Despite the opacity of Chinese politics, it is clear that things are going badly wrong there. In just the last week, we’ve seen
- The rejection of the officially backed candidates in Hong Kong’s local election
- Leaks exposing the massive repression of the Uighur population
- The defection of an alleged Chinese spy, with allegations of interference in Australia’s domestic politics
- Clear evidence that the energy transformation towards renewables has been abandoned or downplayed in favor of the revival of suspended coal projects
We can add to that longer term problems such as the failure to resolve the trade war with the US, and the slow-motion trainwreck of the Belt and Road Initiative.
At the core of much of this is the central government’s incapacity to control what goes in the provinces. I wrote about this a while ago in relation to coal, and it’s clearly evident both in the failure to control events in Hong Kong and in the resort to state terror in Xinjiang. It’s also true in relation to the Belt and Road, which has turned from a geopolitical grand strategy to a slush fund for provincial politicians and SOEs seeking easy money in corrupt overseas investment deals.
This is unlikely to work well for China, and failure in China bodes ill for the rest of us. Most obviously, if China’s coal projects follow their current trajectory, there is no chance of stabilizing the global climate.
But more generally, it seems hard to see how the current integrated global economy, with China playing a central role, can be sustained. Trump’s trade war was largely motivated by a pre-modern mercantilist analysis, but now that has started, it seems unlikely to stop, even if Trump loses in 2020.
I’ve been sceptical both of the idea that Chinese activity in the South China Sea is a major problem and of attacks on Chinese influence in Australia. While I still think these claims are overblown, it is hard to see the current Chinese state as anything other than a bad actor, one of many we have to confront today.