Get rich, but don’t rock the boat

Conor O’Clery reviews two new books about China

Sat, Mar 30, 2013, 06:00

The idea that the Chinese embrace authoritarian rule, as the Chinese Communist Party would have us believe, was scuppered once and for all on June 4th, 1989. That was the day tanks brutally crushed a protest by student demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. In the week preceding, I saw hundreds of thousands of ordinary Beijingers filling the city’s boulevards as far as one could see, in support of their demands for democracy and an end to corruption. A generation of Chinese was spooked by the bloody crackdown that followed, however, and Communist Party rule was entrenched. The people were cowed. Tiananmen was airbrushed from contemporary Chinese history.

That infamous day was, however, a turning point that paradoxically helped bring about a different kind of reform in a country that had only recently emerged from the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution. The party promoted the idea that “to get rich is glorious”, the famous slogan attributed to its supreme leader, Deng Xiaoping, and the nominally communist masses were encouraged to channel their frustrations into capitalist endeavour. They could start up a business, invest in shares, travel, send their children abroad for education – anything, just as long as they did not challenge the one-party governing system.

It didn’t take long for entrepreneurship to flourish. Almost overnight, consumerism replaced Marxism as the people’s ideology. Designer stores opened, Starbucks appeared in the Forbidden City, the skyline of Beijing became like that of Manhattan and cars replaced bicycles. Ten years after the crackdown, some Chinese had become millionaires.

At a dinner party in the Beijing residence of the Irish ambassador at the time, Joe Hayes, I found myself seated beside a Chinese gentleman who revealed to me that he was the Ferrari dealer for Beijing. (His connection with Ireland was that he had a horse running at the Curragh the following week.)

Successors to Deng Xiaoping have since propelled China into full engagement with the international economic system and have achieved such astonishing success that the country of 1.3 billion people, whose economy 20 years ago was about the size of Denmark’s, is set to become the largest economy in the world within the next 20 years.

As China achieves economic dominance, however, and manages to keep its people fed and grow a new middle class, it faces security issues at home and abroad that threaten the stability of the model.

On the domestic front the embers of democracy still smoulder. Rural grievances against corrupt officials occasionally erupt in full-scale riots. Tibet and Xinjiang province remain restless. Hong Kong and Macao have been incorporated into the People’s Republic but retain freedoms that are a constant reminder to mainland Chinese of what they are being denied. The former British colony tops the 2013 Index of Economic Freedom; China languishes in 136th place, weighed down by censorship, lack of transparency, corruption, cronyism, repression of religion and a legal system subject to party control. The issue of Taiwan remains unresolved, though in recent years the former enemies have increased social and investment ties and got around to establishing direct flights and postal services.

Internationally, China has territorial squabbles with its neighbours, particularly Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines, which could become really nasty at any time – the prize being oil and gas reserves beneath the ocean bed. Beijing has to trawl the world (mainly Africa) for resources to maintain its economic growth. Strategically, it must manage a complex relationship with the US, its biggest market. The US may be declining as a world power, but China is still encircled by American military bases and has few natural allies among other world powers. Despite its new stature as an economic colossus it is unable to prevent western powers deploying troops in whatever part of the world they wish. And on its doorstep is a most dangerous neighbour, North Korea, whose activities complicate China-US relations.

All these issues are raised, one by one, and analysed dispassionately and with historic background in China’s Search for Security , written by two of the foremost American authorities on China, Andrew J Nathan, of Columbia University, and Andrew Scobell, of the Rand Corporation.

On the political front Beijing has given its citizens more personal liberty, opened its culture to outside influences, encouraged travel and fostered western-style consumerism. It seeks to show a benevolent face to a world where stability is necessary for its continued economic growth. The authors speculate that China is in transition to being “an enormous Singapore”, a stable authoritarian country with corruption under control and no chewing gum on the streets.

But the internal contradictions and growth of civil society threaten that goal. China, unlike Singapore, remains a “dissatisfied” country with a turbulent, questioning and often angry population. Its exercise in soft power to draw in Hong Kong and Macao on the basis of “one country, two systems” has failed to induce Taiwan to bend the knee.

Incidentally, the case against democracy in China – that it would bring chaos and a Soviet style-break-up – is made a nonsense by the example of Taiwan, which transformed itself almost overnight from a dictatorship into one of the world’s most open and vigorous democracies.

A voluntary union of Taipei and Beijing awaits the democratisation of Chinese society, an eventuality that carries other potential benefits: it could increase China’s power assets, make the economy more efficient and innovative, and reduce tensions in troubled ethnic regions. Real democracy is not on the agenda of Chinese leaders, though, as it would sweep them from power.

China also faces the danger of destabilisation from a number of possible eventualities, particularly an economic stall, and, as Nathan and Scobell note, it sits on three time bombs: an ageing society, water shortages and climate change.

While rather dry and academic, this joint collaboration has produced an excellent guide for anyone seeking a thoughtful western perspective on modern China, not least the policymakers in Beijing itself.

Jean-Luc Domenach also asks “whither China?” in China’s Uncertain Future , written after a stay in China from 2002 to 2007. First published in France in 2008, it is rather tardily issued now in translation by Columbia University Press.

The French columnist and policy analyst makes an interesting comparison between Russia and China. Thanks to Deng Xiaoping the communist apparatus took the plunge into business before, not after, the fall of communism. Hence China’s transformation into what he calls a plutobureaucracy took place under communist authority and to the leadership’s advantage. People could get rich, but they were prevented from rocking the boat.

In Russia, the Communist Party was discarded to open the borders to capitalism. In China, however, you can drive a Ferrari and still be loyal to the party.

Conor O’Clery was Beijing correspondent of The Irish Times from 1996 to 2001.