Saturday, May 17, 2008

Some More Thoughts on China’s Stability

Sophie* makes the point in her comment to this post that it could happen to other urban centers such as Tokyo with devastating effect. Let me elaborate on my response there in this separate post, since the subject matter goes well beyond that particular post.

Sophie is right—the existence of many buildings that predate the progressive tightening of building codes, as well as irregularities exposed in the Great Kansai Earthquake and the Aneha architectural frauds, and, more broadly, uncertainties over the preparedness of the authorities give rise to potential for enormous loss and damage to life and property in the event. It is quite possible that this could lead to major political changes

But for the purposes of this blog, that is where the similarity between Japan and China, two states with large urban populations sprawled over tectonic danger zones, ends. In Japan, political change could range from the resignation of the Cabinet Ministers that have been found wanting to a wholesale change of the Cabinet including the Prime Minister, including a transfer of power to the opposition. However, these are at most changes in administrations, which do not significantly alter the constitutional regime that has been in place for the last six decades. This is because the rules and procedures for the transfer of political power in accordance with changes in the popular mandate have been accepted and at work for the last six decades.

Such is not the case for authoritarian China. The Chinese President may be selected by the National People’s Congress and the members of the National People’s Congress may be elected however indirectly by the Chinese electorate. But this entire political leadership is chosen for all practical purposes by the Communist Party, which for all practical purposes monopolizes political power whose link to the public’s mandate is pro forma and tenuous. This is fine when the President (and the Prime Minister) and partly by implication the Communist Party enjoy the favor of public opinion, as in the case of the current Hu-Wen administration. But if something goes seriously wrong and the leadership loses the trust of the Chinese public, changing the President is fraught with difficulties, since the leader of the administration is the leader of the political party, which is only nominally accountable to the electorate. And more drastic changes are constitutionally impossible, since no real opposition is allowed in the Congress, and the military is also under the control of the Communist Party.

This lack of accountability creates a hard but brittle form of political stability—a feature, actually, of all successful authoritarian regimes. The current Chinese administration, like all of its predecessors since 1978, is doing its best to satisfy the needs and wants of the Chinese people. In fact, its popularity, as well as that of the regime itself, lies in the phenomenal economic success that they have achieved and continue to achieve during this period. As a result, China, for all its social ills, currently enjoys an unforced stability that must be as the envy of most authoritarian regimes worldwide. But in keeping with its nature, the authorities will not hesitate to contain popular discontent by force commensurate with whatever gap between itself and whatever part of its constituency in question. That has been most visibly brought into focus in its response to the most recent Tibetan acts of dissent, where the forces of repression were evident in their full splendor—full splendor, that is, to the extent that the Chinese authorities allowed us to bear witness.

But ultimately, machineries of repression are human. Their collective will could be sapped by contagion of a deep and pervasive discontent among the general population. The need to augment repression to contain increasing unrest would only magnify the problem. A major exogenous event or set of events can create a spike in the extant disorder. A confluence of the two could occur that is serious enough to cause state power to snap, and the authoritarian regime to disintegrate.

In the case of China, a serious and prolonged downturn in the economy would undermine the very means by which the Communist regime maintains its hold on its constituency. Is that possible? The CEO of a major fund-of-funds that I had a chance to talk to yesterday believes that there is a not inconsequential chance for a serious and prolonged recession of global proportions as one of two possible scenarios for the next two or three years, and that China will be a significant part of this scenario. And the exogenous shock that escalates the disorder? A major earthquake directly hitting Beijing would certainly be a major event.

Any such scenarios would be highly speculative and individually unlikely. But the authoritarian nature of the Chinese regime will itself be a destabilizing factor at the extremes. The authorities there will surely use the experience of the Sichuan earthquake to prepare for the next big tremor. Hopefully, they will also take it as a stepping stone in its modulated shift towards a less authoritarian and, however speculative and distant, ultimately democratic regime. The victims deserve no less.

* I dimly recall that she had a website, but it’s not in her profile. If I’m not mistaken there, would she care to give us the link here?


Sophie said...

You are not mistaken, the link is

I think the resilience of the Chinese regime to major economic change proves its adaptability, but I don't know if this extends to a major urban center disaster.
On one side, the Katrina disaster did not lead to political change in the US. Although the loss of life was smaller, one major US city was devastated then, and the state response was inadequate.

The same kind of question arises in the Nargis cyclone situation. It can be compared to the Great Bhola Cyclone that devastated East Pakistan in 1970, claiming 500,000 lives, with a very poor government response. This led to the independence of Bangladesh one year later, but only after a civil war, and the toll of that civil war was between 300,000 and 3 million people. So this kind of regime change can take the same or a greater toll than the disaster itself. Nothing to wish for.

