[For this issue China Brief is pleased to offer a debate on Gordon Chang’s recent book “The Coming Collapse of China” (Random House, 2001). In his book Chang offers alarming analysis of China’s economic and social weakness and the inability of the Communit Party to solve its myriad problems. Chang makes the startling prediction that China’s Communist regime could collapse of its own weigh in five or ten years. In this issue Dr. June Dreyer asks what if Chang is correct, while Dr. Bob Sutter argues that predictions of China’s demise are premature. Gordon Chang offers a reply.]
The consensus in the world today is that the Chinese regime will survive. But should we be surprised? No one, we know, has ever been fired for extrapolating. Timid predictions, however, just won’t do when a society begins to crumble. And that’s exactly what’s happening in China in the first decade of the 21st Century.
All the experts acknowledge that the People’s Republic faces serious challenges: failing state-owned enterprises and banks, rising corruption, a deteriorating environment, a slowing economy, and growing ethnic and religious unrest, just to name a few of the most obvious. Peasants riot and workers go on the rampage, hundreds of times a day. Demonstrations are becoming more frequent-and larger-with every passing year. Nonetheless, the leaders in Beijing report good news as they inform us of all their accomplishments. They show us wonderful statistics that back them up.
And many of us believe them. Analysts can believe all they want, but their assessments won’t matter. Communist Party cadres are, as Marxists would say, fighting the forces of history. Those who do so, we are told by those believing in a deterministic universe, are bound to lose. Even all the fabricated statistics in the world cannot avoid the inevitable.
BOWING TO THE INEVITABLE
And the inevitable will soon occur in China. Mao Zedong created an abnormal society. But he was at least enough of a realist to surround his new republic with high and strong walls so that it could survive almost indefinitely on the inside.
His successors have not changed the Maoist system, in which the Communist Party directs and society is supposed to follow. Yet, at the same time, China’s new leaders have sought to create a more modern nation, and they have successively opened the country. As they do so, all the forces that apply around the world, economic and political, will begin to apply in China as well. At some point in this process Mao’s system will fall. It’s as if Mao tried to abolish the law of gravity by decree in his republic. As the country is opened up by his successors, gravity will have to apply in China. And that is why we see all the protests in the People’s Republic today: The Chinese struggle to cope with all the serious dislocations that occur at the end of a regime.
So the issue for China today is not whether Communist Party cadres are doing the right things. In most cases they’re not, but that’s not the important issue. The important issue is time. The next five years will be critical period in the history of the People’s Republic. Beijing’s technocrats keep their economy going by pump-priming and thereby incurring ever-increasing budget deficits. Although the central government’s financial condition looks manageable, we know that’s not the case when all the hidden obligations, such as the indirect loans and unfunded pensions, are added in. The economic planners have just a few years, perhaps only five, to put things right. In that period the worst effects of accession to the World Trade Organization will be felt in China as unforgiving competition results in seemingly unending social turmoil. To make matters worse, a major political transition in the Chinese capital means that new leaders in both the Party and the government will be unprepared to respond to the rising challenges that will face the nation. There has been no smooth transfer of power in the People’s Republic, and, now that the Party leadership is already split, no one should believe that events will follow the script. As Henry Kissinger once observed, “No communist country has solved the problem of succession.”
The most dire predictions about China’s future do not come from the outside; they belong to economists and others in China itself. Many of them say that the next few years will be critical for China. We should be listening to them.
Listen to the experts outside the People’s Republic, however, and you would believe that the state will not fall. We hear this conclusion because we’re told that the historical conditions for collapse don’t exist. In essence, we are supposed to believe that history follows the old patterns. The analysts assure us that regimes don’t fall unless there is a viable alternative to the ruling clique. Today, conventional wisdom says, no one can rally the opposition. The underlying premise of the need for a strong opposition is not correct: Who among us truly believes that, of the 63.5 million men and women of the Communist Party, only one of them wants to rule China? In the future the Party could split over some issue, and then the leader of the first post-communist government in China may come from the Communist Party itself. There’s another point to consider: when the China state goes, it may go quickly. Social change does not always occur gradually, says author Malcolm Gladwell, it can take place at one critical moment. Therefore, someone may emerge from society to lead the final revolt. It has happened so many times before in Chinese history when leaders, some of them unlikely individuals, have risen up to seize the throne. Why can’t history repeat itself now?
THE EFFECT OF INSTANT COMMUNICATIONS
We have been led to believe that, before a revolution can succeed, those opposed to the existing regime must command a majority of the people. Today, many are arrayed against the modern Chinese state, but groups in society have yet to link up. Yet we know alliances can come together quickly in this day and age of instant communications. In imperial China, revolutionaries put written messages in moon cakes. Many people in the country did not hear of the events in Tiananmen Square in 1989 until years later. Now, however, China is connected with telecommunication devices of every sort.
The next time there are large protests, the Chinese may not learn about them afterwards but see them in real time. In 1999 we witnessed a bank run in China spread by rumors posted on the Internet. Why can’t revolution, another type of event fueled by emotion, be spread electronically? That happened this year when texting, the sending of text messages by cheap paging devices, brought down Joseph Estrada in the Philippines. Texting permitted ringleaders to organize thousands of protestors with the push of a button. Demonstrations that would never had happened in the past occurred almost spontaneously. When there were too many people in the streets, Estrada had to step aside. In case you didn’t know: text messaging is now doubling every month in China. The growing connectivity sponsored by the regime in Beijing could, one day, be its undoing.
Today the Chinese support their current government, we are assured. We cannot take at face value expressions of this sort, however. We mostly listen to the voices of those who have been benefitted by the reform era of the last quarter century, in other words, the wealthy few in the big cities. We often do not hear the peasants, some 900 million of them, who struggle to survive, or to workers in rust belt cities. In an authoritarian society, where the government suppresses views it considers subversive, people often do not express such sentiments. These days it appears that, at best, people just tolerate the Party. That means they won’t rush to its defense when the time comes. And that means that only a few will be needed to bring the Party down. It may take just one person, a person with the vision of a Mao Zedong, for instance.
In China today there are many people with a vision of a better country. The Communist Party will not give way when the people ask it to do so, however. The Party will just stiffen and then collapse. And collapse will happen soon: within a decade and maybe within five years.
Yes, history does repeat itself, but it does not necessarily follow all of the old patterns. We don’t need to have an understanding of the past to see what will ultimately happen in the future. We can see from all the evidence that exists today that the regime will fail. If anything is inevitable in the fast-changing world of today, it is the end of the People’s Republic.
Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China, published by Random House.