‘To Collapse or Not To Collapse’ Is Not The Question

Rebecca Mackinnon has started a public wiki for predictions about China in ’09. The first entry is a post by Daniel Drezner whose blog just migrated to Foreign Policy. Drezner cites the recent Charter ’08 manifesto signed by hundreds of Chinese intellectuals and thousands of netizens, which calls for a new constitution, democratic reform and other extraordinarily ambitious changes. Drezner poses the question:

Question to readers: is 2009 the year that China’s government collapses? Or is it just another year in which there will be a crackdown of a mass uprising? Because those may be the only two options.

I agree with Matthew Stinson who points out in the comments to Drezner:

“The main problem with your thesis is the degree to which Chinese intellectuals can shape the discourse, rouse the public, and force policymakers to engage their ideas, and that degree is almost zero.”

Charter ’08 arguably has had a more significant impact on readers of the New York Review of Books than it has on China. Drezner’s position illustrates pretty well American conventional wisdom on China:

1) That for 20 years the Chinese government has been on its “last chance” with the Chinese people, and if it disappoints them, they will rise up and throw the bums out.

2) That the thousands of “mass incidents” reported around the country are warnings that they will carry out this ultimatum.

3) That it’s not a question of if the government will collapse but when, and that everything revolves around the idea of collapse either being imminent or delayed, but always present.

These assumptions ignore complications such as:

1) That the protests of 1989 were not nationwide, nor were they solely composed of students or calls for democracy. Jeffrey Wasserstrom has explicitly pointed out that the protestors were not the same as those in Eastern Europe which Charter ’08 takes its inspiration.

2) That the “mass incidents” around the country are not connected to any intellectual calls to reform, or directed at wholesale change of the national government. In fact, they are commonly directed at local officials and calls for the national government to come to the rescue.

3) The past twenty years, from a Chinese citizens perspective, were in fact revolutionary, and in general China has had quite a bit of revolution and its not exactly something desired.

Here, then, are my predictions for China in 2009 (or 2010, depending how the financial crisis plays out) in no particular order:

  • As U.S. and UK retailers, as well as European ones, continue to cut back and even fail, China’s export model will come under increasing strain. The looming credit card crisis will reduce consumption even further, exacerbating the problem. While China has cash to lend on hand, there are no mechanisms by which it can use it to rescue thousands of small and medium sized manufacturers who operate with little spare cash. The government is attempting to use trade policy to buoy exporters, but this can only go so far if Americans have no money to spend.
  • It will be extremely difficult for China to increase domestic consumption, not only as thousands lose jobs and unemployment increases, but also because problems with quality assurance in local brands will intensify as manufacturers cut corners even more to increase their shrinking margins and enforcement and regulation mechanisms are ineffective, or in many cases simply don’t exist. There are also bureaucratic hurdles such as permits and fees for imported equipment currently used solely for exports, though the government could waive this in a pinch.
  • There will be increasing dissatisfaction and confrontation, but it will focus on education and healthcare, which have long been regarded as the biggest failures of Opening Up and Reform. Like many protests in the past, these will not call for the overthrow of the government but demand the government take action. Its been two years since President Hu Jintao acknowledged the collapse of the healthcare system, particularly in rural areas, but both healthcare and education have suffered similar problems in urban areas as well. First, there is the problem of rampant petty corruption. Second, and overlapping with the first, is that both have been driven purely by how much an individual can pay, either in bribes or by going to more expensive private schools and hospitals (which were mostly built with taxpayers money by public counterparts). It’s “One Country, Two Systems”, based on how wealthy you are.

