist who represents a break from the somewhat stodgy “pragmatism” of his predecessor. As a populist reformer facing potential economic problems largely beyond his control, it’s hard not to wonder if Xi represents sort of new Chinese version of former Soviet leader Michael Gorbachev. When, in a way uncharacteristic of Chinese leadership, XI’s wife began making public appearances alongside him earlier this year, for instance, it was very reminiscent of the days of when Raisa Gorbachev similarly broke with the tradition of the sequestered Soviet wife.
Xi himself has apparently felt itself necessary to privately distance himself from the former Soviet leader. Gorbachev, however, to large degree simply reacted to and accelerated trends at the time that were already in motion. Maybe Chinese leadership (or somewhat more scarily, the Chinese military) will attempt to forcibly reassert a greater amount of control over Chinese society in the coming years. It’s hard, however, to see a sustainable path of political stability for a one-party government that will be increasingly unable to deliver the economic goods.