The 21st Century: Dealing with a Pushy China

The History of China. Editor: David Curtis Wright. 2nd edition. The Greenwood Histories of the Modern Nations Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2011.

“China does not do small,” mused CBC Radio One’s Jian Ghomeshi on his cultural affairs talk and variety show “Q” shortly after the end of the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the grandiose spectacles of its opening and closing ceremonies. But for China, the ceremonial and athletics of the 2008 Beijing Olympics were what they had been for South Korea 20 years earlier, in 1988: an international debut, a sassy and stylish showcasing of the country’s accomplishments, a way of saying to the outside world, “We’ve come a long way, we’re here, and we matter.” In China, the fact that Beijing was hosting the games at all was widely regarded as a significant symbolic victory over the United States, which had led a campaign in the 1990s to deny Beijing the 2000 Olympics because of China’s human rights abuses.

Indeed, China neither does nor is small. It is a truly massive country by just about any measure imaginable. It is now rapidly emerging as a major world power, and historically, for approximately 2,000 of the past 2,500 years, China has in fact been the world leader economically, militarily, demographically, and culturally. China longs very deeply to resume its historical position as the world’s most powerful state, and it has already taken many of the concrete steps required to do so. This will only continue—a prospect that has some people terrified.

As China becomes more powerful and influential, it has been growing more restive and acting with increasing swagger and confidence on the world stage. Some critics of China now maintain that the country has even become abrasive, vindictive, and pushy. Concerns that China might turn out this way date back a number of years. In 1996 Singapore’s colorful and controversial former prime minister (and now Senior Minister) Lee Kuan Yew gave an important speech in Washington, D.C., at a dinner hosted by The Nixon Center in which he argued that the United States should take the lead in effectively engaging China and absorbing its energies over the next 50 to 100 years in order to prevent China’s emergence once again as a hegemonic behemoth, one attempting to dominate the rest of Asia and perhaps even the world:

In the triangular relationship between the US, Japan and China, the US-China leg is the most important factor for stability in East Asia. US-China bilateral relations will set the tone, structure, and context for all other relationships in East Asia. A stable US-China relationship will mean stability and growth. An ad hoc and spasmodic relationship will cause uncertainty and instability, and inhibit growth throughout East Asia…

As China’s development nears the point when it will have enough weight to elbow its way into the region, it will make a fateful decision—whether to be a hegemon, using its economic and military weight to create a sphere of influence in the region for its economic and security needs, or to continue as a good international citizen abiding by international rules to achieve even better growth…

… China should be given every incentive to choose international cooperation which will absorb its energies constructively for another 50 to 100 years. This means China must have the economic opportunities to do this peacefully, without having to push its way to get resources like oil, and have access to markets for its goods and services …

If such a route is not open to China, the world must live with a pushy China. In this event the United States will not be alone in being concerned about what China will do when it is able to contest the present world dispensation. All countries in Asia, medium and small, have this concern: will China seek to re-establish its traditional pattern on international relations of vassal states in a tributary relationship with the Middle Kingdom? Any signs of this will alarm all the countries in the region, and cause most countries to realign themselves closer to the US and Japan.

The United States should use the time available to encourage and help China to integrate itself into the world community, and to play a part in shaping the international order. Then China will find it worthwhile to accept its obligations as a global citizen. (Lee 1996)

So does the United States’ failure to engage effectively with China and mentor it in becoming a good international citizen account for China’s newfound pushiness? The answer to this question is open to debate, but up to the present, at least, this much is clear: Beijing is not prickly or pushy about everything. Incidents and developments that elicit Beijing’s diplomatic ire and incite China into throwing its weight around in the international arena pertain almost exclusively in some way to China’s perceptions of its territorial integrity or internal stability. Thus, activities and personalities seen as favoring or agitating for the independence and secession of Tibet, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, or Taiwan from China are on Beijing’s diplomatic hit list, as also are the Falun Gong and its leadership.

The number of victims on that diplomatic hit list is growing, and individual companies and even universities are now feeling Beijing’s wrath. After the Obama administration approved of a massive arms sale to Taiwan in 2010, Beijing engaged in its same diplomatic invective about U.S. interference in China’s “internal” affairs, but this time there was concrete economic action. Beijing targeted Boeing (one of the firms involved in the Taiwan arms deal) by deciding to purchase several dozen commercial aircraft from Airbus, Boeing’s European rival.

Beijing can be quite prickly at times about its sovereignty over Tibet and the activities of the Dalai Lama, a man Beijing sees primarily as someone who wants to harm China’s territorial unity and integrity by tearing Tibet away from China. While the West may see the Dalai Lama primarily as an inspiring teacher, speaker, and Nobel laureate, in China he is usually depicted as a conniving “splittist” who has figured out how to manipulate public opinion and the media in Western countries. The West sees the Dalai Lama primarily as a religious leader, while China sees him primarily as a political leader. The truth of the matter is, of course, that he is both. China is sensitive about Western universities awarding the Dalai Lama honorary academic degrees and deplores visits and meetings in any capacity between the Dalai Lama and the political leaders of any country. The Dalai Lama has recently claimed that he no longer seeks the independence of Tibet from China, but it is still difficult for Beijing to see him as a non-political leader because he maintains a government in exile in Dharamsala, India and still upholds a constitution for an independent Tibet.

