Small Wars Journal

Abrupt change may be coming to China – and soon

Thu, 12/08/2011 - 1:20pm

Two items on China, an essay and a book review, caught my attention. Contrary to the common Western portrayal of China as a rising Colossus, the two items describe a China with many deep problems. Both imply abrupt change coming to China, perhaps soon. Needless to say, disruptive social convulsion this decade inside China very likely runs counter to the assumptions incorporated into the vast majority of Western economic, financial, and military planning documents.

First is an essay written by Henry Rowen and published in the latest edition of Policy Review from the Hoover Institution (Rowen is professor emeritus at Stanford and an Asian scholar). In China: Big Changes Coming Soon, Rowen discusses the substantial economic, financial, political, and social pressures building inside China. He then discusses the possible international effects that could result from disruption inside China, including effects to global trade, finance, and the security situation in Asia.

Next, yesterday’s Wall Street Journal featured a book review of China in Ten Words a book by Yu Hua, one of China’s most acclaimed novelists. Yu’s book describes street-level China from the Cultural Revolution through today, with each chapter organized around a single word such as people, leader, revolution, and bamboozle, words not yet banned by Party censors. Reviewer Melanie Kirkpatrick describes Yu’s very dire take on today’s China:

As awful as the Cultural Revolution was, in Mr. Yu's telling its horrors sometimes pale next to those of the present day. The chapter on "bamboozle" describes how trickery, fraud and deceit have become a way of life in modern China. "There is a breakdown of social morality and a confusion in the value system of China today," he states. He writes, for example, about householders around the country who are evicted from their homes on the orders of unscrupulous, all-powerful local officials.

Mr. Yu's portrait of contemporary Chinese society is deeply pessimistic. The competition is so intense that, for most people, he says, survival is "like war." He has few hopeful words to offer, other than to quote the ancient philosopher Mencius, who taught that human progress is built on man's desire to correct his mistakes. Meanwhile, he writes, "China's pain is mine."

Is China in another “pre-revolutionary moment”? And if social convulsion occurs, what will be the consequences for the global economy, the financial system, and the strategic situation in Asia and elsewhere?

China’s heady rise over the past three decades has made such an abrupt change seem laughable. It is likely not given much weight in most planning documents. Yet it might turn out to be the most important story of the decade.