While there is no doubt that China has regained much of the prestige and power it enjoyed in the greatest days of her East Asian dominance, observers differ on the prospects for this rising giant.
On the one hand, China has made almost unprecedented progress in almost every arena since the dark days of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s. As previous chapters have shown, modern China builds upon an ancient and very rich cultural tradition. The reforms begun in 1978 have penetrated and transformed most sectors of society, and have thrust the world’s most populous nation into the forefront all over the globe.
Economically, China (as of this writing) possesses by far the world’s largest foreign reserves, manufactures most of the world’s goods, boasts one of the fastest sustained growth rates in history, has (depending on how you measure) either the 2nd or 3rd largest national economy, and is enjoying a rapid rise in average living standards. Never have so many Chinese had so much.
Politically, the government has worked hard to create a new and comprehensive code of law. They have initiated very limited popular elections at the local level and brought entrepreneurs into the Communist Party. Amazingly, the right to private property has been enshrined in the law of the land.
You have to travel to China frequently to keep up with the incredible burst of building. New cities, replete with skyscrapers, are created every year; Shanghai dwarfs New York in almost every way. Modern roads crisscross the country. Newly-built railroads, some of them allowing high-speed trains, carry goods and passengers farther and faster than ever before, linking China not only to Europe and the Middle East but also to mountainous Tibet.
Though entering the modern tele-communications era rather late, China has skipped one or two generations of technology to leap to the forefront, at least in the big cities. Cell phone and Internet usage surpass almost all other countries. Massive investment, coupled with the transfer of technology upon which the Chinese government has insisted, have brought the latest manufacturing ability to China, which now produces top-quality products of all types.
China’s economic growth has fueled a huge military build-up, causing concern to her neighbors and also to America. With the largest military establishment in the world, China can now not only defend itself but also project power into North and South East Asia and, with ballistic missiles, other continents. Sophisticated equipment and know-how make cyber-warfare and attacks in and from space highly possible.
A surplus of funds, aligned with an insatiable thirst for oil and other commodities, has led China to make strategic political, commercial, and military agreements with many nations that once looked to the West or Japan. Chinese are gobbling up energy and natural resource contracts at such a rate that the United States, Europe, and other regions may find themselves left out in the cold – literally.
A dramatic reversal of Mao’s policy came when China and Russia became strategic partners in an arrangement that harkens back to the early days of the Cold War. Their common probable opponent is clearly the United States of America and its allies, such as Japan.
All this has brought China world-wide diplomatic influence unprecedented in its long history. With a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, China can veto any motion she desires. In 2006, the World Health Organization elected a Chinese man as its head. Chinese troops have served in Haiti and elsewhere as part of U.N. peace-keeping forces. What a remarkable change from the days when Chinese “volunteers’ fought U.N. troops in Korea!
Despite all of these strides, not all looks bright for China’s future. A number of problems, present and potential, cloud the horizon and cause considerable concern among her leaders and informed people.
Like all Communist nations, past and present, China faces an impending ecological crisis of almost unimaginable proportions. There is already not enough water, and pollution makes most of it unfit for human consumption. Factories and processing plants have degraded the soil and the air. “Acid rain” from China even affects the other nations in East Asia, and has begun to drift to North America.
Erosion, mostly caused by wanton deforestation, has robbed the land of millions of acres of topsoil. Urbanization has consumed even more. A once self-sufficient nation must now import large quantities of food for its burgeoning population.
The Three Gorges project, the largest engineering feat in human history, is meant to control the seasonal floods that have rampaged through the Yangtze River valley for millennia, while also providing hydroelectric power. It remains to be seen what ecological disasters might come home to roost on the heads of those who brushed aside cries of protest from both inside China and without.
As much as economic and political change bring welcome new-found freedoms and unparalleled wealth, thoughtful Chinese decry the unraveling of society which has come along with “progress.”
