Is China on the Brink of Collapse? Probably Not | Jake Painter
When thinking of subjects such as these, one must be careful not to conflate what they want to happen with what will happen. It is no secret that China is remerging to its historical position in the world as a power to be reckoned with and this has created anxieties amongst Western states. This anxiety however has led to a plethora of erroneous takes about China’s impending doom which is quite simply not going to come to pass. We can however discern what China’s future is likely to be, by looking at its past; after all, history often determines destiny.
Despite China being ruled by the CCP – which is an abominable authoritarian regime – China faces the same historical realities that have always governed it, along with the recurring cycles of power. This throughout Chinese history has manifested itself in the form of the ‘mandate of heaven’ and is crucially important to understand because it is key to understanding China’s millennia long resilience. The mandate of heaven was and still is a doctrine that the legitimacy of Chinese rulers is predicated on their ability to govern the country competently and justly. Not by the popular will or noble birth, but simply how well the state is running society. In the past when things went awry, the people of China would interpret this as the universe deeming a ruler as unworthy and that the ruler had lost said mandate, which would justify that ruler’s overthrow.
Whilst this should be a recipe for disaster, it actually creates a stable transfer of power; one that has allowed China in its current form to exist in one way or another, for the past 2,000+ years. True, the Chinese people today live under a highly authoritarian and centralised state with little to no say in the day-to-day governance of their country, but this has always been the case for China throughout the vast majority of her history. The fact remains that this system has in some form or the other worked for China and most importantly, it is a system that the Chinese people support and abide by. It is often stated that the Chinese people are effectively bribed by the CCP with the promise of growth and economic prosperity and whilst this is an important part of the CCP retaining its mandate, it also fundamentally implies that it is the only source of legitimacy for the Chinese state and ignores two millennia of China’s history.
This is not to say China does not have some serious issues at hand. China’s demographic crisis will eventually reach its crescendo and it is unlikely the two child policy will save the CCP from having to make some very drastic decisions. China is dangerously close to being stuck within the middle income trap (much like Brazil and South Africa are) where its export based economy will become less competitive due to higher wages (as seen with industry beginning to move south to places like Vietnam) but will not be rich enough to develop a strong domestic consumer based economy and will not be able to catch up with the West in high-value-added market (being able to compete in producing high quality consumer goods). China has a volatile housing market bubble, which will eventually burst. Such a market where there are entire ghost towns and cities full of empty apartments and homes, but also millions of Chinese who have two or even three mortgages per head was never built to last. China’s water scarcity (with 28,000 of its rivers disappearing over the past 20 years) and issues with pollution will continue to threaten the standard of living of the Chinese people.
All these things are true and valid threats to China’s stability and prosperity but this is once again where the mandate of heaven comes in. As mentioned before, the Chinese people have little to no say in the day-to-day governance of China and this has been true for time immemorial, but the CCP is all too aware of the historical precedent of past Chinese dynasties losing their mandates and being subsequently overthrown. As such, the CCP is willing to do things that very few other nations are willing to do in order to ensure that it is seen as still legitimate in the eyes of the Chinese people. Whether its continued growth and prosperity; sabre rattling against Taiwan and other Western powers, giving off the impression of power and strength in the defence of Chinese interests; the CCP will do what it can to remain in power. Even if the CCP was to lose said mandate in the eyes of the Chinese people and all of China’s problems came to roost, that would not precipitate a collapse of the Chinese state. One must remember that the history of China is one where unity is the general rule of China’s history, not disunity. If we define the nation state as one where a cultural national group has a political polity to serve and defend said group, then Han China (in the broadest sense) is the oldest nation state in the world. In short, even in the extremely unlikely scenario that the CCP loses its mandate, it will simply pass on to another dynasty. Maybe a future China such as this would be like Taiwan was under Chang Hai Shak before democracy took hold on the island, but it would still be China. History again, determines destiny.
