BEIJING - Traveling here last week after America’s partial government shutdown and near-default, I expected to encounter a surge of confidence in China’s inevitable, eventual emergence as the world’s greatest power. That is not what I found.
Some people here do take pleasure in the travails of democracy in the world’s greatest hectorer on the subject. Some shed crocodile tears about America’s decline and U.S. President Barack Obama’s failure to attend a recent summit in Asia.
But whatever people’s views of America, what is striking in many cases is their uncertainty and, at times, even pessimism about China’s future.
I don’t mean the usual refrain that China, despite having overtaken Japan as the world’s second-largest economy, remains a developing country.
That has long been a standard line of Chinese officialdom and has the advantage of being both true and convenient: True, because long after China’s economy overtakes America’s, people here will remain poorer on average; convenient, because it can be used to deflect calls for greater contributions to peacekeeping, confronting climate change and other global causes.
What I’m talking about is a deeper-seated anxiety about navigating the next stages of growth. In interviews and informal conversations organized for me and three other journalists by the Committee of 100, a U.S. nonprofit dedicated to U.S.-China mutual understanding, two themes emerged. “The easy part is over” was one. The second was: the next stages of economic reform will depend on political reform that the Communist Party may not be willing or able to deliver.
One result is that not only China’s billionaires but also, increasingly, the new middle class is hedging bets, thinking about obtaining foreign passports and moving money abroad. The mirthless joke is that President Xi Jinping’s inchoate slogan of “a Chinese dream” refers to getting your kids into an American university.
The challenges are well understood. People have to bribe their children’s teachers for a desk near the front of the class and bribe their bosses for a promotion. Political power has become a ticket to loot: The 50 wealthiest members of the U.S. Congress have assets of $1.6 billion, the Economist recently reported, while their 50 Chinese counterparts have amassed $95 billion.
The Communist Party pledges to weed out this corruption. But police and judges are subservient to the party, and so far the party dares not allow an independent rule of law.
Last week the sun, when visible, was an eerie orange disc behind the smog. People in Beijing and many other cities won’t let their children play outside for fear of the poisoned air, and they worry too about poisoned rivers and adulterated foods. Again, the party pledges reform. Again, it’s hard to know whether reform can succeed as long as well-connected polluters need not fear the law.
China needs to transition from a catch-up, copy-cat economy to one that innovates. But can you have unbridled innovation in a society where the media are controlled, books are censored, and bloggers, while much freer, are punished or silenced if they stray too far?
China needs a more rational system of development and urbanization as more than 10 million people per year pour into new and established cities. But without land ownership rights, local officials’ whims and greed can play a larger part than urban planning or economics in where and how development occurs.
There is growing inequality. There is unfavorable demography: Thanks to longer lives and the enforced one-child policy, China will have fewer and fewer workers to support more retirees. There is tension with Tibetans and Uighurs, who want more autonomy.
Since Mao Zedong’s disastrous Cultural Revolution ended in 1977, party leaders have accomplished amazing things. More people have moved out of poverty in a short period of time than ever before in world history. Chinese enjoy personal freedoms and economic well-being to an extent that Mao never could have imagined. They’ve built an economic behemoth. It’s not really fair to call all that “the easy part.”
But it is fair, many Chinese say, to ask whether the top-down, one-party authoritarianism that got them this far can cope with the more complex challenges they face now. That doesn’t mean they’re pining for instant multi-party democracy; fear of instability is deep-seated, understandably given China’s history. But many people say there need to be checks and balances, accountability, transparency and the rule of law.
Party leaders, with the Soviet collapse never far from their minds, fear that tugging on one thread of their authority could unravel everything. In his first year in office, Xi has improbably tried both to crack down politically and to expand economic reforms. No one knows whether this is the path he has chosen for his likely decade in office or a prelude, while he consolidates power, to a different approach.
This week China’s leaders will hold a meeting that is expected to provide some clues. China’s people, having had no say in Xi’s selection, will be watching, anxiously, to see what they have in mind.
Fred Hiatt is the editorial page editor of The Washington Post.