As for China, a recession is a threat, but I think too some major ecological or energy problem is to be considered. Coal reserves are only at a few days (what with dams being emptied because of quake-related damage?), major waterways deeply polluted (some cities cannot use river water and have no alternatives).
Sichuan citizens seem to blame local corruption for low quality school-building, and central government for allowing them one child with no possible "replacement" after the disaster (because of sterilization). Their concerns at least 'get out more' and are heard outside of China, are they stronger and more focused than previously, I don't know.

Jun Okumura said...

Hurricane Katrina killed far fewer people and destroyed much less (if more expensive) property. Still, it did damage the Bush administration and probably played a role, albeit subsidiary to the Iraq war, in the Republican’ loss in the 2006 elections. The governor did not seek reelection in 2007, and the mayor managed to get reelected in runoff that split sharply along racial lines. So it was a factor at each level of electoral politics. On the other hand, it showed that an established democracy can deal with such incidents within the normal course of its political process.

Thanks for the heads-up on the role a cyclone played in pushing post-independence Pakistan over the edge. It’s important to note that the underlying situation had already been difficult to bear for the East Pakistanis. Indeed, the entire Indian subcontinent harbored strong separatist tensions, and continues to do so today.

Remember that the Chinese empire has historically tended to fracture under stress, then knit itself together. There are underlying regional and ethnic tensions that could flare up across the board under extreme duress. Food, energy (oil, not coal, I think), and pollution are certainly security threats. The first two turn on global supply and demand, and thus threaten the rest of the world as well.

I agree with you on the local-central distinction regarding the blame for collapsing schools and the one-child policy. We’re hearing more about their anger and complaints for both the reasons that you raise. I do think that there will be substantial popular pressure to further ease the one-child policy. Chinese parents must be feeling very vulnerable.

Sophie said...

A one-child policy proves to be very harsh, so easing it might seem reasonable.
(There may also be the possibility of adoption of orphaned children, but the fact that lots of destroyed buildings were schools makes this option less valid).
Let me propose something in solidarity with the Chinese parents : let the USA and European countries establish a two-children policy so that the Chinese authorities can do the same.
The argument raised by the Chinese government that their one-child policy has prevented 300 million births, thus diminishing carbon emissions, seems quite valid to me.

Jun Okumura said...


In most of Western Europe and Japan (as well as South Korea and Singapore), an effective two-child policy would actually increase the number of babies being born.

Incidentally, a large number of the people in the affected areas are ethnic minorities and rural residents, who are under less stringent rules. For many of the victims, though, this only means that the tragedy is doubled.

Sophie said...

I meant that, as in France a more-than-two children policy (lots of money spent on natalist measures) produces about 2 children per woman, a two-child policy would reduce this rate.

Jun Okumura said...


You're French so you may not have noticed, but in much of Western Europe, the birth rates are so low that an effective two-child policy would actually raise the birth rate. Another likely problem is that the now-substantial Moslem population will see it as a attack against it.

Sophie said...

To repeat myself, I meant a two-child policy as 'no more than two-children get subsidies'. Give money for the first child, less for the second, none for the third, fourth... Whereas now it's a little for the first, more for the second, and a lot for and after the third.

No 'you will have two children' policy would work in Europe. It's all about incentives. And people would be free to have none or as many as they want, but would not be subsidised in the second case.

I think you are buying into clash of civilisation theories or are at least prejudiced when you speak of the 'now-substantial Moslem population' and their views on the incentive version of the policy. Any community would hate the mandatory version anyway.
Here big families also come in fundamentalist catholic, girls with lace collars on navy blue dresses and mothers with cardigans driving big cars kind. If you want to engage in generalisation about so-called communities, so can I...

Jun Okumura said...


Some things are unpleasant to consider. But if you want to understand what’s going, you have no choice. In France, consider:

Do the Moslems constitute a residentially and culturally distinct group within the general population?
Are the Moslems noticeably poorer, less educated, and less employed than the average French?
Do the Moslems distrust the authorities, the police in particular?
Are the Moslems more religious than the rest of the French and, as a result, encounter difficulties in an aggressively secular society?
Are these factors more noticeable on the whole among second and third-generation Moslems?
Finally, do the Moslems have noticeably higher birth rates than the Christians and the Jews?

If the answers to all or most of the previous questions are yes, don’t you think that, wrongly or not, Moslems will see that kind of policy change as directed against them?

If you can answer no to all of these questions, then, yes, maybe I am buying into a myth. In my defense, the entire media is doing so, too. Americans will recognize the parallels (as well as some differences) with their own racial issues for each and every one of these points. In any case, it’s first a matter of what is, not what should be.