Why This May Not be China’s Century

Shanghai Skyline

The Shanghai Skyline, by dawvon (Pudong) via Wikimedia Commons.

Over the past few centuries, China has suffered its fair share of embarrassments.  From the Opium Wars to the Great Leap Forward, its hailed position as the middle kingdom has been eroded time and again.  Deeply engrained into the psyche of China’s populous is the belief that China must reclaim its position as a world power.  This stark contrast between China’s idealized status today, and the ruinous state of China a mere half-century ago, resulted in a cognitive dissonance among its populous that has no doubt been a strong catalyst for recent economic reforms.

Gradually implemented reforms such as dual-track pricing, liberalization of socialist policies, and expansion of investment between China and foreign powers has brought about three decades of maintaining nearly 10% growth rates, an extraordinary feat for a nation that was on the verge of collapse fifty years ago.

Its recent ascension as the world’s second largest economy, coupled with potential increases in domestic spending and widespread domestic and foreign investments, have led many to call this century “China’s century.” Yet this optimistic forecast quickly sours when one considers the slew of imminent crises confronting China over the coming decades.

Implemented to curb China’s booming population growth rate, the one-child policy is sowing the seeds of China’s demographic and economic crises.  With the vast majority of families proscribed from having more than one child, China enjoyed an enormous demographic dividend – defined as the economic benefit a country experiences when it has a low ratio of dependent to independent workers – over the past three decades.

This dividend is already starting to expire.  By 2050, 25% of China’s populous will be above the age of 65.  Attempts to solve the demographic crunch by relaxing the one-child policy will prove futile, as any increase in China’s birth rate will only reap modest effects some two decades from now.  Furthermore, as a consequence of this policy, China’s gender distribution has already taken a heavy toll.  A well-established trend in China is the preference of male rather than female children, which has resulted in scores of sex-selective abortions. With an estimated 30-40 million more boys than girls in China, millions of young bachelors will now be unable to find wives.  Add sexual frustration to their already bleak economic prospects, and millions of disgruntled male migrant workers will be even more inclined to take to the streets in the name of political protest.

In addition to economic stagnation and political upheaval is a housing bubble throughout the PRC.  Fueled by greed and overly optimistic homeowners, price to rent ratios across China have skyrocketed past stable levels.  Flawed social expectations have only exacerbated this impending bubble.  Across China owning a home is a prerequisite for finding a wife.  With millions of only children, bachelors are in a position to seek financial assistance from both parents and grandparents, and pay grossly inflated prices for real estate acquisition.  It is unclear how the Politburo plans to address the housing market’s impending crisis.  What is clear is that whether the housing market encounters gradual deflation or a bubble burst, China’s economic prospects will suffer as a result.

Government action to address widespread pollution will bring about similar economic decline.  Two winters ago, China’s AQI (air quality index) broke records when it surpassed 800. Prior to this incident, measures of AQI had never exceeded 500.  Across China, pollution’s wrath has affected the health and economic livelihood of its population.  In Beijing it is now common for parents to select their children’s schools based upon the quality of their air filtration systems.  One particularly noxious chemical, PM 2.5, is found in hazardous doses across Mainland China.  Until China adequately addresses this affront to its citizens’ health and well-being, it will continue to pay increasing social and economic costs.

In spite of China’s woes, there remains a chance at redemption.  This may not be China’s century in terms of economic and geopolitical supremacy, but it may be their century to pave the way for environmental protection, sustainable development, and economic and political reform.  In the words of Churchill, “Failure is never fatal, success is never permanent.  The only thing that really matters is never giving up.”  This of course assumes that China’s population of 150 million migrant workers doesn’t take to the streets, overthrow the Communist Party, and support a military coup.  That could just be the straw that breaks the camels back.

