by Austin Bay
August 8, 2019
Chinese President Xi Jinping boasts his nation will return to great power status before 2049. By great power Xi means return to unrivaled world power status, which his ethnic Han-centered reading of history assumes the Middle Kingdom enjoyed during its imperial golden age. By the way, it is no coincidence that 2049 will mark 100 years of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) dictatorial rule in mainland China.
2019's Hong Kong protests, however, have exposed Xi's reviving China as a great oppressor operating as an authoritarian, corrupt and brutal political system few human beings would willingly emulate. China's senior communists can boast, but deep down they know their police state is politically brittle, which is why they employ hi-tech surveillance to monitor their citizens and Tiananmen Square-type slaughter if undeterred citizens challenge the CCP's domestic power.
The Trump administration's trade war has caught politically challenged China in an awkward economic moment. China's economy no longer roars. Economic growth has stalled.
According to the latest Jamestown Foundation China brief, China's moribund economy presents Xi and the entire CCP with "immense difficulties." The report cites two telling examples. Chinese information technology companies "are having trouble obtaining core components" from the U.S. and Western countries. Consumer spending is listless due to "unprecedented levels of household debt, which is estimated at 52 percent of GDP."
Fair guess "core components" means quality core components. China still has difficulties with manufacturing quality control that decades of stealing equipment plans, filching software and reverse engineering technology have not solved.
Why? Jamestown refers to the abominable Maoist Cultural Revolution's execrable credo "Politics takes command."
China has no independent legal system. The CCP is supreme in legal matters, which means that the CCP's China, no matter how far reaching it appears to be, is ruled by whim, not law.
In retrospect, China's economy appears to have been less robust in the last three to four years than official government data suggested. Did Beijing massage the data for propaganda purposes?
When "politics takes command," why not lie? After all, China's dictatorship hawked its economic prowess as indicative of the superiority of authoritarianism with "Chinese characteristics." Superior to what other system? The system China's propagandists call the U.S.-led Liberal International Order (LIEO).
They still contend the CCP's authoritarian governance model works and China's economic success proves it works. The economic "immense difficulties" of 2018 and 2019, and the Hong Kong demonstrations, challenge the propagandists' certainties.
Fake data problems plague every country, but ultimately, liars get caught. For several years, Greek governments lied about their annual deficits in order to meet Eurozone requirements. I'm not alleging Xi's China is Greece 2012. I am speculating about sources of China's economic listlessness that precede its economic clash with the Trump administration. Corruption coupled with systemic lack of accountability -- to include personal accountability, where managers and workers let lackadaisical and lazy work practices slide -- eventually produces financial turmoil.
In 2011, Suisheng Zhao wrote a prescient essay for EastAsiaForum.org. 2011 was the year of Arab Spring. Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution in particular frightened the CCP because "social and political tensions caused by rising inequality, injustice, and corruption" haunt China."
Zhao wrote that the "dramatically rising costs of maintaining internal control have raised questions about the sustainability of the China model, which is based on the wrong assumption that economic growth trumps all else. If the government takes care of economic growth the assumption is, people will be willing to give up all moral and other demands."
China's economic slowdown alone questions that assumption; economic stagnation may expose it as authoritarian arrogance. Hong Kong's weeks of demonstrations may or may not be indicative the restlessness and resentment in the rest of mainland China. However, Hong Kong's demands for liberal freedoms and distrust of Beijing have international narrative resonance. And it appears the Trump administration's trade war has just begun.