China’s divorce rate is one of the highest in the world. Spousal abuse makes life miserable for perhaps a majority of married women. Old people are often neglected in a land that once stressed filial piety. Crime and corruption reach from the highest levels to the lowest. Students cheat to grab coveted university positions. Women in the countryside kill themselves at an alarming rate.
The one-child policy has left a legacy of aborted or abandoned infant girls, producing a disproportionate percentage of males in the adult population. What do you do with millions of men who cannot find a wife?
Perhaps most troubling of all are the public demonstrations, many of them large and violent, against government corruption. Even according to government statistics, the number of these popular protests has increased exponentially in recent years, raising the specter of a massive uprising against the Communist government. The power of the central government make such a revolution highly unlikely for now, at least until after the Olympics in 2008, but the rulers in Beijing do not discount the possibility of the kind of movement that has toppled previous dynasties.
Today’s leaders are making heroic efforts to improve the government in China. In many ways, this regime is better than many in China’s long history, and certainly superior to Mao’s chaotic and destructive reign.
Nevertheless, no one seems to have a solution to the major threat to stability - pervasive corruption. Indeed, as long as political criticism and organized opposition remain illegal, it is hard to imagine how the Communist Party can police itself. So far, anti-corruption campaigns have mostly targeted children and clients of opposing factions.
The present harsh repression of all political dissent, coupled with stringent control of religion, are creating mounting pressures that could someday explode.
No one knows the future, of course. What possible scenarios can we imagine?
Continuation of the status quo, with gradual improvements The Communist Party clearly envisions holding onto power indefinitely. Sufficient reforms might convince the people that there is hope for a truly better government, and stifle revolution from below. Continued economic growth would grant the kind of legitimacy the government now enjoys, however tenuous.
As in Russia, the Communist Party might turn itself into a nationalist/patriotic party, emphasizing China’s ancient culture and asserting her past hegemony in East Asia and perhaps the world. Signs of this can already be seen in the virulent anti-Japanese (and occasionally anti-American) tone of government pronouncements and in a re-affirmation of the abiding value of Confucianism.
Transformation from above
A truly reformist group might gain power in Beijing, and institute sweeping changes that radically re-make the government. This was tried in the last years of the 19th century, and came close to success. It was stopped only when the wily Empress Dowager mobilized the reactionaries and squelched a movement that might have saved the Qing Dynasty.
If the government feels sufficiently threatened by popular discontent, it might start a war to distract the people and unite them against a common foe. A declaration of independence by Taiwan could spark an offensive which might include a strike against American forces in Japan, or even a general pre-emptive attack on the United States and its allies (including Japan). Though this would be only a last-ditch lunge by a desperate regime, China’s multi-faceted military capacity and the loyalty of the People’s Liberation Army to the Party make it at least possible, though still considered highly unlikely.
Another, and, to many, very implausible, scenario has been suggested by Dr. David Aikman in Jesus in Beijing. The presence and growing influence of Christianity both in rural and urban areas constitutes a potent force. If the Christians, who are now mostly apolitical, would organize themselves, or if enough intellectuals adopt a Christian world view, believers may exercise powerful, and perhaps dominant, pressure on the country’s leadership. Christians already outnumber members of the Communist Party, and are considered enough of a threat to be constantly monitored and sometimes persecuted.
What if some future Chinese Constantine , locked in a desperate struggle for supremacy, decides to worship the Christian God and then, victorious, makes Christianity the official religion of China? Though it seems unlikely, it happened in pagan Rome, and could happen again. Most Christians cringe at the idea, but some would welcome the chance to replace the current system with one that prizes the value of human life and individual rights, within the confines of a strict moral code.
We can only hope that the Chinese people will continue to benefit from the prosperity and peace they have tasted in recent decades, under a government that works energetically to provide fair treatment for all. After all, as huge characters on the wall of Tian An Men in Beijing state, what is good for China is good for the entire world.