China’s strengths should not blind us to its weaknesses
Conventional wisdom, shared by members of the US Congress of both parties and the recent Interim strategic direction on national security, regards China as the “Threat of rhythm” and the main competitor of the United States.
The reasons for the first review seem compelling. The Chinese economy could overtake the US economy. China may be ahead in breakthrough technologies such as artificial intelligence and 5G. China has deployed a modern army with a navy on track to have 500 ships, with many patrol boats and small craft (although considerably larger than the US Navy’s fleet of about three hundred ships, it is nowhere near as good). China has become more aggressive in its region in pursuit of its goals. Questions arise as to the future integrity of Taiwan as an independent state. And the Belt and Road Initiative has become a multi-trillion renminbi program to gain access and influence through offshore investments and loans. Taken together, these factors make the case that China is ready to challenge the United States as a world leader in virtually any category.
However, is this a comprehensive assessment of China? The answer is no, because it lacks a balanced analysis and assessment of strengths and weaknesses. Consider the following historical comparison.
In October, China will celebrate the seventy-second anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949. In November 1989–approximately seventy-two years after the start of the Russian Revolution which led several years later to the formation of the USSR–the Berlin Wall fell, initiating the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Seventy-two years after the founding of the PRC, no one is suggesting that China is on the verge of collapse. But among the most obvious examples of its growing power and influence lie undoubted weaknesses and problems. Unless these are understood – given that the collapse of the Soviet Union came as a surprise – China too could be subject to enormous internal pressures and an increasingly dominant party structure. which risks alienating large segments of the population.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) under President Xi Jinping’s administration appears to have abandoned the government policies of former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping through consensus and a large degree of economic freedom crucial to creating a modern and advanced society. Suppression of hyper-rich Chinese businessmen; strict adherence to Marxist-Leninist ideology; crushing dissent, whether in Xinjiang, Hong Kong or internally; and the purging of political rivals are not signs of a healthy political system, especially when innovation depends on an entrepreneurial spirit that cannot be dictated by the philosophies of Karl Marx or Vladimir Lenin.
Over 100,000 large-scale events per year have been reported in China, as people demand more resources at home and an end to rampant corruption that favors the few over the many. A combination of so-called social credits that rate citizens on loyalty and creditworthiness – using facial recognition – allows the CCP to exert additional control over Chinese society.
An internal financial system with huge debt, parallel banking services, a possible real estate bubble, and the need for significant real annual economic growth to meet expectations of a better quality of life pose enormous challenges for Beijing’s rulers. . The “one child” policy has led to an aging population, in which the ratio of retirees to workers is heading in the wrong direction, and to many more men than women in Chinese society, which means that many men will not find a spouse.
China also lacks viable allies. Yet China has managed to contain the United States by concluding a trade and investment agreement with the European Union, which has yet to be ratified by the European Parliament. It has also signed the Comprehensive Regional Economic Partnership of fifteen countries, strengthening its potential for economic growth. China would have hit another deal with Iran involving trade, oil and investment that could circumvent sanctions imposed on Iran by western and regional states.
The possible political cancers that could infect China are, first, the CCP’s growing autocratic control over the public, which stifles economic productivity, and, second, a debt balance sheet that could lead to a financial crisis. The Soviets suffered as the first Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev attempted to reform what was a failed system, triggering the implosion. The more China tries to control its population, the more it risks a backlash.
Chinese leaders understand that for centuries peasant and other revolutions have ravaged the country. The most recent was the long civil war that ended in 1949. A future revolution can take another form. But make no mistake: China is not an unstoppable colossus. The point is that, like in the former Soviet Union, China has an oppressive politico-ideological regime that limits human ingenuity, imagination and innovation. This may turn out to be the fatal flaw in Chinese aspirations.
In the 1980s, the boom in Japan led to predictions that Japan would dominate the world’s economies. This does not happen. Will the same result apply to China?
This article was originally published by UPI and has been reprinted with permission from the author.
Dr Harlan Ullman is distinguished UPI columnist Arnaud deBorchgrave. His latest book, The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: The tragic story of how massive disruption attacks endanger, infect, engulf and disunite a 51% nation, is due out this year.
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