Challenges for China concern political future, not economics

by Brahma Chellaney

NEW DELHI — Six decades after it was founded, the People’s Republic of China has made some remarkable achievements. A backward, impoverished state in 1949, it has risen dramatically to now command respect and awe — 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 internal challenges is how to make a political soft landing.

Unlike its Asian peers, Japan and India, China first concentrated on acquiring military muscle. By the time Deng Xiaoping launched his economic- modernization program in 1978, China already had tested its first intercontinental ballistic missile, the 12,000-km 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 that, in turn, has armed it with ever greater resources to sharpen its claws.

China’s economy has expanded 13-fold over 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, already the world’s largest, and Beijing 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 strategic vision and unflinching pursuit of goals have been key drivers. But China’s rise also has been aided by good fortune on several fronts. Deng’s reform process, for instance, benefited from good timing, coinciding with the start of globalization.

The Soviet Union’s sudden collapse also came as a great strategic boon, eliminating a menacing empire and opening the way for Beijing to rapidly increase strategic space globally. A succession of China-friendly U.S. presidents in the past two decades also has helped. 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.

Although China has come a long way since Tiananmen Square, with its citizens now enjoying property rights, overseas travel and other entitlements that were unthinkable two decades ago, political power still rests with the same party responsible for millions of deaths in state-induced disasters like the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.

That the communist party continues to monopolize power despite its past horrific excesses indeed is astonishing. This is now the oldest autocracy in the world. And it is hard to believe that it can survive for another 60 years. The longest any autocratic system has survived in modern history was 74 years in the Soviet Union.

The threat to the communist dictatorship extends beyond ethnic and social unrest. Reported incidents of grassroots violence have grown at about the same rate as China’s GDP. The ethnic challenges — 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. 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.

China’s challenges actually center on its political future. Although China has moved from being a totalitarian state to being an authoritarian state, some things haven’t changed since the Mao years. Some others indeed have changed for the worse, such as the whipping up of ultranationalism as the legitimizing credo of continued communist rule. Unremitting attempts to bend reality to the dangerous illusions the state propagates through information control and online censors risk turning China into a modern-day Potemkin state.

More fundamentally, if China manages to resolve the stark contradictions between its two systems — market capitalism and political monocracy — just as the Asian “tigers” 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. But it won’t be easy for the communist leadership to open up politically without unraveling a system that now survives on a mix of crony capitalism and calibrated, state-dispensed patronage.

Internationally, China’s trajectory will depend on how its neighbors and other key players such as the U.S. 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, is the author, most recently, of “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”