Capitalism and/or Socialism and/or Communism: Modern Chinese Economic Development

In one of the first major popular books about modern China to come out after Deng Xiaoping’s decision to institute economic reforms and open up to the outside world, Time magazine journalist Richard Bernstein recorded in his 1982 book From the Center of the Earth: The Search for the Truth About China his discussions with Chinese friends and students about the relative merits of socialism versus capitalism:

In Chungking [Chongqing] … I talked in an officially arranged meeting with a couple of one-time capitalist entrepreneurs, men who had owned factories in the past, possessed chauffeur-driven cars, liveried servants, had frequently traveled abroad, and who now, after long periods of suffering and persecution, were allowed to give advice to the local government on industry and commerce and foreign trade. I asked them if they weren’t discouraged by China’s poor record of the recent past, if they, as former capitalists, weren’t convinced that the market system with its rewards and incentives, its flexibility and speed, would provide a better solution for China than a centrally planned system. The answer, inevitably, was: “In a few years, you will see the superiority of socialism.” (Bernstein 1982, 70)

In the fall of 1980 Bernstein met with a group of university students in Chengdu and attempted to have a frank discussion with them:

… These days, when you want to learn about technology or management or even music, where do you look? To the capitalist countries! When you want to send students overseas, you send them to the United States, France, West Germany, Japan, not Yugoslavia. Can you name a socialist country that has done better than an otherwise comparable capitalist country—South Korea versus North Korea, East Germany versus West Germany, Czechoslovakia versus Austria? No, in every case the capitalist country has done better. Therefore it is fair to ask, what makes you so confident of the superiority of socialism?

The students crowded around a table in their classroom clearly excited to have this contact with a foreigner. They were nice kids, bright, friendly, unaffected. But their answers were cliches of the mandatory kind: “Under socialism there is no exploitation. Under socialism you are guaranteed a job for life. In China you are not at the mercy of a boss who can fire you if he doesn’t like your nose.” Then, echoing the optimism of the former capitalists, the students declared: “Come back in a few years and you will see the superiority of socialism.” (Bernstein 1982, 71)

Now, nearly 30 years after these discussions, one may well ask if the optimism of Bernstein’s friends in the early 1980s was warranted. To be sure, China is now much more economically developed than it was in 1981, but the gap between rich and poor is increasingly larger now. (In fact, this gap is greater in China today under the Communists than it was during the Nationalist period under Chiang Kai-shek.) Unemployment and job security are now economic issues that Mao’s command economy never faced. Some Chinese workers, particularly miners and textile workers, are driven like slaves in very dangerous workplaces. Rich people have access to the best health care, and poorer people with serious illnesses are often simply left to die. Chinese cities are vastly wealthier than the Chinese countryside. The coastal provinces of eastern and southern China are much more economically developed than the hinterland provinces. All in all, the spectacular inequality of wealth distribution in China today would have shocked Sun Yat-sen.

Is China still a communist or even a socialist country today? Outsiders have been asking this question since the early 1980s. Many commentators and observers have their doubts, and the views expressed by British journalist and writer Jonathan Fenby are typical:

Is China still socialist, as Hu Jintao proclaims? The predominance of market economics, lack of social care, pollution, recurrent food scandals, growing wealth disparities and illiteracy that is estimated to have risen by 30 million people in five years argue otherwise. At the end of 2008, new high school history textbooks in Shanghai cut the text on socialism to one short chapter out of 52 while giving a single sentence to pre-1978 Chinese Communism and making one reference to Mao. The workers in whose name the CCP claims to rule have lost out. Encouraging output through market mechanisms has proved a lot easier for this authoritarian system than defending its citizens from the adverse effects of growth. The Maoist “iron rice bowl” welfare safety net is gone. The World Bank estimates that the share of wages in the PRC’s gross domestic product dropped from 53 per cent in 1998 to 41 per cent in 2005 (compared to 56 per cent in the USA.)

China’s leaders still call themselves Communists, but what does this mean for them? … How can followers of Communism privatize on an enormous scale, throw millions out of work at state enterprises, pass laws to defend private property and introduce bankruptcy regulations that recognize shareholders and relegate the rights of workers? (Fenby 2009, 675-76)

These are pressing and telling questions. But as tedious and evasive as the basic answer to the question “Is China still a communist or socialist country?” may sound, it really does depend on to whom the question is addressed and what is meant by “communism.” During the 1960s, virtually anyone queried on the streets of Beijing or Shanghai about his or her personal belief in Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought would have enthusiastically and unhesitatingly affirmed it. During the heady days of the 1950s and 1960s, the Chinese public was brimming with confidence in the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, and they bought it all—Mao’s personality cult, the necessity of class struggle, the Marxist idea about the five progressive historical stages of socioeconomic development (slave, feudal, capitalist, socialist, and ultimately communist societies), and even Mao’s insistence that some of these historical stages (for example, the transition from feudal society to socialist society) could be leapfrogged in only a few months through mass movements and the transformative power of political education.

Today, however, the same query in the same places would likely produce blank stares. No, of course the overwhelming majority of Chinese people do not believe in that laotao (old stuff) any more—they believe in getting rich and, in the process, making China great again. If the Party can provide the social stability and infrastructural development necessary for continued economic growth, then fine, the public will support the Party and not challenge its rule over China. Thus, in one sense, in terms of the public acceptance and legitimacy of basic Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought, the answer to the question is an emphatic “No,” China is no longer a communist country. Communist ideology died with Mao in 1976 and was buried in 1978 when Deng Xiaoping’s reforms were announced.

