Then thinking about China’s coming 60 years, don’t think of the pomp and pageantry in Tiananmen Square last week. Also forget the gun-toting Amazons in flaming red. When arguments are made about China’s “peaceful rise” as a great power, think of the French political thinker Montesquieu. Then, for a moment, dwell on the meaning of the word delusion.
In the many years since China began to power ahead as a double-digit growth economy, its leaders, from Deng Xiaoping to Hu Jintao, have been at great pains to emphasize that their country wants no more than growth and prosperity for its citizens. The short version of this story is that with the world’s second biggest economy, one that is so dependent on trade, China cannot afford to behave irresponsibly, militarily or otherwise. This assertion of the Chinese leadership has a strong resonance with what Montesquieu had to say about the spread of commerce and wealth: that it would make the powerful in prosperous countries reasonable and reduce abuses of power.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
This is where the fairy tale ends. China today is a highly unequal society where political power is concentrated in the hands of a few. It is a country with a growing middle class in the coastal areas and impoverished provinces in the interior. It is also a country where the first layer of government that citizens encounter, the local government, is corrupt and often subject to power grabs by the rich and powerful. At the national level, where an acquisitive middle class is concerned about its future, the Communist party does not hesitate to use nationalism as a tool to keep ideas such as democracy and concern for future well-being at bay. Anti-Japanese riots, extreme sensitivity towards the Taiwan issue and downright bad behaviour against minorities such as the Uighurs in Xinjiang and the Tibetans are examples of this trend.
This is a fine balancing act. On the one hand, the Communist party does not want to cede power at all: The children and relatives of the elite have privileges that would be labelled cronyism elsewhere. On the other hand, there are hordes of people who have no voice. Sandwiched between these two poles is a middle class that has wealth but few, if any, political rights. Internally, this makes any transition to democracy a perilous one. Externally, Chinese nationalism is an important prop for internal stability.
The result is paradoxical. Economic growth is necessary to maintain internal order and is not a recipe for a transition to democracy and a less autocratic government, as Montesquieu would have imagined. This makes any economic dislocation a headache for the government. Recently, when millions of migrant workers lost their jobs due to the global economic downturn, it scared the Communist party. Even simple protests have the potential to light a wildfire. That anxiety, growth apart, is the future of China.
China’s next 60 years: peaceful or anxious? Tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org