Deciphering The Third Plenum Report

The Key to Addressing Reforms When You Have No Intention of Implementation

18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China

18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China. By 东方 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The hardest thing about running an authoritarian regime is assuaging the population’s desire for reform without actually doing so. It’s a tricky tightrope act that only the most agile of leaders can master. China’s recent Third Plenum of the 18th Party Congress captured this balancing act in action. Unlike the Third Plenum of the 11th Congress in which Deng Xiaoping clearly articulated a set of free-market, economic reforms, this most recent meeting was a charade. The document released after their three-day meeting, known as the Plenum Communiqué, contained some legitimate calls for change. The only problem was that even in its original language the document is incomprehensible; it lacks coherent solutions and legitimate policy reforms. A drug addict with a monkey stenographer might have been able to pound out a piece of similar – or perhaps greater – substance.

To be fair, identifying necessary reforms in a country plagued by environmental issues, social and economic inequality, and political malfeasance is no easy feat. If Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang and their band of merry men released a statement with too many calls for reform and policy changes, the bar would be set unreasonably high. At the same time, if in the Third Plenum they called for insufficient changes there would be tremendous public outrage that might precipitate political activism.

In this case, being vague is the best approach. If China’s leaders prescribed legitimate reforms for their economy and political systems, just think of the instability it might prompt. The millions of migrant workers who are denied health insurance, educational opportunities, and economic freedom would get overexcited. Calls to curtail environmental pollution would give the millions of Chinese who live in cities with toxic PM 2.5 levels such a sense of relief that they might pass out on the streets during rush hour, dying of asphyxiation from exhaust fumes. Discussing democratization or even more transparency in government might distract Foxconn workers from assembling iPads. It is clear that rushing into reforms without proper thought and consideration is a bad decision for a country still in the early phases of development.

Engaging In Premature Reform is Dangerous

For now the safest way to engage in reform is by avoiding said reform at all costs. They say the longer you wait for policy changes the better they feel. The right time for reform implementation, however, remains unclear. One can’t simply engage in pre-hegemonic reform. At the moment, the party is simply waiting for that special generation to come along. The wait of course will be worth it.
China’s 18th Party Congress can’t be upfront about the fact that reforms may be only attainable in the far-away future. China’s 1.3 billion people are bursting with all kinds of desires to experiment politically, economically and socially. If China was too upfront about its intention to postpone reform, there might be a nasty schism and nationwide protests. And it isn’t that the Communist Party doesn’t want to reform with its people. It just doesn’t feel ready.

How to Lead on Your Population in the Most Effective Way

Sure you can’t engage in it, but you definitely can talk about it. Even just saying the word over and over can excite your countrymen enough without succumbing to their desires. It’s for this reason that in the Plenum Communiqué there was a lot of mention of reform and other words that are sure to excite its disgruntled, frustrated citizens. According to a press release by the Beijing News, no prior Third Plenum report had as many uses of the word ‘reform’.

The Plenum stressed that to comprehensively deepen reform, we must hold high the magnificent banner of Socialism with Chinese characteristics, take Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, the important ‘Three Represents’ thought and the scientific development view as guidance, persist in beliefs, concentrate a consensus, comprehensively plan matters, move forward in a coordinated manner, persist in the reform orientation of the Socialism market economy, make stimulating social fairness and justice, and enhancing the people’s welfare into starting points and stopover points, further liberate thoughts, liberate and develop social productive forces, liberate and strengthen social vitality, firmly do away with systemic and mechanistic abuses in all areas, and strive to open up an even broader prospect for the undertaking of Socialism with Chinese characteristics.

Chinese readers must have gotten excited just reading this. “Persist…”, “concentrate…”, “stimulate…” This proactive language would leave any reform-deprived person brimming with optimism, if only for a while. One Chinese blogger wrote, “In the end it’s not important whether the document is consistent from beginning to end, because everyone can find what they need in it.” So long as Chinese citizens are satisfied with their government toying with reform, the Communist Party may be able to kick the can down the road and refrain from true policy changes for some time. Sure, citizens’ reform frustrations will continue, but at least everyone can be assured that no one is rushing into any big decisions.