For the Party itself, however, the answer is another matter entirely. The Party today continues to be communist in purely ideological terms. That is, it and its members continue to believe in the basics of Marxism-Leninism. For them, the question is not whether Marx’s theory of the five stages of socioeconomic development are correct—they are. The question is where along the continuum of these five stages China is at present. Mao believed that China leapfrogged from feudal society right over capitalist society during the mid-1950s and was well advanced into the socialist stage by the late 1950s, perhaps even on the runway to authentically classless society and communism. (It was this confidence that led him to launch the Great Leap Forward in an attempt to see communism realized in China during his lifetime.) But today, the Party holds that Mao was wrong about this and that China’s progression through the five stages must proceed and unfold in an orderly and natural manner, with no more artificial shortcuts or madcap mass movements launched in vain attempts to accelerate or do end-runs around orderly historical progression.

So where in the five-stage progression is China today? It is transitioning from capitalist society into the preliminary stages of socialism and socialist society. Thus, with China at this stage of socioeconomic development, capitalist economic activity is not simply permissible or tolerable: It is necessary—it is quite essential. (There are, accordingly, no real ideological qualms about allowing successful entrepreneurs to join the Party today.) When socialism will have matured is anybody’s guess—perhaps by the middle of this century? And the advent of a classless communist society, if it is envisioned at all, is relegated to the very distant and unforeseeable future—perhaps many centuries from now.

Thus, internally and doctrinally, the Party is still communist, or more precisely Marxist-Leninist, in its basic ideology. It has simply corrected a few of Mao’s ideological errors or deviances. The Party does not crave much public legitimacy because that is not very important at this historical stage of socioeconomic development. But the Party does occasionally fret about its public “crisis of faith” and envisions a time when its ideological legitimacy with the Chinese public will once again become very important and necessary. But not for now.

So, is China still a communist or socialist country today? The answer really does depend on who is asked.

How did China develop economically to the point that its very existence as a communist or even socialist country is now a point of discussion and contention? The trajectory of China’s economic growth over the past three decades, even in piecemeal, incremental format, is indeed breathtaking. But while contemplating China’s economic growth with some awe, it is essential to remember this: China recently surpassed Japan to become the world’s second largest economy. In terms of per capita GDP, China has a very long way to go before it can equal the advanced industrialized democracies of the world. In per capita GDP China lags behind even Belize, Botswana, and Brazil.

Chinese economic development, along with earlier economic development in Japan and South Korea, has helped alter the center and focus of the world’s economy from a trans-Atlantic one to a trans-Pacific one. Since 1978 the Chinese economy has expanded 14 times in real terms. By the early 1990s China had, after some false starts and obstreperous objections from left-wing diehards and obtuse Marxist ideologues in the 1980s, completed the transition from a clunky socialist command economy to a modern, efficient, primarily market economy.

By the beginning of this century, there were already more cell phones and television sets in China than anywhere else in the world. Today it seems that the cell phones work everywhere in China; spotty coverage is not the problem it is in North America. No area seems too remote or rural for cell phone coverage in China.

Traditional heavy industries have also experienced phenomenal growth in China over the past decade, and because of the voracious Chinese demand for scrap iron, the world price for scrap iron went from $77 U.S. a ton in 2001 to $300 U.S. a ton by the end of 2004. To meet the demand, manhole covers began turning up missing in cities all over the world, including Beijing itself, as thieves made off with them and sought to cash in. (After losing 24,000 manhole covers, Beijing began experimenting with composite manhole covers that would have little recycling value.) In the United States, stainless steel beer kegs were next because they were worth more than the deposits paid on them. Resourceful criminals in Ukraine even stole a vintage steam locomotive from an open-air museum and sold it to a scrap dealer. In 2006, thieves in Vancouver tried to steal an entire Telus phone booth. That same year, thieves in Quebec brazenly stole copper from the roofs of the St-Charles-de-Limoilou and St-Francois-d’ Assise churches in Montreal.

China has weathered some fairly serious economic storms, such as the stock market’s loss of more than 60 percent of its value in 2007, when property prices began faltering. Inflation has become a problem, primarily because of skyrocketing prices. But China takes these economic fluctuations in stride, and there is no serious talk in the country of ever turning away from capitalism and returning to the inefficiencies and inadequacies of planned command economies.

Economic growth in China has been fueled by extensive direct foreign investment and also by domestic capital; thrifty Chinese families typically save or invest a staggering 50 percent of their income. By 2008 China was holding an estimated two trillion dollars U.S. in foreign exchange reserves. Late that year China passed Japan as the single largest holder of U.S. government bonds and other debt. Indeed, by 2009 it had become abundantly clear that China’s economic health was crucial to the world’s economic well-being. That year a posting laconically and sardonically summarizing modern China’s economic history made its way like lighting around the globe among Chinese Internet users:

1949: Only socialism can save China.
1979: Only capitalism can change China.
1989: Only China can save socialism after the fall of the Soviet Union.
2009: Only China can save capitalism. (Fenby 2009, 679)

And the trends continue. Today China has the most Internet connections of any country in the world. By late 2009 China became the world’s largest market for automobiles, surpassing even the United States. The most popular automobile brand in China is, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, the United States’ General Motors. Wealthier Chinese prefer European cars, but China’s growing middle class sees American automobiles as solid and dependable and seems, by and large, to prefer them over Japanese cars.

