One of the most demanding tasks today is to provide a detailed depiction of China’s current social and political complexities, a mission that probably even George Kennan, the famous author of the X article about the sources of the Soviet conduct, would be able to accomplish systematically.
Indeed, despite the massive bulk of social, cultural and militarily analysis on China and its history, making precise predictions about the trajectory of China as a global actor can result in fragmented and scattered intellectual efforts without any general evidence or visible trends to compare with.
By approaching such a fascinating and hard question with the greatest humbleness, I will try to trace a general trend explaining the current situation of China.
Broadly summarizing, today China presents a couple of relevant problems: on the one hand a set of worrying domestic issues concerning the political and social plight of its ruling class and citizens; on the other hand, a series of contradicting steps in international politics that would scare even the most prudent and careful strategic thinker. As a result, to an external viewer, contemporary China seems to be a confusing giant in search for a new identity after 30 years of uninterrupted economic growth ended with the 2008 global economic meltdown.
After the death of Chairman Mao in 1976 and the reform package launched by Den Xiaoping soon after, the Chinese ruling party has assured a long period of economic rise and, in doing so, has strengthened its legitimacy as the only instrument capable of guaranteeing China’s stability, unity and security. In exchange for economic and physical protection, Chinese population has given up any claim about the liberalization of political and civil rights, by signing a sort of “gentle agreement” with its own rulers in order to achieve a common interest. After all, as China possesses neither a multiparty system nor a democracy, there was no need to be concerned with political representation, especially after decades of political weakness and the socially devastating effects of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.
Accordingly, the course of Chinese economic growth in the last years has deeply characterized its society and the nature of its foreign relationships.
On the domestic level, China is affected by an endless number of challenges, worsened further because of the scale of its population. First of all the environmental problem, caused by the massive industrial pollution and the process of desertification in the inland Chinese areas. Secondly, the relentless aging process of the Chinese population, as a result of the one-child policy promoted in 1978. According to recent estimates, by 2050 the largest part of the Chinese population will be formed by elderly, with significant impacts on productivity and social expenditures. This demographic decline is coupled with a growing regional disparity and imbalance between rich and poor areas, which compels massive migrations from the rural and less wealthy areas of the country to the seacoast, with increasing costs in terms of country-land’s de-urbanization. Lack of food safety, the bad quality of healthcare services, the Tibetan quest for self-determination and spreading corruption (not only among public officials but even among the common people – to such an extent that a six-year-old Chinese girl expressed the desire and the dream to become a corrupt agent in her future), provide for a very baffled, although not exhaustive, depiction of what Chinese society is today.
In addition, the logic of Chinese foreign policy is characterized by a substantial incoherence: on one hand their policy-makers clearly pursue politics of resource supplying through fertile-land purchases and investments in Africa, Latin America and Central Asia, for example; on the other hand, China purportedly doesn’t want to interfere in other countries’ affairs.
The ongoing international tensions in the South China Sea and the pressures by states such as Vietnam, Singapore, the Philippines and South Korea to keep the US military umbrella in the region, are the best example to describe such a costly paradox, given the longstanding Chinese diplomatic effort to reassure and tighten good relationships with its neighbours, for instance by promoting the concept of “peaceful rise”.
As partial explanation to this incoherence, is the involvement of an extensive range of political players in shaping foreign policy, such as the pragmatic Communist party, the growing assertive PLA and the profit-seeker industrial complex: the final outcome is an uncertain and ambiguous approach to international politics.
For the next ten years, by virtue of its domestic issues, China will be not representing a real danger for the international community. Nonetheless, a decrease of the employment rate to 5-6% could prompt a large scale of mass mobilization and jeopardize the stability of the country. The problem of a Chinese economic downturn, largely underestimated in the West, should be promptly faced through incisive economic and political reforms by the new class of political leader that are going to be elected next October.