The Chinese government seems to be aware of all of this, and has been trying to get a healthcare reform package together along with a social security number system. The last one is a mirror image of the U.S. social security number, which began only for tracking government benefits and later became the de facto ID number for legal and financial purposes. In China, its happened almost precisely the other way around. I expect to see the government making some very big noises about healthcare this year, but I’m not so sure education is being given as much priority. Nevertheless, during these past several golden years, Chinese citizens may have been more likely to grudgingly accept the costs of healthcare and education because they could afford them, or at least saw the promise of one day having enough money to afford them. In lean times, when the prospect of future earnings is dim, people may be less likely to accept the status quo and demand the government fix it. It will be interesting to see if this is linked to criticism of the Chinese government’s investment of foreign currency reserves.

  • http://oldtalesretold.blogspot.com Old Tales Retold

    Great points. I, too, think healthcare, education—and, I would add, pensions—will be increasingly sore points in Chinese state-society relations. I also think people overstate things by only allowing two options for the CCP: collapse or successfully squash all opposition. In fact, more likely scenarios are that the state muddles along, with some ups and downs, or that it stagnates in that way that some Latin American countries have in the past, with high levels of unrest but no real threat to stability on a national level.

    That said, I do think that Charter 08 is significant, not because it is popularly supported (yet) or even known, but because it signals a desire for political reform from a fairly broad cross-section of intellectuals, more than the usual firebrands (He Weifang is on there, for example)—and demonstrates a new gutsiness on the part of thousands. To the government, these people aren’t nothing: it has spent a lot of money pampering them over the years and it needs their energies for tackling the very problems they highlight.

    Finally, just one correction: the protests of 1989 WERE nationwide. Even small towns that happened to have colleges saw marches. I talked to someone once who said he had been sent as a government researcher across the country in the aftermath of the crackdown and interviewed people who had protested way out in the sticks.

    However, I doubt we’ll see anything national like that again, at least not in the near future. The taxi driver protests are the closest thing.

  • gap

    Drezner’s piece reflects very well his arrogance and ignorance.

  • davesgonechina

    @OldTalesRetold: good call on pensions, though I suspect that will become an even bigger pensions in about ten years as the populations grays.

    On Charter ’08, point taken. The Party invested heavily in these people and wants their returns. My main point was that it’s not going to directly lead to uprisings, as Drezner posits, because Chinese intellectuals don’t have that sort of influence. The other feeling I get with Charter ’08 is it’s a bit too pie in the sky, and gives no prescriptions. I was thinking the other day that had they instead launched a blitzkrieg on educational reform, with the principles of Charter ’08 implicit in a series of concrete proposals, they’d frighten the government just as much, and probably get more interest from the public.

    As for 1989, I’d be really interested to know more about the government researcher who collected data on protest in the sticks. I’ve always understood the protests to have been limited to major cities, with no city having the scale of Beijing except perhaps Shanghai. One question I have is, just how consistent were the messages of protestors in various cities? I’ve always thought they weren’t, just as the messages of the various groups that went to Tiananmen weren’t.

  • daniel

    charter08 is a joke. It’s only purpose is to make their authors notorious in the west. I don’t see anything else.
    It is a frontal attack to the CCP. Of course they reclaim Justice and freedom, but wouldn’t be curious if otherwise ?

    Since the USSR collapse, China has been very careful not to reproduce the same mistakes : political reforms before economical ones. Anybody who has lived in china knows China is not the Orwellian hell described by extreme dissidents.

    I predict for 2009 that crackdown will continue in Tibet and in Xinjiang. The economy will start turn into domestic market instead of crazy environmentally costly exports. China will launch another rocket to the moon or mars ahead in schedule to make Chinese fell proud. Nationalism will continue to grow in China.
    China will continue to increase ties with Taiwan, Japan, India and South Korea. North Korea will eventually collapse.

  • http://oldtalesretold.blogspot.com Old Tales Retold

    @ davesgonechina,

    The ’89 protests in the hinterlands weren’t ever as big as in Beijing or Shanghai, of course. Your question about the coherence of their message is an interesting one. As I imagine a lot of these non-metropolitan demonstrations were still led by students, their more general, liberal demands were probably pretty consistent with Beijing’s. However, they may have added some stuff relating to local concerns. I’d love to know more myself! The guy I talked to was just someone I met traveling, so I don’t have to much to say about his story. I have heard from others, though, about marches in places like Shanxi.