China’s sustained double-digit rates of annual economic growth have broad implications both internationally and domestically. China today is emerging all over the world as a major market for export growth. A few years ago China surpassed the United States as Japan’s largest trading partner, and by 2009 China beat out the United States as Brazil’s top trading partner. As China becomes wealthier its own domestic markets for manufactured products, foreign and domestic travel, and leisure activities will also grow and become increasingly important parts of the national economy.

Leisure and tourism are up-and-coming growth sectors in China, and wise investors may want to take note of this. Zhao Ziyang, the heroic General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party who in 1989 opposed the bloody crackdown on Tiananmen protestors and was subsequently placed under house arrest for the rest of his life, loved to golf. In the mid 1980s there were no golf courses in China, but by 2007 China had the fifth-highest number of golf courses in the world, and the game continues to grow in popularity.

Three generations of post-Mao leaders have ruled over this economic transformation of China: Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and now Hu Jin-tao. During the late 1990s Hu Jintao, a native of Anhui (one of China’s poorer provinces) born in 1942, was obviously being groomed to succeed Jiang Zemin as China’s strongman. Hu, a technocrat by background and temperament, was originally appointed to engineering posts before his star began rising in the Chinese Communist hierarchy. In 1987 he was appointed to the Party’s Central Committee, and in 1988, as party head over Tibet, he made his bones by suppressing pro-independence marches in Tibet and imposing martial law. By 1992 he had risen to the Standing Committee of the Politburo, and by 1999 he was a member of the Central Military Commission. In 2002 he became General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party. The next year, Hu became the President of the People’s Republic of China when Jiang Zemin stepped down from the position. Hu’s accession to supreme power was complete in 2004, when he succeeded Jiang Zemin as Chairman of the Central Military Commission. As president, Hu is nominally China’s head of government, but his leadership over the Party and the Chinese military assure that he is China’s key strongman.

The accession of Hu Jintao and his cohorts to supreme power marks the consolidation of the “fourth generation” governing China. Wen Jiabao (born 1942), a native of Tianjin who by profession is an engineer and geologist, is currently China’s Premier, or nominally its head of government. (Even so, Hu is without question the more powerful of the two men.) Together, their rule over China is sometimes called the “Hu-Wen administration.”

Over the past decade, then, leadership over China has passed from Jiang to Hu. Remarkably, the term jianghu in Chinese, in all but one of the constituent components for Hu’s surname, means something like “tough guy from the ‘hood” or “slick and worldly-wise.” But perhaps not surprisingly, there does not seem to have been any comment on this singular coincidence in the Chinese press.

China’s Future Challenges

Will the synergistic effects of intense, convergent crises produce a “perfect storm” that leads to the overall collapse of China? We cannot know for certain, but several crises or challenges, each unprecedented in all of human experience in its magnitude, loom ominously on the horizon of China’s future.

The Natural Environment

First-time international visitors to urban China today are almost uniformly impressed with the country’s economic accomplishments and development, but virtually all of them are also aghast at the spectacular environmental pollution they see all around them. China today is one of the most grossly polluted countries in the world, and in 2007 an official report by the World Bank stated that 750,000 people die prematurely in China each year due to causes traceable to extremely high air and water pollution. Also according to the World Bank, 16 of the 20 most polluted cities on earth in 2007 were in China. Major Chinese cities are, by and large, fairly miserable places in which to live, being polluted, crowded, noisy, hot, and too sparsely appointed with public parks and green spaces.

The breakneck pace of China’s economic and industrial development is unsustainable environmentally, and so are the rising standards of living in Chinese cities. If all urban Chinese want to live and consume like North Americans, with air conditioners, flat-screen TVs, and privately owned and operated automobiles, China will collapse under the environmental strain. Many environmentalists in China are quite aware of this, but they often strain to make their voices heard by government officials, businesspeople, and economic planners who value development far above all else. Many thoughtful Chinese intellectuals also know that pollution is a very serious issue in China, although a large majority of them seem cynically resigned to the proposition or observation that every developing country fouls its nest environmentally for a period before it learns how to clean up after itself. But how long will this take? Can China afford to wait much longer? China’s economic juggernaut has spawned a crassly materialistic worldview that often seems to have little time or space for environmental concerns.

A. Air

In a 2007 Reader’s Digest survey of the environmental livability (“living green”) of six dozen major world cities, Beijing came in dead last. (For comparison, Calgary came in at 59, Los Angeles at 57, Toronto at 50, Ottawa at 33, Berlin at 32, London at 27, San Francisco at 26, Vancouver at 24, Chicago at 23, New York at 15, Paris at 4, and Stockholm at 1.) Open-air visibility in Beijing is often only two or three blocks, and it is typically difficult even to see from one end of Tiananmen Square to the other. Beijing’s Forbidden City, once hidden from public view by secrecy and security policy, is now often largely obscured from public view by smog. Visitors to Beijing who get back to their hotel rooms and blow their noses after a long day of seeing the sights will notice on their tissues the startlingly brown-black residual evidence of the air pollutants they have been breathing in all day. It is now something of a commonplace observation that people often cannot see their shadows outside in broad daylight in Beijing, not for cloud cover but for pollution cover. Clear blue days are very few and far between in Beijing. During the lead-up to the Olympics in 2008, industrial operations and the driving of private automobiles were severely restricted long enough to give Beijing a brief respite of reasonably clean air for the games. Some Olympic athletes were so concerned about Beijing’s air quality that they flew in just before their events and flew out again as soon as they were over. Right after the Olympic torch had been extinguished in Beijing, the city was back to its old polluting ways, and air quality is now once again as bad as it ever was, if not worsening.

