The Other Side of China’s Rise

by Dennis Wajda

In 1991, the fall of communism sent shockwaves across the developed world as it witnessed the Soviet Union’s dramatic collapse. Yet many of the same domestic perils that befell the U.S.S.R. are now manifesting themselves in China, in spite of years of unparalleled Chinese economic growth. While the spotlight continues to focus on the strategic rise of China, its growth rate has recently slowed to its lowest in a decade, and domestic issues are posing increasingly great challenges to societal stability for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The most contentious domestic issues are high energy demand, water scarcity, pollution and social disparities — all of which will affect the very survivability of the party.

Resource constraints will continue to pose existential threats to the CCP, since without energy and water, the Chinese economic machine will grind to a halt.  The Chinese government’s ability to placate the populace through economic progress is diminishing and China’s people will demand greater political participation in the absence of wealth. While the party continues to diversify its global energy sourcing strategy and create expensive infrastructure projects, ostensibly to improve water acquisition, demand for resources will soon outstrip supply. China’s domestic challenges will likely become too burdensome for the party to handle.

Similarly, sustainability and environmental degradation are also threatening the Party’s grip on power. Consistent throughout much of the past fifty years of communist rule has been the mantra of “growth at any cost” or the “grow first, clean up later” approach.  But it has outlived its usefulness. Not only has China overtaken the U.S. in greenhouse gas emissions, it has also become the world’s leader in respiratory, heart, digestive and lung cancers correlated to pollution. And the damage is concentrated, creating a politically explosive powder keg. China’s rural and lower classes will continue to endure the consequences of disastrous policies in what some call the “political economy of regulation.” The numbers of displaced, sick, and impoverished continue to balloon without long term relief in sight. No civilization in history has ever withstood the level of ambivalence and abuse by its ruling party as we see in China today.  Environment-related civil protests have blossomed in response: the number of protests in response to water scarcity and pollution increased from 74,000 in 2005 to 180,000 in 2010. While the party continues to externalize its problems on the most disadvantaged of its population, its top-down leadership approach creates greater discontent over environmental and health issues, which will soon eclipse the ability of the party to deal with these ongoing problems.

Perhaps the prickliest issues confronting the party are those of income, social and gender-related disparities. Urban and rural income inequality continues to contribute to massive rural to urban migration, rising unemployment, and China’s ever-expanding “floating population.”  Additionally, the party continues the use of repression to solve its intensifying issues with income and religious and ethnic discrimination, especially in Xinjiang as well as other parts of China’s hinter lands. Escalating public dissatisfaction with governmental policies that favor Han majorities and coastal economic zones is quickly becoming the tinder that will ignite massive social and political upheaval in years to come. Even with forced stabilization programs and media suppression campaigns, the party will be unable to contain inevitable social unrest as the “have-nots” strive to achieve parity with those that “have.”

Finally, social engineering programs such as the one-child policy may have served to limit consumption in the short term, but now have enormous domestic repercussions for stability in modern-day China. Offspring sex selection that favors male over female births is now responsible for over 40 million surplus males in the population. Not only are the vast majority of these surplus males unemployed, but they are statistically more prone to crime, violence and varying degrees of social and political unrest directed against the government. Adding to this volatile societal balance, by 2050 nearly 400 million Chinese over the age of 60 will have little access to sustainable pensions or healthcare.

China has reached a tipping point in its domestic affairs. Slowing economic growth, mounting resource scarcity, years of unabated pollution and major social welfare problems portend a catastrophic future for the party. History demonstrates that public dissatisfaction channeled into strategic nonviolent resistance can not only induce policy changes, but as the Arab Spring has shown, can hasten the overthrow of authoritarian regimes.

The only remaining question about regime change in China, then, is:



The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of Tufts University, the U.S. Government, or the Department of Defense.

About the Author

Lieutenant Commander Wajda is an active duty U.S. Navy officer and recently served as a military fellow at Fletcher during the 2011-12 academic year. He has extensive overseas experience in Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Operations. Lieutenant Commander Wajda is now an associate instructor at the US Naval War College.

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