In my last post I looked at the factors in today’s China that could be ingredients for a Tiananmen-like rebellion. If that happened, it could go a million different directions in the aftermath depending on what catalyst brought it about. So rather than make a pointless prediction of what exactly would happen, today I want to look at some general things that might come into play in a post-uprising China.
Scenario 1 – The party successfully puts down the rebellion.
The party is much more paranoid than it was in 1989 and now spends more money on “internal security” than on national defense. One has to imagine they have very sophisticated contingencies in place to respond to any number of uprising scenarios. But if a serious challenge happened and the party survived, it would indeed be a wakeup call in the same way Tiananmen was. It would probably be followed by a brief clampdown followed by accelerated reform.
Scenario 2 – The party is overthrown.
Ok, so what happens next? Liu Xiaobo and his pals are busted out of prison to draft a constitution and a representative democracy is established? Not likely.
Americans are especially susceptible to thinking this could happen because their own country was founded in this manner and it turned out pretty well (eventually). But few appreciate how truly exceptional that was in world history.
More often leaders hijack popular sentiment to seize their own power (see: Lenin, Mao, Castro, Pinochet, Pot – to name a few). Even when democracies are established in theory following an overthrow of the former system, it doesn’t tend to work out quite like you’d hope. Afghanistan’s “democracy” is nearly 10 years old now. How’s that working out? Well, besides the constant violence, one woman is jail for being raped and can only get out of her 12 year sentence by undoing the “adultery” and marrying her rapist. So there’s that.
It’s yet to be seen if the other freshly “democratic” Middle-Eastern states will fare any better. But it’s important to remember this isn’t the first time they’ve had popular uprisings. Somehow a tyrant (or group of tyrants) usually ends up back in power. The big Asian democracies of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan are all successful, but they developed as American protectorates – and still had long messy (often violent) transitions to functional democracy.
So where does that leave the exponentially larger and more diverse China?
One of the reasons Tiananmen failed was because there was no clear aim. Everyone was pissed off for different reasons. The students wanted faster reforms while the peasants felt they’d been left behind by overly-rapid reforms. No decisive leaders ever emerged. Not a lot’s changed in terms of those interests except that now there’s an ultra-nationalist wing who thinks the government is too weak on foreign affairs. So if someone were to ascend to power they’d have to focus on the grievances that are shared by the most people across different demographics.
Throughout Chinese history, most revolutions have looked somewhat similar. After a dynasty has been in power for a long time, wealth inequality gets worse and worse. People become frustrated by the privileged class flaunting their wealth and the leaders building frivolous projects on the backs of the peasantry. An uprising is started by leaders who promise to take land and wealth from the rich and redistribute it among the poor. This majority tyranny is enough to propel the leaders to power whereupon they fulfill their promise and reward the peasants. Then over time the leaders are corrupted. They give way to even more corrupt later generations. Land and wealth slowly aggregates back into the hands of a few and the cycle starts over again.
Wealth inequality and corruption are grievances shared by most people across the board in China today. If the Communist Party were overthrown, things could actually get a lot more communist. The Chinese rich seem to already have this worry, as many are now flocking to get foreign passports.
Then there’s the issue of the People’s Liberation Army. It’s hard to imagine that those with all the weapons won’t try to find a place for themselves in the new order. Besides, no one is going to lose support by pledging a hardline on territorial issues and “The West” like the PLA tends to do. Like most militaries, they’d prefer to use their toys outside a simulation setting.
A PLA general discussing how China would respond if America interfered with an invasion of Taiwan once said, “We Chinese will prepare ourselves for the destruction of all of the cities east of Xian. Of course, the Americans will have to be prepared that hundreds of cities will be destroyed by the Chinese.”
Delightful. And we all know how well military governments tend to work out anyways (See: Libya, Myanmar).
Again, it would be pointless to speculate on the specifics of the aftermath of a theoretical a revolution. There are too many wild cards. But given today’s (and most of history’s) situation anyone who would ascend to power would likely have to appeal to nationalism and disgust over the wealth divide. The country could split apart into separate states, but I doubt it. Chinese are pretty sensitive about territorial integrity. Keeping China together would most likely be included as part of the nationalist platform of any viable leader.
As I’ve written before, I don’t buy that the entire country would erupt into chaos under most scenarios. The fundamental business apparatus is in place and I suspect most people would opt to keep going to work rather than taking to the streets to hurl bricks. However, any new political system would have profound long-term effects. And try as I might, I’m struggling to imagine a plausible scenario where an overthrow of the current system has a happy ending.
A western-style democracy would be very unlikely to spontaneously emerge and it could cause more problems than it fixes anyways. I buy the official line that China’s couldn’t handle an abrupt transition to nationwide elections. There are too many avenues for tyranny and deception. The democracies that evolve from existing systems over time tend to be much more successful than the ones that come suddenly from revolution. Slow (but consistent and visible) reform in giving the people a meaningful voice under a rule of law is the best route. Hopefully the current Chinese leadership does what’s in everybody’s interest and addresses the substance of what could lead to rebellion.
Hint: that probably doesn’t include the iron fist being upgraded to a stronger metal.
Click here to see another perspective on this issue.