In 2007 China surpassed the United States as the world’s top emitter of greenhouse gasses, and acid rain created by the emissions from China’s iron foundries and coking plants now spreads all over the rest of East Asia. Most of the air pollution in China is due to bounding increases in coal burning and motorization. China currently accounts for about one-third of the earth’s coal combustion, and this is increasing by 10 percent per year. The demand for coal in China is so great that some business interests and government officials look the other way as unregulated and unsafe coal mines operate in China, and every year hundreds of Chinese workers perish in mining accidents. The situation in Shanxi province, the heart of China’s coal mining and coal industry operations, is especially serious. An early 2009 report in the New York Times relates the essentials and contours of the persistent mining safety problem in China:

In January, Zhao Tiechui, a senior official in charge of coal mine supervision, told Xinhua about problems regulating the industry. The government has said that 80 percent of the 16,000 mines operating in China are illegal.

“Coal mines often experience the most serious accidents because so many of them are operating illegally,” he said. “The industry also sees the most frequent covering-up of accidents.”

But mining is lucrative for those at the top. The owners of large mining companies are among China’s wealthiest people. (Wong 2009)

The most polluted city in the world is Shanxi province’s Linfen, a city of over four million people. There, the air quality is so bad that residents quite literally choke on coal dust, and as a result there are rising rates of lung cancer, pneumonia, and bronchitis. “Don’t bother hanging your laundry” in Linfen, advised Time magazine in 2007. “It’ll turn black before it dries.” Canadian journalist Geoffrey York limned the environmental tragedy of Linfen in black, smudgy hues in a 2009 article on the city for Toronto’s Globe and Mail:

This is the toxic centre of China’s coal-producing heartland. It’s an apocalyptic vision of clanking factories, spewing smokestacks, burning flames, suffocating fumes, slag heaps, constant haze and relentless dust…

On a winter morning, the smog is so thick that a visitor can barely see 100 metres ahead. Buildings disappear into the haze. The Buddhas in the ancient temples are black with coal dust. Even the sun is barely visible in the darkened sky. Linfen is a ghost city, inhabited by people who loom out of the smog like spectral presences. (York 2009)

Few foreigners venture to live in Linfen, and of course not all Chinese cities are quite this bad in terms of environmental quality. Still, visitors to China must remember that China is an environmentally degraded and dangerous country and should take appropriate precautions before and during travel there.

B. Water

China has approximately the same amount of freshwater resources as Canada, but well over 40 times Canada’s population. Put another way, China has about 7 percent of the world’s freshwater resources but over 20 percent of its population. Water is thus a very scarce resource in China, with annual per capital availability at only one-fourth of the global average. The once-mighty Yellow River, which historically was feared because of its periodic catastrophic floods on the North China Plain, often does not even flow to the Yellow Sea anymore because its waters are all utilized by agriculture and industry. (In 1997, for example, the river did not flow into the sea for 7 out of 12 months.) The Wei River, once a major geographical feature in Shaanxi province, is now little more than a muddy creek. Two-thirds of China’s demand for water is met by groundwater, but overutilization of groundwater has led to saltwater intrusion and land subsidence. Aquifers and water tables beneath Chinese cities, especially in the north, are being drained at catastrophically unsustainable rates. In a memorable 2007 story in the New York Times about China’s looming water crisis, Jim Yardley vividly describes the problem in the following terms:

Hundreds of feet below ground, the primary water source for this provincial capital of more than two million people [Shijiazhuang, Hebei province] is steadily running dry. The underground water table is sinking about four feet a year. Municipal wells have already drained two-thirds of the local groundwater.

Above ground, this city in the North China Plain is having a party. Economic growth topped 11 percent last year. Population is rising. A new upscale housing development is advertising waterfront property on lakes filled with pumped groundwater. Another half-built complex, the Arc de Royal, is rising above one of the lowest points in the city’s water table.

“People who are buying apartments aren’t thinking about whether there will be water in the future,” said Zhang Zhongmin, who has tried for 20 years to raise public awareness about the city’s dire water situation. (Yardley 2007)

What is more, available water in China is often very badly polluted with infectious and parasitic diseases, industrial chemicals, and heavy metals. Around 700 million Chinese, or more than half of the country’s entire population, consume water containing excessively high levels of human and animal waste. (Most urban sewage is dumped untreated directly into lakes and rivers.) Sixty percent of China’s rivers and 90 percent of its underground urban water is polluted with sewage and industrial chemicals, and around 25 percent of China’s people have no access at all to safe drinking water. In 2007 there was so much toxic algal bloom from nearly 3,000 chemical factories choking Lake Tai in Jiangsu province, China’s third largest freshwater lake, that two million people in Wuxi city were left without drinking water. The Huai River in central China is now one of the most polluted rivers in the world, and an environmentally degraded Huai River basin now gravely threatens the health and well-being of 150 million people. Cancer mortality rates in the region are skyrocketing. In Shanxi province, arsenic pollution in the water has led to a province-wide outbreak of arsenicosis.

