Communist China’s real test begins: How to avoid a political hard landing

Challenges at 60 year

The problem is politics, not economics

By Brahma Chellaney The Washington Times October 2, 2009

Six decades after it
was founded, the People’s Republic of China can truly be proud of its
remarkable achievements. An impoverished, backward state in 1949, it has risen
dramatically and now commands respect and awe in the world. But such success
has come at great cost to its own people.

In fact, China’s future
remains more uncertain than ever. It faces a worrisome paradox: Because of an
opaque, repressive political system, the more it globalizes, the more
vulnerable it becomes internally. At the core of its challenges is how to make
a political soft landing.

In terms of
post-World War II growth, unlike its Asian peers Japan
and India, China first
concentrated on acquiring military muscle. By the time Deng Xiaoping launched
his economic-modernization program, China already had tested its first
intercontinental ballistic missile, the 7,460-mile DF-5, and developed
thermonuclear weaponry. The military muscle gave Beijing the much-needed security to focus on
civilian modernization, helping it to fuel its remarkable economic rise, which,
in turn, has armed it with even greater resources to sharpen its claws.

China‘s economy has
expanded thirteenfold in the last 30 years. Consequently, China has
arrived as a global economic player, with its state-owned corporate behemoths
frenetically buying foreign firms, technologies and resources. Add to the
picture its rapidly swelling foreign-exchange coffers. Beijing, thus, is well-positioned
geopolitically to further expand its influence.

Its defense strategy
since the Mao Zedong era has been founded on a simple premise – that the
capacity to defend oneself with one’s own resources is the first test a nation
has to pass on the way to becoming a great power. So, even when China was poor,
it consciously put the accent on building comprehensive national power.

Today, its rapidly
accumulating power raises concerns because even when it was backward and
internally troubled, it employed brute force to annex Xinjiang (1949) and Tibet
(1950), to raid South Korea (1950), to invade India (1962), to initiate a
border conflict with the Soviet Union through a military ambush (1969), and to
attack Vietnam (1979). A prosperous, militarily strong China cannot
but be a threat to its neighbors, especially if there are no constraints on the
exercise of Chinese power.

Communist China
actually began as an international pariah state. Today, it is courted by the
world. Its rise in one generation as a world power under authoritarian rule has
come to epitomize the qualitative reordering of international power. As the
latest U.S. intelligence
assessment predicts, China
is "poised to have more impact on the world over the next 20 years than
any other country."

A long-term vision
and unflinching pursuit of goals have been key drivers. But China’s rise
also has been aided by good fortune on multiple strategic fronts. First, Beijing’s reform process
benefited from good timing, coming as it did at the start of globalization
three decades ago. Second, the Soviet Union’s sudden collapse delivered an
immense strategic boon, eliminating a menacing empire and opening the way for Beijing to rapidly
increase strategic space globally. Russia’s
decline in the 1990s became China’s
gain. And third, there has been a succession of China-friendly U.S. presidents in the past two decades – a
significant period that has coincided with China’s ascension.

China‘s rise, indeed,
owes a lot to the West’s decision not to sustain trade sanctions after the 1989 Tiananmen Square
massacre, but instead to integrate Beijing
with global institutions through the liberalizing influence of foreign
investment and trade. That the choice made was wise can be seen from the
baneful impact of the opposite decision that was taken on Burma from the
late 1980s – to pursue a penal approach centered on sanctions. Had the
Burma-type approach been applied against China
internationally, the result would have been a less prosperous, less open and
potentially destabilizing China.

Although China has
come a long way since Tiananmen Square, with its citizens now enjoying property
rights, the freedom to travel overseas and other rights that were unthinkable a
generation ago, the political power still rests with the same party and system
responsible for the death of tens of millions of Chinese during the so-called
Great Leap Forward, Cultural Revolution and other state-induced disasters.

The greatest
genocide in modern world history was not the Holocaust but the Great Leap
Forward, a misguided charge toward industrialization that left 36 million
people dead, according to "Tombstone," a recent book by longtime
Chinese communist Yang Jisheng.

That the Communist Party
continues to monopolize power despite its past gory excesses is remarkable.
This is now the oldest autocracy in the world. The longest any autocratic
system survived in modern history was 74 years in the Soviet
Union.

Although China has moved
from being a totalitarian state to being an authoritarian state, some things
haven’t changed since the Mao years. Some other things have changed for the
worse, such as the whipping up of ultranationalism and turning that into the
legitimating credo of communist rule. Attempts to bend reality to the illusions
the state propagates through information control and online censors actually
risk turning China
into a modern-day Potemkin state.

While India celebrates diversity, China honors
artificially enforced monoculturalism, although it officially comprises 56
nationalities. China
seeks not only to play down its ethnic diversity, but also to conceal the
cultural and linguistic cleavages among the Han majority, lest the historical
north-south fault lines resurface with a vengeance. The Han – split in at least
seven linguistically and culturally distinct groups – are anything but
homogenous.

China‘s internal problems
– best symbolized by the 2008 Tibetan uprising and this year’s Uighur revolt –
won’t go away unless Beijing
stops imposing cultural homogeneity and abandons ethnic drowning as state
strategy in minority lands. But given the regime’s entrenched cultural
chauvinism and tight centralized control, that is unlikely to happen. After
all, President Hu Jintao’s slogan of a "harmonious society" is
designed to undergird the theme of conformity with the state.

More fundamentally,
if China manages to resolve
the stark contradictions between its two systems – market capitalism and
political monocracy – just the way Asian "tigers" like South Korea and Taiwan
were able to make the transition to democracy without crippling turbulence at
home, China could emerge as
a peer competitor to the United
States. Political modernization, not
economic modernization, thus is the central challenge staring at China. If it is
to build and sustain a great-power capacity, it has to avoid a political hard
landing.

Internationally, China’s trajectory will depend on how its
neighbors and other players like the United States manage its growing
power. Such management – independently and in partnership – will determine if China stays on
the positive side of the ledger, without its power sliding into arrogance.

Brahma Chellaney, professor of
strategic studies at the independent, privately funded Center for Policy
Research in New Delhi, is the author, most recently, of "Asian Juggernaut:
The Rise of China, India and Japan."

Copyright 2009 The Washington
Times, LLC 

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