The next emperor of China

The Economist ran a typically cheeky cover on this week’s issue showing a photograph of an elusive Xi Jinping poking out from behind a red curtain under the headline “The next emperor.” On Oct. 18th, Xi was appointed Vice-President and given a new job as vice-chairman of China’s Central Military Commission. That was enough for The Economist to dub him the “crown prince” of “a vast kingdom facing vaster stresses.” He is likely to take over command of both the Communist Party and the Presidency of the republic in 2012.

The Economist‘s cover is both cheeky and prescient: China’s Communist leaders are, in fact, ruling and reforming the country much like the late Qing Dynasty a century ago. Back then, the Manchu rulers instituted widespread reforms in almost every sphere of life in China. The empire underwent massive social and economic transformation. There is one area, however, where the Imperial rulers of yore, like the Communists today, refused to make significant changes. That’s political reform, an issue which The Economist correctly raises as central to China’s future.

A lack of political reform makes the ruling regime especially vulnerable in the face of slowing growth and rising expectations from its citizenry. As I point out in my book, the country is beset by innumerable challenges:

violent ethnic unrest sporadically flares up among the Uyghur and Tibetans; the population is aging at a troubling rate thanks to the one-child policy; selective abortion has created a dangerous imbalance of young men in parts of the country; corruption is rife; an angry nationalism is percolating among the disenfranchised; vast areas appear on the verge of ecological collapse; climate change could seriously undermine food security; the stock exchange, according to one economist I met, is “a gaming casino;” there aren’t enough good jobs for millions of graduates; many state-owned enterprises remain stubbornly inefficient; easy credit, politicized lending and murky balance sheets threaten the stability of the banking system. Many of these problems are interconnected so that a crisis in one area could spill over into others, potentially leading to widespread social breakdown. The Communist Party thus maintains a seemingly iron grip, recognizing that it faces stresses unimaginable to the Manchus a century ago.

Yet what China really needs is to loosen censorship over the media and begin to institute more significant political reforms, especially at the local level where citizens are often the victims of callous and corrupt officials. More accountable government and legitimate avenues (elections) that allow citizens to air their concerns and grievances will help to create a more stable and prosperous China.

Of course, while things are going well – and they have been going well in China despite the Great Recession in the West – there is little demand for political reform, even from the bottom up. It is when things aren’t going well that there will be vocal and strident demands for political reform. That’s why the Communist Party is so focused on growth and employment: keeping its citizens happy will stave off calls for political reform. The cautionary tale from the Qing Dynasty, however, is that if political reform is “too late, too little” then social and economic crises can snowball into a political crisis and widespread social unrest. That’s ultimately what happened in 1911 when the Qing Dynasty was overthrown.

“Too many Westerners… assume that they are dealing with a self-confident, rational power that has come of age,” The Economist cautions. “Think instead of a paranoid, introspective imperial court, already struggling to keep up with its subjects and now embarking on a slightly awkward succession—and you may be less disappointed.”

As The Economist rightly points out, China is a fragile empire. I expect that as economic growth slows, there will be growing calls for political reform. Eventually, a tipping point will be reached, and the demands will then come fast and furious. Many will be surprised by this rapid development. But for anyone willing to look, the writing isn’t just on the wall, it’s also in the history books.

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  • Steve

    With all the problems you accurately mention, you do not mention the most important one, a total lack of spirituality and morality. And with no way to vent frustrations, tens and hundreds of millions of Chinese seek spiritual comfort in underground religion. That will be the source of the collapse.

  • Trevor

    Parallels are easy to draw between carefully selected elements of history, especially when one has a preconceived political agenda that one wishes to substantiate. I can certainly respect your personal experiences from your travels in the Middle Kingdom. However it is clear that despite your travels, you clearly lack (or choose to ignore) a real understanding of the historical context of the Qings’ overthrow. Surely you’re familiar with the century of abuse and exploitation of the Chinese nation at the hands of Western imperial powers under the watch of Qing rulers. And surely you’re also familiar that the native Han inhabitants had resented through four centuries the rule of the hated Manchu. The overiding factor behind the removal of China’s last imperial dynasty was the perception that it was weak and had outlasted its usefulness. Indeed, it had attempted to modernize “too late, too little.” So long as the Communist Party continues to raise the standard of living of its citizens and protect its interest from “foreign invaders” and hegemonists, the people will tolerate its continued rule. This has been the case through 4000 years of history, and as you so astutely point out, no one is better than the Chinese to learn the lessons from its history.


    Tan vincent855 ecrit:

    Je ne me montre pas du tout inquiet au sujet de ‘China Rise’ comme la plupart des articles ecrites par les memes Occidentaux (Westeners writers)qui ont tendance a s’enfermer dans leur pensee unique (one-thinking),celle de s habituer de la domination du monde par le meme SuperPower.
    For the next decades, nous assisterons a la montee continuelle en puissance de la Chine et egalement au renforcement de l Union europeene (EU)et eventuellement a l entree en scene internationale des Nations emergentes (NATEMs)- un monde plus equilibre doit etre multi-polaire.

  • Michael Hemp

    Eric does it again. Seeing China in focus.