C. Soil and Land

China has over 20 percent of the world’s population but only 7 percent of the farmland. What arable land there is has been spectacularly altered by the hand of man. According to National Geographic’s 2008 Atlas of China, “The large population in eastern China has resulted in one of the most human-altered landscapes in the world, mostly in the form of agriculture.” (34)

China has one of the most serious soil erosion problems in the world today. A recent nationwide survey in China found that more than 100 million people in southwest China will lose the land they live on if soil erosion continues at present rates. Likewise, harvests in northeast China may eventually drop by almost half if current erosion trends are not halted. Every year illegal logging and slash-and-burn agriculture consume up to 5,000 square kilometers of virgin forest. Over the past two decades, forest cover in central and northern China has been reduced by almost half. The problem has become so serious that the Chinese government has instituted a credible program of reforestation and has begun teaching the Chinese public about its importance. A massive reforestation project is currently underway in the Yangzi watershed.

China is already at least 20 percent desert, and it loses thousands more square miles of land each year to desertification, a major environmental crisis in China with root causes traceable mainly to deforestation and overgrazing perpetrated during Mao’s rule. Desertification is now double what it was in China during the 1950s, when Mao’s rule began. Old deserts are expanding and new deserts are forming. Ironically, Mao’s most enduring influence on China may not turn out to be his revolutionary ideology, relentless promotion of class struggle, or rash attempts at leapfrogging of Marxian stages of historical development, but rather the environmental degradation inflicted on China by his headlong rush to control and exploit nature.

D. The Three Gorges Dam

The Three Gorges Dam, located on the Yangzi River in Hubei province, is a massive hydroelectric dam at the town of Sandouping, about halfway between the major Yangzi River cities of Chongqing and Wuhan. It is the world’s largest dam, hydroelectric or otherwise. It was first proposed around 1920 by Sun Yat-sen and later endorsed by Chiang Kai-shek, and Mao Zedong, ever the romantic warrior fighting against the Japanese, the Chinese Nationalists, and nature itself, rhapsodized poetically about the project. Its construction was authorized in 1992, and since that time it has proven extremely controversial.

The dam was completed in 2006 and began producing hydroelectric power soon thereafter, although its full electrical generating potential will probably not be achieved until sometime in 2011. Over the course of its construction, one million residents had to be removed because of the large man-made lake created by the dam, and several important archaeological and cultural sites were flooded out. Environmentalists began sounding the alarm about silting and other ill effects of damming up the Yangzi, but in China, where political will trumps environmental concerns along with everything else, concerns about the dam’s environmental impact fell largely on deaf ears. Fear that too much environmentalism might lead to social unrest, always a major dread of the Communist Party, often led not so much to government censorship of public discourse on the topic per se, but to voluntary self-censorship born of long-ingrained instincts for survival and self-preservation.

Since the dam’s completion, however, even Communist Party hardliners have had to admit that the dam’s critics and detractors have been right. Toxic algal blooms have appeared on the Three Gorges Lake. The dam has triggered landslides, which have in turn produced massive, ocean-sized waves 60 feet in height. It is now widely recognized in China that there will be some difficult environmental consequences created by the dam, including heavy siltation within only a few years, the alteration of entire ecosystems, the extinction of entire species of fish, an increase in waterborne diseases, water shortages created by decreased water flow, and salination as sea water creeps farther upriver. The dam and its lake may be changing weather patterns, leading in particular to decreased rainfall.

The physical vulnerability of the dam is itself a major issue. Geological fault lines cross the dam, and if it ever broke the results would be catastrophic; the lower Yangzi delta area has some of the highest and densest population clusters on earth. Some geologists have speculated that the sheer weight of the water backed up behind the dam might trigger earthquakes. In addition, irresponsible people in Taiwan have threatened to bomb the dam if the mainland ever attacks the island. Terrorists, both foreign and domestic, might target the dam.

Proponents of the Three Gorges Dam tout its very real benefits: its production of electricity without hydrocarbon combustion and also its flood storage capacity, which will ameliorate the perennial problem of seasonal floods along the great river’s course. A very long time ago in ancient China, however, Yu the Great figured out that the best flood control measure is ultimately not to contain floodwaters, but to give them somewhere to go—to channel them away. If unexpectedly large floods in the future swell the Three Gorges Lake beyond its containment capacity, the result could be an unthinkable human catastrophe unprecedented in all of human experience.

The relative benefits and detriments of damming rivers have recently come under increased scrutiny and are now important topics of discussion and debate in environmental studies. This, however, has been ignored or downplayed in China. Dams impede or contain the flow of both water and silt, and in this the Three Gorges Dam is no exception. There are concerns that excess accumulation of silt upstream from the dam may eventually clog upstream port cities, while a reduction of sediment flow downstream from the dam may lead to the erosion and sinking of coastal cities on the Yangzi Delta, including the great metropolis of Shanghai itself. China’s Grand Canal, a once-ballyhooed major water conservancy project completed during the Sui dynasty (589-618), was eventually rendered useless because of unmanageable siltation. The Aswan High Dam on the upper reaches of the Nile in Egypt, completed with Soviet assistance in 1970, is (or should have been) a cautionary tale for China. The dam’s lake, Lake Nasser, flooded out important cultural and archaeological sites and deprives the rest of the Nile of the very silt that made the Nile Delta so fertile agriculturally. On the Nile Delta the interruption of silt flow has led to erosion, salination resulting from the inundation of the Mediterranean Sea, and decreased agricultural yield. The same problems await China because of its Three Gorges Dam, and perhaps on a much larger scale.

