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Several developments in China over the past few weeks have shown us a country quite different from the one often portrayed by outsiders—an emerging superpower, with global economic reach and ambitions to challenge American predominance, at least in Asia. The real China, the one most familiar to its citizens, faces serious, long-term problems at home. In just the last few weeks these include a major industrial chemical explosion in Tianjian (just the latest in a string of industrial accidents), successive currency revaluations, a stock market crash, an anti-corruption campaign that has landed quite a few big names, and a widening net to catch lawyers and anyone else who speaks for human rights and the rule of law.
Every one of these developments has international implications, directly or indirectly. But we should mainly be concerned with their internal implications. What ties these problems together is that they expose China’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities, and underscore the leadership’s insecurity when it comes to dealing with them. Concern in the US, Japan, and elsewhere about China’s international ambitions diverts us from the reality that China’s leaders must cope with social, political, economic, and environmental problems on a scale that demands a significant share of the country’s resources and prestige. When toxic chemicals spread over a major city as the result of an entirely preventable accident and local government-private investor collusion; when tens, even hundreds of thousands of people lose their savings in a stock market crash; when members of the communist party elite are jailed while many more live a privileged life built on corruption and connections; when protesters and their lawyers risk all in efforts to right certain wrongs—not only do ordinary Chinese suffer. The system itself is under the microscope.
The leadership’s restrictions on media coverage of these events reflects full awareness in Xi Jinping’s inner circle that the party-state’s legitimacy—its right to rule without competition—is at stake. Power exercised in ways that convey greater concern about social “stability” than about people’s livelihoods risks unleashing mass anger, expressed not only in violent incidents directed at local authority but also in social media that even the public security bureau’s “great firewall” cannot completely shut down.
China’s leaders also understand that the danger to themselves lurks within their own ranks. Purges of thousands of officials at various levels of authority may make the system less corrupt, and may weed out people loyal to previous leaders. But purges probably also cause resentment among the bureaucratic survivors who see their careers and traditional ways of operating under assault.
In a political system that has established, transparent, and effective outlets for addressing injustice, these kinds of developments can be contained and resolved. But China, as many of its own intellectuals freely and forthrightly acknowledge, falls well short when it comes to providing such outlets. In fact, Xi Jinping’s administration is moving in the opposite direction, imposing further social controls to prevent citizens from organizing to create change. A primary example is the new national security law, which codifies and attempts to legitimize the crackdown that has been going on for some time, now labeled ideological and cultural “security.” One Chinese academic is quoted as saying that the law’s language is troubling for the obvious reason that it is so all-encompassing; the dragnet can be used (and is being used) to suppress independent voices of many kinds. (From a foreign policy standpoint, the law stretches “core interests” in new directions. Here I see the same kind of problem Americans often face when presidents arbitrarily identify “the national interest,” “vital interests,” and “national security.” Whatever the leader decides is “core” or “vital” becomes such, whether it’s the South China Sea islands or Iraq.)
Underscoring Xi’s sense of the communist party’s vulnerability is his assumption of powers that extend even beyond Chairman Mao’s. As Roderick MacFarquhar at Harvard has written, Xi not only heads the new Central National Security Commission in charge of implementing that law. He has taken over every important leadership position in the party and government: general secretary of the party and president of China, posts Xi assumed on taking power; the Central Military Commission; and “leading groups” in charge of economic reform, foreign affairs, Internet security, and information technology. Believing that the Soviet Union collapsed because “their ideals and conviction wavered,” and because no “real man” emerged to resist collapse, Xi is engaged in a Mao-like attempt to create a “China dream” and revive an ideology that no longer resonates among citizens. Very much in the Mao mold, Xi (to quote MacFarquhar) “has been forced to go negative, listing alien doctrines to be extirpated. According to a central Party document, there are six ‘false ideological trends, positions, and activities’ emanating from the West that are advocated by dissident Chinese: constitutional democracy; universal values; civil society; economic neoliberalism; Western-style journalism, challenging China’s principle that the media and the publishing system should be subject to Party discipline; and promoting historical nihilism, trying to undermine the history of the CCP by emphasizing the mistakes of the Maoist period.”
Thus, “the West” once again is China’s bogeyman, providing a convenient target whenever a lawyer or protesting farmer must be dragged from home. Promoting this kind of negative nationalism—that is, strong national feelings built on an external threat rather than internal pride—can only work for a while. The economy remains the key to popular loyalty, and right now it is faltering, with slower growth and declining exports. As one Chinese commentator observes: “Everyone understands that the economy is the biggest pillar of the Chinese government’s legitimacy to govern and win over popular sentiment,” said Chen Jieren, a well-known Beijing-based commentator on politics. “If the economy falters, the political power of the Chinese Communist Party will be confronted with more real challenges, social stability in China will be endangered tremendously, and Xi Jinping’s administration will suffer even more criticism.” China’s economy may well be fundamentally sound, as one expert writes. But “the economy” is not people, and as we all know, GDP and other macro figures can be quite misleading when it comes to issues of social inequities.
President Xi will soon visit Washington. President Obama can either press China hard on currency valuation, human rights, and cyberhacking, or he can engage in a dialogue of equals and pursue common ground on climate change, Iran, the South China Sea dispute, and North Korea. In choosing the latter course, Obama would be recognizing that Xi is plagued by domestic problems largely of his own making. US pressure on him now would not only be strongly resented; it would be quite counterproductive. Let the Chinese people determine the fate of what Xi Jinping calls the “China dream.”