Tom from Seeing Red in China just ran a great piece called “This system cannot last forever – China’s coming change” where he uses nice graphs and timelines to illustrate what many already suspect: the Communist Party’s economic-based legitimacy check is almost fully cashed. This graph tells the story best:
This shows that, in spite of incredible economic growth, Chinese aren’t any more satisfied with their lives now than they were 12 years ago. The post-1979 boom that lifted people out of poverty is bringing diminishing returns to life satisfaction.
It makes sense. Compare someone who lived through the Japanese invasion and Mao’s idiotic campaigns to someone born in the 90’s who grew up watching American movies and having their teeth brushed for them. The latter, which takes their economic standing for granted, could very well be the undoing of a Party that derives its legitimacy from pulling the nation out of poverty. So if that happens, what comes next? Here’s a few possibilities:
Scenario #1: The Party says, “This absolute power thing has been swell, but now it’s time allow real freedoms, which will move our economy up the value chain. It’s also time to give the public a real check on our power by allowing them a mechanism to throw out those who don’t represent them.”
It’s possible, but anyone who’s studied basic world history can figure out about how likely that is. Especially given that the only Politburo member who even pretends to want substantial reform is leaving next year.
Scenario #2: Give Marxist ideology another whirl.
That crapped out about the time Mao died, but the New Leftists are trying to revive it as a source of legitimacy. This might make for some fun nostalgia, but not very likely to sustain the government on its own. And it’s not like the CCP hasn’t been vainly trying to convince the public that socialism is still relevant all along anyways.
Scenario #3: That just leaves the CCP’s fail-safe pillar of legitamacy: Good old-fashioned nationalism. Anti-Japanese, and to a lesser extent Anti-American and European nationalism have worked wonders thus far. The “Century of Humiliation” narrative has left latent animosity toward these places and embedded a sense of gratitude toward the Party that rescued the country from the foreign imperialists.
But how far can this same old tactic go when it’s not accompanied with economic legitimacy? Not very. If the Party thinks its power has a clear and present existential threat, desperate times might call for desperate measures – wag the dog-type measures that seek out the nationalistic furvor a war brings.
The tried and true enemies of the US and Japan wouldn’t work for this. Either case would be economic suicide and put the Chinese Navy up against the US’s. Getting an naval ass-kicking wouldn’t do much to endear the Party to the people.
There’s Taiwan, which might make more sense. But again, economics and the possibility of a US military intervention makes it unlikely – on top of the fact that it could turn into a drawn out occupation with a resistant population. A failed attempt at taking Taiwan would just make matters worse for the CCP.
So that just leaves the South China Sea with a big target on Vietnam. China claims pretty much the entire sea, so military enforcement of these claims would be seen as perfectly legitimate and non-imperialistic by Chinese. The international community would cry foul, but if it got to this point, a bad reputation would be the least of the CCP’s concerns. And American military intervention on behalf of Vietnam would be tough sell to the broke American public.
Vietnam regularly patrols the sea, so getting a USS Maine-like incident to spark a war wouldn’t be hard. China is already the biggest baddest navy in Asia and has just rolled out its new aircraft carrier. It could be combat ready in five years, with a supporting fleet in ten – right about the time China’s economic growth is expected to slow considerably and the post-90’s kids will be adults.
Keeping the war naval would keep civilian casualties low, the PLA would get to show off its new toys, victory would be swift, and the average Zhou in China would get a patriotic hard-on. It would be the Persian Gulf War on steroids.
There would even be the added benefits of complete control over the sea’s resources and a warning to other neighbors that China is serious about its claims.
This strategy would only be a temporary solution to the Party’s legitimacy predicament though. The Persian Gulf War sent George H.W. Bush’s approval rating soaring to almost 90%…then he lost his re-election bid the following year. But, as James Fallows put it, China’s government is basically guiding a raft down white water rapids. It does everything it can to avoid the rock in front of it, which just allows it to confront the next rock behind it.
Wagging the dog would buy the government time, which would allow them to regroup and think up the next hair-brained scheme, which if history (or present) is any indicator, would involve a Stalinist clampdown. OR they could go back to scenario #1 and initiate substantive reforms. Hell, they could even do that now and avoid the whole thing. But if I were Vietnam, I wouldn’t get too attached to the South China Sea.