There is little doubt, with Europe stagnant and the US gingerly recovering from the economic crises, that China will become increasingly more powerful, at least in relative terms over the next few years. It raises a number of questions. What will China do with its stronger position? What will be its priorities? Will it try to become and act as a hegemon in a bi-polar or multi-polar world? How will it try to achieve its aims? I have no special ability to foresee the future, and I am not a specialist in analyzing China, or politics and economics more broadly, however, I believe that there is, at the moment, a guiding principle for the Chinese policy makers that can be inelegantly termed as the primacy of domestic stability, which will answer, very partially, the questions raised above. The following paragraphs are not fruits of a detailed study or supported by data and evidence, but merely my impressionistic understanding and prediction. Hopefully, I will come back to this, years later, to find that I wasn’t too way out in my interpretations and predictions.
I am assuming, from none other than merely observing from press reports and other literature, that the current regime in the People’s Republic will want to maintain the political status quo, and any kind of democratization and liberalization, or transition to something more recognizably as the rule of law, will take place gradually, perhaps glacially. More importantly, any change must not threaten the governmental structures currently in existence, and maintaining them is the overriding policy aim. As such, China will brook no interference from the outside in its internal affairs. Another assumption I make, perhaps somewhat controversially, is that there has been an implicit social contract between the government and the people in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. The government will make people richer, in return for people’s political docility. In effect, the regime’s legitimacy is not ideology, such as communism, but its ability to deliver economic growth for a large proportion of its population. The failure of post-Soviet Russia in moving from a one-party state to a liberalized economy through a shock therapy is presented as a vindication, both internally and externally, of the crack-down by the Chinese leadership then.
Following on from the above, political stability in China is dependent on a continued economic growth that sufficiently benefits a sufficiently large proportion of the population. The regime will try to make sure that many people have prospects of becoming richer, and perhaps more importantly, it will try to ensure that more people have more to lose from political upheavals than from gaining from them. Therefore it is unlikely that the Chinese government would want to be engaged in a risky and expensive foreign policy, except to secure the necessary materials for continued growth.
A continued growth also means chaning the nature of China’s economy. Over the next few decades, China will be in a phase of transition from an export-oriented economy based on low-value, mass-produced goods, to a more mature and mixed economy with a large domestic market. It is a moot point, whether such transition can take place without altering the political structure, but the lack of the rule of law, such as doubts over ownership of land and enforcement of contracts would probably be more pressing issues.
Naturally, there are many problem areas in China. The country is developing at a phenomenal pace and scale. It is doing what Great Britain achieved over a couple of hundred years, what Japan and South Korea did in many decades, in the shortest possible time, and on the grandest scale imaginable. There are widening gaps between the rich and the poor creating resentment; there are demographic imbalances, both in terms of generations and genders because of the one-child policy and a cultural preference for boys than for girls, that will make the care of the elderly a huge issue as much as excluding a substantial number of men from the marriage market; there are ethnic and religious tensions within China, such as Tibet and East Turkestan, which have no signs of abating; and there are ecological problems, resulting from the rapid industrialization and developments. In other words, China will be facing a number of huge domestic problems, or challenges, in the future.
For this reason, that there are pressing domestic issues that require the attention of the government, and assuming that the regime does not implode, which I also see as a distinct possibility with dire consequences of the geopolitics of the world, China will not be particularly adventurous militarily in projecting its power. However, China will make its presence felt when it relates to resources, raw materials and intellectual properties, that it sees as necessary for further development and economic growth. This is seen in various overseas invesements that China is making. For example, the increased presence of China in African countries can be seen as a trade between raw materials and development aid, with awkward questions such as the nature of the regime unasked. Where China holds the resources, such as in rare earth elements, it has been keen to gain technological and intellectual know-how in return for their export. The Chinese government will be flexible in the means, but it will be steadfast in securing the resources. It will flex its muscle in the wider world, not because the government wants to project power against others for the sake of it, or because it believes in a mission to spread an ideology, but because that would be the most efficient way of achieving its goals. It is in this sense, that the primacy of domestic stability, basically a policy of a continued economic growth, is important, and perhaps needs to be understood by the outsiders.
The pessimist in me thinks that China had missed a wonderful and historic opportunity after the Tiananmen Square protests: the regime could have pursued political as well as economic liberalization. Political liberalization would have proceeded at a much slower rate. Now, that moment in history was missed, and the tensions and contradictions will only get worse as the government tries and ultimately fails to act as an effective overseer. The regime will implode, resulting in chaos, with potentially the peripheries such as Tibet and East Turkestan breaking away, and followed by some sort of explosion to recapture the areas, fuelled by Han nationalism.
The optimist in me thinks that China will make a gradual transition, under a continued, even if uneven, economic growth, and the growth of the civil society. Despite government’s efforts to crack down on activists, there does seem to be a growing number of people, including those who have benefitted from the social contract, who yearn for a more democratic, more liberal polity. Furthermore, the party may be more pragmatic, realizing that the game is up for the current political structures, rather than resorting to repression to maintain the status quo.
Whichever course the events take, most people on the planet will be affected, some more directly than others, by what happens in China. Hopefully, it is a course that is good for the Chinese people and other peoples alike. We’ll have to wait and see.