What I’ve been reading and watching (crossposted at CT)

Yesterday, I went to see Cry of the Snow Lion, about the Tibetan independence struggle. The film was interesting and well worth seeing, and jogged me to start on a post I’ve been meaning to write for some time on the question: How long can the current Chinese government survive?

It struck me, after watching the film, that the closest parallel is with the last days of the Suharto period in Indonesia. Among the themes suggested to me were

* the gradual decay of Communist ideology, and its replacement by a vague nationalism, bolstered by rapid economic growth

* the rise of faceless nonentities like Hu Jintao to replace monstrous giants like Mao

* the role of the People’s Liberation Army in a range of business ventures

* transmigration programs of Han Chinese into Tibet and other minority areas

Just like Golkar in its latter days, the regime has no real class base, no compelling ideological claim to power, and a rapidly depreciating “mandate of heaven” derived from the revolutionary period.

The 60 million members of the Communist Party are now, for the most part, mere card-carriers. And although the party and army leaders have their fingers in plenty of business pies, they don’t constitute an effective management committee of the ruling class. Rather they are a backward and parasitic component of that class.

All of this, it seems to me, is symptomatic of a regime that appears immovable, but may collapse like a house of cards given the appropriate push, which may come either from an economic crisis or from a succession crisis, if Hu runs into some trouble or other.

Those interested in this topic might like to look at Fabian’s Hammer, which is focused mainly on developments in China. I don’t agree with a lot of the implied background position, but I share the author’s view of the Chinese government.

7 thoughts on “What I’ve been reading and watching (crossposted at CT)

  1. Scary stuff. It seems to be particularly important for world economic stability for the Chinese to remain tolerant of the massive borrowing by the US (now seemingly intent on ignoring its bank balance and relying on its status as world policeman and R&D engine).

    Such tolerance requires the restraint of Chinese nationalism. If the Chinese government comes under threat from within they may play the nationalist card. Which is not to say the Chinese people don’t deserve a government prepared to curb exploitation and corruption, prevent environment degradation, provide minimum living standards, uphold the rule of law, etc etc.

    May all of that happen, but manageably.

  2. I think you are right by suggesting that it may only be a matter of time. The Taiwan issue is one that could prove to be the wedge that splits the irrational, traditional party heads away from China’s teeming masses.

    People’s Republic of China? Not any more, if indeed it ever was. Step by step China is becoming something like a free-marketeering dictatorship, and the Chinese people must be starting to wonder why the current leadership still hold the reins of power like it is their birth right.

  3. A sudden crisis (it mayhap it need be no more than a bursting bubble and the prospect of a coupla hundred million people on the new economy’s slagheap) is just as likely to move a government struggling to reclaim its mass support to put the nation into patriotic war-mode. Taiwan is made to order.

    If there’s anything to that, let’s hope it’s not on for a while, as Unca Sam’s conventional military has its hands rather full just now, and that may make the deployment of wmds more likely.

    An absolute pearler of a worst-case scenario, perhaps, but we have some real dick-swingin’ hombres striding the world stage these days …

  4. Pr Q’ analogy b/w the CCP & GOLKAR is suggestive but not conclusiive. THe CCP, for one, is acquring new territories, eg Hong Kong and probably Taiwan. GOLKAR divested itself of territories. National consolidation is not the sign of a moribund apparat.
    The one party states that oversaw national modernisation during the 20th C are certainly heading for the Dustbin of History, if they arent there already. eg PRI, CCCP, KMT, etc. China has a very long history of national coherence under a unified dynastic leadership. One wonders whether the Party is mimicking that process.
    THe CCP seems to be trying to make the transition from a class to a nation based party. It is recruiting capitalists into the party ranks, which may infuse the party with new and more vigorous blood. There are signs of intra-party democracy and occasionally the Party appears to consider non-Party political constituencies.
    Chi-Com appartachiks seem to be drawn from engineering backgrounds. This is a good sign. They also seem interested in prgamatic progress rather than faithful adherence to doctrines. Technological pragmatism can go along way to oversome the deformities of corruption and nepotism.
    A Chinese economic collapse may cause an abrupt partisan re-alignment. But this crisis have to go through the formality of actually occurring.

  5. Jack: The CCP acquired Hong Kong and Macao once the leases were up: hardly a precedent for acquiring Taiwan. It acquired Tibet in 1949 – more that 50 years. It has some disputed territories with India and Pakistan, but they’r relatively very small. And when it tried to invade Việt Nam (the country where I currently reside) in the late 70s, it got whipped. The reputation of the PLA as an unstoppable force is overhyped.

    I agree with you that a crisis is more likely to lead to war than a change of government. But war with whom? There’s Taiwan, but I think the country could beat off the PLA even if unaided by the U.S. There’s the Spralty Islands, but there are several other countries that claim the area. I think a civil war is more likely.

    One difference between the CCP and Golkar is that there aren’t that many high-profile opposition politicians in China (like Megawati and Amien Rais were in the late 90s). Who are the opposition going to gather around in China?

  6. The precedent for acquiring Taiwan is the way it held out as a rump Ming dynasty territory for a generation after the rest of China passed to the Manchus. It too passed to them in the fulness of time. You can bet both lots of Chinese know the precedent.

  7. There is another parallel that can be noted between the situation of the CCP and that of Suharto, in terms of the bases of Australian policy.

    The first is that the emerging Canberra consensus to support China against the US vis-a-vis Taiwan is as strategically sound as was the Jakarta lobby’s three decades of support for Suharto. A perceived unarguable strategic necessity (“we must get on the China (economy) train before it leaves the station or others take our seat”) is in fact just as dubious a form of “realism” as was the presumed benefits of support for a supposedly eternal dictatorship in Indonesia.

    Moreover, as with the Indonesian case, the supporters of this position in Canberra (note the Foreign Minister’s “slip” in Beijing a month or so back) believe that national policy on support for a dictatorship will be able to be decided by elite policy-makers without reference to public opinion. Obviously no-one wishes the Taiwanese leadership to make any foolish or needlessly provocative moves. But if push comes to shove, social movements in support of Taiwanese democracy will be viable and potent pressures on both Canberra and Washington. There may be a perfectly sensible argument for expansion of trade with China, but that should not detract attention from the likely insecurity that will come from a closer strategic embrace with an authoritarian state with ever decreasing legitimacy and sources of enduring authority.

    In both cases, Australian policy based on systematic aversion of attention to the foundation of a strategic partnership built on large-scale and ongoing violations of human rights was justified in the name of realism and stability. In fact, rather than realism, it was and is simple brutality, and not particularly realistic in the light of a subsequently unstable history.

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