China could yet become a superpower. But a surging economy can’t mask social strains that only political reform can address.
There’s an old Chinese fable that was the inspiration behind Andrew Nathan and Robert Ross’s 1990s book, The Great Wall and the Empty Fortress.
Centuries ago, a king whose city was about to be attacked decided the only thing he could do to save it was to order the gates be flung open. He then told the attacking force that the city was empty and that they were welcome to enter. Suspicious that the king’s words were a trick to tempt them into an ambush, the enemy forces decided to move on and the king’s empty city was saved.
These days, many looking at China from the outside see its towering economic statistics and assume that this growing wealth isn’t just about money—that it’s about power as well. After all, a country with growth rates in excess of 10 percent per annum that’s now the world’s second-largest economy, the largest holder of foreign reserves, the largest exporter and largest consumer of energy—surely it’s also a geopolitical powerhouse?
But take a look inside the gates, beyond the headline economic figures, and two points emerge that cast doubt on this notion of overwhelming strength.
One is the amount of money that’s being spent on internal security. According to its official budget, China spent about $80 billion on defence in 2009 (although the United States and others would argue that even this massive figure underestimates the true scale). But more remarkably, it spent almost as much—$75 billion—on internal security.
Keeping the lid on Xinjiang and Tibet has clearly required massive amounts of central government cash, as has policing China’s restless provinces and dealing with public unrest. Indeed, those who venture outside the grand cities of Shanghai and Beijing see a country with surprising levels of fractiousness and casual violence. On a recent visit to the central city of Xian, for example, I was intrigued to see an enormous sign over a side street bearing the words (in English and Chinese) `Centre for Receiving Petitions.’ It seems there are enough disgruntled citizens in the city and the surrounding areas to warrant a whole street to deal with them.
The second indicator of trouble ahead is the way elite leaders themselves are speaking. Yes, it’s true that Politburo members and their local equivalents fill their public pronouncements with rosy statistics. Like their Maoist and Dengist forebears, they live in a world still infected with Utopianism—things will always get better, the harvests will get bigger, the heaven on earth promised under Marxism (albeit now called Socialism with Chinese characteristics) will be realised one day (even if that day has to be pushed further and further into the future).
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