John Robb offers a counter-intuitive assessment of China’s path arguing that, rather than The Next Big Threat, it could be on the verge of collapse.
While the US Department of Defense continues to focus on the emerging threat of China as a conventional power and Goldman Sachs contemplates the exact date of China’s emergence as the world’s leading economy, another scenario is building steam: that China will implode.
When China’s economy does head south (since it is inevitable that all prolonged booms eventually go bust), the government’s lack of legitimacy will likely become THE central issue. Also, while some could argue that a pacifist “color” revolution will step into any breach emerges, I wouldn’t put too much faith in it. The government will resist the rise of any mass political movement violently, and it will likely be successful in this effort. Instead, the real opposition will come from a reemergence of primary loyalties that drive the development of small groups of global guerrillas.
To some extent, this may be a case of an analyst looking at all phenomena through a single prism (“if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”). Still, he cites an interesting study by Thomas Lum [PDF] of the Congressional Research Service detailing China’s woes. From the executive summary:
In the past few years, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has experienced rising social unrest, including protests, demonstrations, picketing, and group petitioning. According to PRC official sources, “public order disturbances” have grown by nearly 50% in the past two years, from 58,000 incidents in 2003 to 87,000 in 2005. Although political observers have described social unrest among farmers and workers since the early 1990s, recent protest activities have been broader in scope, larger in average size, greater in frequency, and more brash than those of a decade ago. Fears of greater unrest have triggered debates with the Communist Party leadership about the pace of economic reforms and the proper way to respond to protesters.
Workers in state-owned enterprises and the special economic zones producing goods for export, peasants and urban residents who have lost their farmland or homes to development projects, and others have engaged in mass protests, some of them violent, often after having exhausted legal channels for resolving grievances. A December 2005 clash between villagers and police in Dongzhou village, southeastern Guangdong province, in which 3-20 villagers were killed, has became a symbol of
the depth of anger of those with grievances and the inability of Chinese administrative, legal, and political institutions to resolve disputes peacefully. U.S. interests regarding social unrest in China include human rights concerns, ongoing U.S.-funded democracy and rule-of-law programs in the country, the effects of social unrest on U.S. investments in China, and the effects on PRC foreign policy.
Growing disparities of income, official corruption, and the lack of democratic institutions are likely to continue to fuel social unrest. The potential for widespread social upheaval has captured the keen attention of the Communist Party leadership. However, in the medium term, the PRC government is likely to be able to contain protests through policies that mix accommodation and violence and that promote continued economic growth. Most analysts do not expect social unrest to evolve into
a national political movement unless linkages among disaffected groups strengthen and other social groups, particularly the middle class, intellectuals, and students, join the protests as well.
For good reason, we have a tendency to overestimate the capabilities of our rivals. But the idea that the PRC is going to emerge as a peer competitor any time soon has always struck me as absurd. The have a huge population and lots of human capital, to be sure. But they have an incredible number of obstacles to overcome, as well.