It is not just China’s history we can look at here, but also to that of its northern neighbour. The best read one can read on the Soviet Union’s demise and the immediate aftermath after its fall is arguably Stephen Kotkins book ‘Armageddon Averted’, in which he points to not only the most important factor as to why the USSR fell but why many authoritarian regimes fell as well. Contrary to popular belief, the USSR was not on the brink of collapse before Gorbachev came to power in 1985. True the Soviet State was decrepit and stagnant and was fast falling behind its Western advisories, but it was far from falling apart. Indeed, Kotkin makes the case that Soviet citizens up until this point had generally a strong sense of patriotism towards the USSR, with the Soviet State having a gargantuan and loyal military. What killed the USSR in the end – Kotkin argues – was that Gorbachev’s liberalising reforms in the form of perestroika (his economic reforms) and Glasnost (his political reforms) put the nail in the coffin for the USSR.
You see, repressive regimes work best when they remain repressive. It may sound odd but as Kotkin pointed out in referring to the USSR; when Gorbachev introduced his liberalising reforms, it allowed for voices of dissent to be heard and these dissenting voices allowed the Soviet people to fully realise how much poorer they were compared to the West and how much their political system was failing them. This along with the frustration of the half measures introduced as part of perestroika convinced the Soviet people that the system must be done away with in its entirety. History has been kind to Mr Gorbachev, for the simple fact that history is written by the victors and Gorbachev’s reforms precipitated the triumph of the capitalist West. What is safe to assume is that had Gorbachev not become the Soviet premier, the Soviet Union would have likely remained in place to this day. Decaying at the seems perhaps, a relic of its former glory, but still in existence.
China on the other hand has no Gorbachev like figure and the CCP shows no signs of toning down the authoritarian tendencies, quite the opposite in fact. It has subdued dissent in Hong Kong, is currently committing atrocities in Xinjiang against the Uyghur Muslims, has rolled out the social credit system in the past few years and has established arguably the most impressive security and surveillance apparatus in the world. China’s authoritarian state is only going to get more authoritarian and however sickening that may be, it does in a way ensure its short to medium term future.
What is China’s future then, if it is not inevitable collapse? In the 1970s and 1980s, there were fears that Japan would overtake the USA and would become the next global superpower. After all, Japan between 1955-1973 experienced an average annual growth rate of 9% and 4% between 1973-1990, by which time the Japanese economy was 75% the size of the US’s economy. Which was impressive for a country with half the population the US had and still has. However, after the Park Plaza agreement in 1985, Japan introduced very low interest rates to keep its economy competitive as the US dollar depreciated against the Yuan. This from 1986-1991 caused a real estate and asset bubble, as people began to take out cheap loans to buy mortgages or invest in the stock market. This led to mounting debt, real estate prices skyrocketing; all the while Japan’s export industry saw a steady decline throughout this period and the bubble eventually did burst in full by 1992. Ever since then, Japan has experienced 30 years of economic stagnation and has long since disappeared as a threat to Western hegemony.
If this sounds all too familiar, it is because this is China’s past, present and very likely its future. China’s economy has grown exponentially over the past 40+ years, lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty, in what has been described as China’s own economic miracle. China is also seen (much more maliciously than Japan was ever viewed) as bogeyman, though for good reason in many respects. China also has, as mentioned before, a slowly but surely weakening export based economy, with industry beginning to move away to other poorer East Asian nations and this is coupled with rising amounts of debt, as not only is the property developer Evergrande facing crisis but the whole of China’s property firms market is free fall. The bubble will likely burst soon enough and whilst China will surely feel the pinch and its economic miracle is surely at an end, it will soldier on nonetheless. Indeed, China’s fate is a mixture of that of modern day Japan, along with what the USSR’s future would have been had Gorbachev not taken the reins of power. China will be a large, autocratic regime, that will serve to be a powerful regional power but nothing much more than that; being unable to surpass the USA economically, much the same Japan was not able to. It will still be an economic powerhouse in the region but as mentioned before, the honeymoon years are fast coming to an end and China will have to be content with only modest growth or even negligible growth in the future, never quite living up to its potential.