As China’s celebration of Golden Week, the holiday commemorating the founding of the People’s Republic on October 1st, 1949, winds down and millions of Chinese return to their everyday routines, it is a time to consider the obstacles that the world’s most populous nation currently faces. China’s famed economic growth has been slowing recently and many wonder if Beijing will be able to persist and maybe eventually overtake the United States. In a recent book, Yan Xuetong, the Dean of Tsinghua University’s International Relations Department and one of China’s most prominent public intellectuals, optimistically forecasts that China will, in fact, be able to maintain its growth. Yan argues in History’s Inertia (lishi de guanxing), his new book, that China should be able to maintain its economic boom over the next decade and maintain an annual growth rate of roughly 5% after that, which will be enough to see China become a global superpower. The key to achieving this, Yan asserts, is introducing substantive reforms that will allow the country to adapt and overcome circumstances just like during the “reform and opening” that Deng Xiaoping oversaw in the 1980s. Those reforms allowed China to recover from decades of stifling central control and grow into the powerful nation it is today. Here is a rundown of some of the main issues these new reforms will have to address in the coming years. All of these topics are worthy of extensive and in-depth exploration, but a brief overview will suffice for now.
Corruption: This is probably the most serious issue because no matter what reforms Xi Jinping and co. introduce, nothing will happen if Beijing can’t enforce them adequately and uniformly, and local government officials are notoriously evasive when it comes to doing things that they don’t exactly want to. As I predicted in an earlier post, Beijing seems intent on demonstrating that it is serious about cracking down on high-profile corruption; Bo Xilai’s life sentence, which was harsher than many expected, is a strong indicator of this seriousness. Beijing’s merciless conviction of one of the nation’s most well-loved and well-pedigreed rising political stars should have sent a clear message to those who might consider graft or using their offices for personal gain. Xi has gone on the record saying that tackling corruption is his highest priority; taking down a highly visible crook is one thing, but most Chinese are more concerned about small-time official corruption than headline-grabbing national cases. The local corruption cases are the cause of most of the things that make the Chinese lose faith in their government, such as poorly constructed infrastructure projects that collapse, contamination of food due to poor industrial oversight, and a general lack of faith in the justice system. For real success over the long term that will help maintain the public’s confidence in the government, Beijing needs to keep doing more to create a pervasive anti-corruption culture in all levels of government, not just catch the big fish.
Population and labor force: China’s population is expected to peak at 1.4 billion around 2026. While a population as large as this brings its own particular problems, the biggest threat to continued Chinese growth and stability stemming from this is the dependency ratio. The dependency ratio is the number of non-workers (i.e., dependents) to workers in an economy and is a crucial indicator of growth prospects; an economy that is too weighed down by elderly and children will have difficulty accumulating savings, among other things. China is aging quickly, setting up a series of major problems later on. This is tied to the fertility rate, which has been falling for decades and is currently 1.56. China’s labor force peaked in 2011 and saw a decline of .6% in 2012. As the labor force continues to shrink, China will be hard-pressed to keep up its economic growth. Beijing has been thinking about reforming the One Child Policy for some time but has only adopted the mildest of modifications. Improvements will not happen overnight even if radical policy changes are made; indeed, with a chronic problem like this, only long-term solutions can work, so radical adjustments would not help even if the Party wanted to take that route. Since there will not be enough working-aged adults in China to comfortably support both themselves and dependents in coming years, one solution may be to allow in more immigrants, but given the already huge population, this is politically sketchy at best. There have been other consequences of China’s artificially manipulated fertility, such as gender-based selective abortions that have caused men to severely outnumber women, but arguably the labor force issue is poised to create the biggest stumbling block for the country.
Pollution: China’s pollution problem includes both air quality and contamination of other natural resources. As was mentioned in an earlier post, Beijing is planning a massive 1.7 trillion RMB initiative to combat smog. This plan will reduce PM2.5 contamination by 25% , lower Beijing coal use by 50%, cap the number of vehicles at 6 million, and force 1,200 companies to either close up or meet stricter standards by 2017. This plan, if successful, could prove to be a model for the other Chinese cities that suffer the most from smog – Beijing isn’t even the most polluted – and go a long way toward satisfying the demands of the increasingly well-off urban middle class for cleaner living. The more the government is associated with unclean air, the less legitimacy it will retain in the eyes of the public as the effects become increasingly visible. Cleaning up the air and water will be crucial both to maintain the Communist Party’s legitimacy and to keep the health of the Chinese people from being harmed any further than is already unavoidable.
Water: China has about 6% of the world’s fresh water supply and has to provide for a fifth of the entire human race with that amount. According to the Wilson Center, however, one out of every two gallons of water in China is polluted. Half of all groundwater and 2/3 of all surface water is contaminated. This is largely from industrial pollution but also from power generation: 70% of all power in China comes from coal, consumption of which will increase as much as 30% in the near future. What’s more, the processing and use of coal requires a great deal of water, which is already scarce in much of China: 80% of the nation’s coal comes from water-scarce regions. Further complicating this is the fact that most of China’s water is in the south, whereas most of its agricultural land is in the north. The government has just finished a massive undertaking to re-route water from the southern, more heavily populated regions to the relatively sparsely populated north… in order to grow the food with which to feed the population-heavy south. China, as the world’s largest grain producer, desperately needs water to grow its food but at the same time is increasing its use in power generation, which demands more water, leaving less for domestic use. At current rates, China is expected to be more or less out of water as soon as 2030. Beijing desperately needs a solution here since water is literally the sine qua non of everything else it might wish to do: without a stable water supply, no country can hope to survive. A good place to start would be to cut back on energy that requires water – the tricky part is that most methods of conventional power generation also require water, not just hydropower – and to import more grain while decreasing domestic production, but this problem has no easy solution and few hard ones.
Human rights: Yan Xuetong believes that as China’s power draws nearer to the US’s, the differences in the ideological aspects of their political institutions will weaken, which will include their views on human rights. For the time being, however, Beijing is infamous for its problematic relations with ethnic minorities, its issues with human trafficking, and its harsh crackdowns on political dissenters. In order to be viewed as legitimate in the eyes of the world, Beijing must attempt to resolve these matters favorably. Even the issues that seem simple, however, like internet restrictions, are politically difficult: as long as the Party fears that an open and free internet will undermine its power, net access will remain restricted. Some observers were hopeful that a new free trade zone in Shanghai with unrestricted internet access might herald a new liberality in this regard, but these reports were ultimately proven false for now.
Much of early Chinese political thought strongly emphasizes the aspect of morality in the leadership of a state; if a state is governed with morality, others will naturally be drawn to it and validate its authority without a need for subjugation by force. In the 7th century BCE, Guanzi wrote, “If a country is large but governed by one who is petty, the country will be governed in accordance with that man; if the country is small but governed by a great man, the benefit to the country will be great.” Without this element of morality, only military strength will be able to maintain a country’s status, which will fade as its power does. This is the difference between “humane authority” and a hegemony or tyranny. If China is to become (and remain) a superpower over the next decade, humane authority will be the only way to both overcome its current obstacles and remain stable in the future. If it tries to hold onto power merely through sheer force and fails to address its underlying critical contradictions, as other superpowers have tried to do in the past, it may end up on the ash-heap of history, after all.
Alexander Bowe has an MA in International Studies from the Korbel School and is currently a doctoral candidate in Political Science at Tsinghua University.