[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.]
In this engagingly written and cogently argued book, attorney Gordon Chang argues that the government of the Chinese Communist Party will fall, probably within the next five years and certainly within ten. Although conventional wisdom is more likely to predict that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) will become the superpower of the 21st century than a failed state, it could happen.
THE WHYS OF “WHAT IF”
If the citizenry does rise up and topple the Communist Party from power, it is likely to be for the reasons Chang suggests: The party is simultaneously suppressing cultists, democracy activists, ethnic separatists, aggrieved workers and peasants, and others. In their manic insistence on stability, party leaders are preventing the changes that could save their government and their legacy. Meanwhile, corruption permeates all sectors of society. High offices can be bought, as well as membership in the party, admission to the educational institution of one’s choice, and even the court verdict one desires. Officials eat, drink, and make merry at ordinary taxpayers’ expense. PRC founding father Mao Zedong once sought to defend himself against criticism that his measures were too harsh by retorting that “A revolution is not a dinner party.” Now, Chang observes tartly, the revolution has become a dinner party. Average citizens are not able to participate, except in the sense that they pay the bill.
The news gets worse: The state-owned banks that contain over 90 percent of the deposits in the PRC are hopelessly insolvent. This is well known to economists, but apparently not to the people who regularly entrust their savings to these institutions. What happens, Chang wonders, when their bankrupt condition becomes widely known. The last straw that breaks the dragon’s back is apt to be China’s entry into the World Trade Organization. Subsidies that support inefficient sectors of society will have to cease. WTO regulations on transparency in accounting procedures will expose the scope of corruption and mismanagement. The People’s Liberation Army, says Chang, is unlikely to shoot people whose only crime is to demand their life savings back, even if there are hundreds of thousands of them.
YIN AS WELL AS YANG
No simple prophet of doom and gloom, Chang sees positive forces as well: As internet usage grows, it becomes harder and harder for party and government to suppress news they would prefer that citizens of the PRC not know about. And the youth of China are becoming more like young people elsewhere: unwilling to tailor their aspirations to conform to the officially-sanctioned party line of the moment. No government, says Chang, can defy the laws of gravity indefinitely, nor can it withstand the will of all of its people. He cites acquaintances who have come to the United States to study: Their young son is Americanized and does not want to go back to China. Should the communist party be replaced, however, the prospect of return will not seem so dismal. Little Jason will have hope.
If Chang is right and the Communist Party does fall, life for the average Chinese could, however, become very difficult. Although the communist party does many things poorly, it has been quite successful at preventing any alternate form of organization
from emerging. Indeed, this is the principal reason that the official reaction to Falun Gong was so strongly negative. The movement’s ability to bring, undetected, over 10,000 followers into central Beijing on the eve of the tenth anniversary of the Tiananmen demonstrations terrified the leadership. The movement’s explanation that it is an association of practitioners of qigong breathing exercises with no political agenda rang hollow as the party elite contemplated the organizational apparatus that made possible the appearance of so many members. After more than two years of vicious suppression, Falungong is in retreat, though it has probably not been defeated. The same is true of democracy advocates, proponents of Tibetan independence, Islamic militants and disgruntled workers. These groups have little in common except dislike of the current regime. Were they to succeed in toppling the party from power, it is difficult to imagine that they could form a viable organizational apparatus to replace it. Indeed, their views contradict one another’s. One cannot imagine that Muslim fundamentalists would be comfortable with the sort of government that democracy activists favor. Moreover, for all their devotion to free elections and an unfettered press, most democracy activists are Han chauvinists who recoil at the notion of a separate Tibetan state.
THE BLANK SHEET OF PAPER
In describing his plan for China, the young Mao Zedong compared his country to a blank sheet of paper. Since it had no blotches, the newest most beautiful words could be printed on it. This is catchy rhetoric, but one must remember that Mao’s words were not an accurate description of reality. Even a war-weary country with a nearly demolished infrastructure retains its cultural characteristics to a significant degree and China, possessing the world’s oldest continuous civilization, was no exception. In order to rid his country of the scourge of traditional culture, Mao resorted to the most devastating acts of cruelty. Those who owned land-affluent peasants, capitalists and even entrepreneurs-were struggled against. Many were tortured to death in the effort to erase vestiges of the old society. A few years later, when it seemed as if the country was progressing too slowly, Mao introduced the Great Leap Forward, a disastrous effort to plunge the People’s Republic into pure communism. Many millions more died, most from famine and malnutrition-related diseases. In the wake of the Leap, survival became paramount, and the party’s social controls were relaxed. Gambling, “superstition”-that is, religion-economically-motivated marriages and clan power returned. A horrified Mao compared China to a train that was rushing in the wrong direction, back toward the culture he so despised and which he felt was holding China back. In consequence, he launched the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution to irreparably reverse its course. The result was yet another devastating human tragedy. Millions died, not from famine, but from persecution by their neighbors or by marauding groups of Red Guards who believed that they were actualizing the ideals of the revolution and its supreme leader.
Post-Mao China has no supreme leader. The elite-perhaps one should not call them leaders-makes no attempt to suppress the old culture unless it directly impinges on their power and privileges. Indeed, when the old culture can promote tourism and therefore bring in foreign exchange, it is actively cultivated. A recently built mausoleum in pseudo-Mongolian style adorns the spot where Chinggis [Genghis] Khan is almost certainly not buried, there are bogus Confucian ceremonies in the sage’s home town, and veritable human zoos purport to showcase traditional minority nationality cultures. Even secret societies, which brought about the downfall of more than one dynasty, can be cooperated with in return for suitable contributions to officials’ bank accounts. The sale of public offices, the bane of many a dynasty, has returned as well.
Ironically, in light of his well-documented cruelties, people express nostalgia for the days of Mao. The communist party’s fault may lie less in its flawed ideals than in its inability to resist a return to the less attractive attributes of traditional China. Were the party to be overthrown as Chang predicts, the country would be likely to return to the sheet of loose sand that Sun Yat-sen deplored. Its critics will not have the communist party to kick around any more. But after it is gone, many people will regret the party’s absence. They will not miss the party that they toppled from power so much as the party with ideals that they put in power in 1949. Post-communist leaders may be no better than the old ones, and might even be worse. If Chang is right, little Jason may not actually have hope after all.
June Teufel Dreyer is a professor of political science at the University of Miami.