Health and Health Care

If American public health is threatened by the obesity epidemic, the greatest threats to Chinese public health today are cancers caused by environmental pollution and cigarette smoking. Nearly two-thirds of all Chinese men smoke, and increasing numbers of Chinese women are also taking up the filthy habit. The manifold ill effects of smoking are clearly known to the medical care profession in China, but nearly half of all male doctors in China still smoke. Meanwhile the Chinese government, which operates and profits from the tobacco industry, is doing little or nothing to encourage its citizens to kick the habit. In the foreseeable future the number of lives prematurely snuffed out in China due to lung cancer and emphysema will only increase, and probably quite dramatically. It is already projected that over the next decade in China’s cities, more than half a million people each year will die prematurely from air pollution. The situation is even worse in the countryside, where one in four deaths are associated with respiratory diseases caused by air pollution, cigarette smoking, or both. In some cities in China, cancer mortality rates are so high that they are referred to simply as “cancer cities.”

Health care in Chinese cities is vastly superior to that in the countryside, and patients who have the most money to spend get the best health care. The rural and urban poor are largely left to die of their illnesses. What Canadian surgeon Norman Bethune once said of health care in Depression-era North America is true of China today: “There is a rich man’s tuberculosis and a poor man’s tuberculosis. The rich man recovers and the poor man dies. This succinctly expresses the close embrace of economics and pathology.” (Spence 1969, 217)

Sex Ratio Imbalance

China’s growing sex ratio disparity could endanger internal social stability in the country and even damage its relations with neighboring countries. An important recent study of excess male populations in Asian countries has speculated that in some regions of China and India, “bare branches” (single men with no prospects for marriage) are causing rising crime rates and social instability (Hudson and den Boer 2005, 230-41). Perhaps the Qing dynasty’s legislative preoccupation with specifying harsh punishments for rootless, vagrant, sexually aggressive males (Sommer 2000, 96-101) had something to do with sex ratio disparity. Much more recently, there have been indications that human smuggling along the China-North Korea border involves almost exclusively North Korean women who have been bought by Chinese men desperate to find wives (Kim 2008, 81-101). According to the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, tens of thousands of women are bought and sold in China each year, especially in the provinces of Yunnan, Sichuan, and Guizhou, and China is also a popular destination for trafficked women from Russia and Ukraine. Organized crime gangs in China have recently begun discovering how lucrative human trafficking can be when individuals and families are willing to pay the equivalent of thousands of U.S. dollars to traffickers for baby boys or for girls at or near marriageable age. Wife-selling, kidnappings of girls, and prostitution, along with all of the attendant social ills associated with these crimes, will be the natural consequences of China’s grossly unnatural gender imbalance problem.

Energy Dependency

China does not have enough natural resources, in particular energy resources, to sustain its burgeoning economic development. Thus China, like most industrialized countries, must look to outside sources to meet its energy needs. China understands its utter dependency on oil from the Middle East and is presently beefing up its military capabilities, particularly its navy, to guarantee the unimpeded flow of Middle Eastern oil into Chinese ports. China’s military does anticipate, or at least plan for, possible future competition or even war with advanced industrialized countries over uninterrupted access to energy resources.

China is seeking to secure energy supplies and other natural resources from other regions and countries as well, such as Canada. Unlike most countries, which are content to have an embassy in Ottawa and perhaps two or three consulates in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver, the world’s three largest national economies (the United States, China, and Japan) are all smart enough to have diplomatic offices in Calgary, the economic capital of Alberta’s extensive oil and natural gas resources, widely estimated to be the world’s second largest after Saudi Arabia.

China is also looking to Africa in a big way to satisfy its endless energy demands. It offers many African states one variation or another of a very tempting proposal: extensive economic development assistance, with few if any strings or preconditions attached, in exchange for guaranteed access to petroleum, mineral, and timber resources. “Give us unfettered access to that oil well, that forest, and that mine,” China more or less says, “and we’ll build you railways, highways, and irrigation networks, and perhaps update and reequip your military,” all with the understanding, tacit or otherwise, that China will not get involved with matters such as human rights, democracy, or freedom of expression and religious belief.

In concerning itself more with the natural resource wealth of African states than with the quality of their governments and their human rights records, China has propped up some very unsavory regimes and individual leaders in Africa. For example, Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s contumacious and reviled dictator and erstwhile revolutionary, is still in power today in part due to Chinese economic support. How to compete economically and diplomatically with radical Muslims and the Chinese energy juggernaut in Africa while at the same time holding true to cherished principles and respect for human rights is a major challenge that the free and democratic world will face with increasing urgency in the future.

Political and Social Stability

The Chinese Communists have staked their all on continued economic development and prosperity in China. In their view, economic development is the way to keep the Communist Party in China from suffering the fates of the parties in other countries such as the Soviet Union, Romania, Poland, and Hungary, among others. But for development and prosperity to continue, there must be political and social stability in China. Several potential challenges to this stability exist, including corruption, turmoil in the countryside, religious movements, human rights abuses, and the free flow of information.