    I agree that Charter 08 won’t lead to uprisings and, like you, I think that the constant harping about revolution in the Western press distracts from serious discussions about the possibilities for change in China. It may be that a more focused document would have led to more results, as you say. I don’t agree with everything in the Charter—especially the stuff about privatizing SOEs (not likely to go over very well with workers).

    At the very least, though, the document has opened up the field for discussion on change in a big way. Sure, there’s a clampdown now, but the goalposts have been moved back (is that the proper expression?).

    @ daniel,

    I don’t think you can read over the list of names that signed Charter 08 and really say that they all just want fame abroad. And time will tell if it’s a “joke.” My guess is it isn’t a joke and that it will matter, but there will be other things that matter more in the long run…

    As to China not being an “Orwellian hell,” that’s fairly obvious. But swinging to the other extreme and painting the Chinese leadership as pursuing some flawless plan is also a stretch. Like any country, the PRC lurches along, making some smart decisions and some pretty dumb ones.

  • Richard

    Hi Dave,
    long time no speak. Good post – the extent to which people see China through the prism of the imminent prairie fire is all very odd to me. If the Party were really worried about social unrest overthrowing them they wouldn’t be talking about it so much.
    There’s certainly only a very limited connection between social unrest and Charter 08 (though many of the signatories are the same “rights defenders” lawyers etc who represent aggrieved farmers, petitioners Sanlu victims etc. It’s not just the same old suspects.) On the other hand, I wouldn’t entirely rule out their signficance – many are better connected than outsiders imagine – look at the backgrounds of the rising generation of Chinese leaders and think about it. That doesn’t mean there is a direct discourse between the Party and these people, but they are feeding the same broader discussions among the chattering classes, who chatter more and more these days, of how China might change in the next couple of decades. And whatever people say, the outside world also plays a considerable part in the way China thinks about itself.
    On Tiananmen, I have found that one or two people I have come across who took part in demos in places like Chengdu or Xian were often more, rather than less, avowedly demanding democracy in a western sense, perhaps because of the generally more politically conservative nature of Beijing. But I don’t really have enough evidence to state that as a general rule.

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  • http://thecrazyinsect.blogspot.com Lao Lu

    With respect to Charter 08 and it’s impact, it may be useful to point out that shortly before the 1989 demonstrations began, a similar kind of letters written by leading intellectuals of the time did spark widespread interest; starting of with a letter written by Fang Lizhi to Deng Xiaoping requesting the release of Wei Jingsheng, it was followed by letters supporting the request or reinforcing and widening the demand to release all ideological prisoners. The number of subscribing intellectuals had grown with each letter (from 1 to 33 to 43). In the wake of this, there was initiated a wider debate on China’s political system and reforms via channels such as Shanghai’s “World Economic Herald”.

    While I see no basis today which could make Charter 08 do more than merely cause a ripple on the Chinese political landscape, I thought it was useful to point out the parallel of how things did get started in 1989, so the power of the intellectual’s appeal should not be underestimated. Only this time I could not imagine a follow-up movement taking over those people’s ideas and carrying them out nationwide (I would agree on the point that it was more than just the major cities participating back then), unless the crisis would hit China also to the extent that students find no jobs anymore and get frustrated again. As far as I can see from here, we’re far away from that point yet.

  • http://www.zhongnanhaiblog.com Cam

    Hi Dave,

    I agree with your post, but would also like to point out that the 1989 protests were nationwide. There were demonstrations across southern China at that time, in both metropolitan centers and smaller areas. Many of these concerned the government to a large degree, and Jiang Zemin’s success at quelling the protest in Shanghai was a major reason Deng Xiaoping saw fit to promote him.

    More details on the uprisings around the country in 1989 can be found in The Tiananmen Papers.

    Cam.

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