Trying to Figure Out China: Do Pigs Float Before They Fly?

If you like political infighting especially the nastiness, your career begins in the minor domestic leagues – local, state then national – before a select few are chosen for the majors: foreign policy. There no battle is ever forgotten nor slight forgiven. Pundits love it because the fighting never ends.

Though the Middle East is always a reliable competitor as the arena of choice for battling experts, pontificating on China is giving that region a good run for attention. Opinions range from global domination to failed state with no lack of confidence in either view or most in between.

The “China Wins” side cites “rapidly growing influence,” “world conquest,” “world remade in Beijing’s image,” and “destined to become a Western-style democracy.” Naming your book “The Devouring Dragon” or “China’s Silent Army” is an attention getter that reminds of the Japan books of the late 1980’s. Perhaps these will be more prescient?

Some on the “No It Doesn’t” side look at indicators of progress from a country’s “middle-income” status, where China finds itself in today’s world rankings. Of the 62 middle-income countries in 1980, only three have made it to the “rich” country level a third of a century later. Those that did were ranked “double plus” on property rights, rule of law, fair taxation and equal opportunity. Today China scores “double minus” on those measures. In fact, the 1980 middle-income countries were three times more likely to move into the poor category than the rich one.

Managing a population in excess of a billion is no easy task especially when some ethnic groups have had severe disputes with others. What do you do if the Tibetans hate you but their region supplies your water? Is censoring the Internet a long-term answer?

Military adventure is always a unifier and there are plenty of opportunities with two Koreas, Japan, Taiwan and the rest of Southeast Asia as neighbors (to say nothing of India), but what if your military is 25 years away from a competitive air force and 30 years away from a viable aircraft carrier as some suggest? And what if your military is even more a series of rival fiefdoms than our Pentagon?

Some believe there are more communists in Berkeley or in Italy than there are in China, but overcoming the importance of the Communist Party in a one party country is a hopeless endeavor. President Xi Jinxing first took over the Communist Party, then the military and finally the presidency – presumably the order of importance.

According to The Economist, the consequences of the one-child policy continue with Chinese demographers saying, “the social and economic damage done by the policy will be felt for generations.” The politicians are reluctant to end it and ending it might not change behavior in any event.

The masses have discovered income inequality and they don’t like it. Though they don’t vote, they riot almost daily. Recently, a flotilla of deceased pigs arrived by river in Shanghai seemingly dumped there by farmers upstream. That is not generally viewed as a good sign.

Again, according to The Economist, “there is a vogue in Chinese intellectual circles for reading Alexis de Tocqueville’s 1856 book on the French Revolution, ‘The Old Regime and the Revolution.’ The argument that most resonates in China is that old regimes fall to revolutions not when they resist change, but when they attempt reform yet dash the raised expectations they have evoked. If de Tocqueville was right, Mr. Xi faces an impossible dilemma: to survive, the party needs to reform; but reform in itself might be the biggest danger. Perhaps he will see more fundamental political change as the solution. But then pigs will no longer rot in rivers. They will fly.”

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