A. Corruption

In his now-classic The Coming Collapse of China, an apocalyptic vision of China’s political and economic future published in 2001, Gordon Chang argued that China will someday go the way of the Soviet Union, collapsing and disintegrating into several smaller countries. This will be, Chang argues, because of the ineptitude and corruption of the Chinese Communist Party; the weakness of China’s banking system, which will one day endanger the savings of ordinary, thrifty Chinese; and China’s raucous and traumatic adjustment to the global trading system. One overheated chapter in his book is entitled “Lake of Gasoline: The Discontent of the People is Explosive,” and in it Change even declares that into this lake one individual “in some small town, or large city, will have only to throw a match” (Chang 2001, 44).

As of this writing (2011), Chang’s dire predictions about China’s future have not materialized. But this certainly does not mean that corruption in China has gone away or is now less of a problem. On the contrary. Public perception in China still holds corruption as China’s most pressing problem. The Berlin-based nongovernmental organization Transparency International compiles an international Corruption Perceptions Index, and from 2001 through 2006 this ranked China among the most corrupt one-third of the nations of the Earth. A recent audit in China found that from 1996 through 2005, fully 8 percent of public funds in China were improperly appropriated or spent. According to Minxin Pei, Director of the China Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “We can suppose that 10 percent of government spending, contracts, and transactions is used as kickbacks and bribes or is simply stolen” (Pei 2007, 2).

Corruption is an especially big problem in land transactions and infrastructural projects:

Half of provincial transport chiefs in China have been sentenced to jail terms (some have even been executed) for corruption. Corruption is also widespread in the acquisition and transfer of land. Typically, local officials use illegal (and sometimes violent) means to acquire farmland at low prices and later sell the user rights of the land to developers in exchange for bribes. … According to the head of the Regulatory Enforcement Bureau at the Ministry of Land Resources, the government uncovered more than one million cases of illegal acquisition of land between 1299 and 2005. (Pei 2007, 3)

The tentacles of corruption invade most sectors of the Chinese economy, but in the financial sector it is especially serious:

Kickbacks for loan approval, massive theft by insiders, misuse of funds, and large-scale fraud are routine in Chinese banks, brokerage houses, insurance companies, and rural credit cooperatives. In 2004, China’s banking regulations uncovered 584 billion yuan in misused funds; in 2005, they found 767 billion yuan in misused funds. A large number of top executives in China’s largest banks have been jailed for corruption. (Pei 2007,5)

Corruption does in fact harm China in very real terms and could become politically dangerous for the Chinese Communists if it leads to popular discontent and turmoil:

The total costs of corruption in China are huge. The direct economic loss owing to corruption represents a large transfer of wealth—at least 3 percent of GDP per year—to a tiny group of elites. This annual transfer, from the poorer to the richer, is fueling China’s rapid increase in socio-economic inequality and the public’s perception of social injustice…. Corruption at the local level sparks tens of thousands of riots and violent collective protests each year, undermining social stability and necessitating extra spending on internal security. Corruption has also contributed to China’s massive environmental degradation, deterioration in social services, and the rising costs of housing, health care, and education. (Pei 2007, 5)

Corrupt Chinese government officials are nothing new. Bribery was so common during late imperial times that the Qing government paid its officials “integrity nourishing allowances” to supplement their regular salaries and, hopefully, keep them from taking bribes. But even so, paying off government officials was so extensive that the Qing government usually looked the other way at what John K. Fairbank of Harvard called “the squeeze;” that is, unless it became so outrageous that it led to popular unrest and came to Beijing’s attention. If it came to Beijing’s attention, the corrupt official in question would be in real trouble. The trick was, accordingly, to maintain bribe-taking and other corrupt activities at just below the boiling point.

Corruption in late imperial times was not limited to officialdom. On the local village and small town scene, members of the gentry class, or those who had passed at least one of the three rungs of the imperial civil service examination system, were also often bribed by unscrupulous businessmen and shady underworld figures involved in prostitution and gambling. Party members in the People’s Republic of China today, who play and fill many of the roles and functions that the gentry did in late imperial times, also have more or less the same opportunities for accruing ill-gotten gain. And they, like Qing gentry, need to know how to keep things from boiling over and coming to Beijing’s attention.

B. Turmoil in the Countryside

The benefits of China’s breakneck economic growth are by no means shared by everyone in China. Eastern and southern coastal areas reap a highly disproportionate share of China’s newfound wealth, while many hinterland provinces lag behind. Standards of living in China’s major cities are far ahead of almost all rural areas in the country. The CIA estimates that there is a fluid and mobile population of about 200 million rural laborers and their dependents wandering around China seeking employment and opportunity in large cities. In spite of the contributions these laborers make to China’s economy, they are widely exploited and mistreated. During the Olympics, Beijing shooed them out of the central parts of the city in order to present a more pleasant urban face to the outside world and its cameras. Peasants in the countryside and rural laborers in the cities are increasingly angry, and they are speaking up and protesting.

A lengthy report on the lives of peasants in Anhui province entitled “Investigations into the Chinese Peasantry” (Zhongguo nongmin diao-cha) was published in a magazine in China in 2003, and the issue quickly sold out. The report spread like wildfire and made its way onto websites throughout China before it was finally published in book form in December of that year by the prestigious People’s Literature Publishing House. The first printing of 100,000 copies sold out within a month, and the book proved so infuriating to so many people in China that Beijing simply banned it as of March 2004, yanking the book from the shelves of bookstores.

This book, which has been translated into English as Will the Boat Sink the Water?, paints a bleak picture of the lives of peasants in Anhui and how they suffer at the hands of cruel, vindictive local officials and cadres who care nothing for their well-being and exploit them. The book’s first chapter, entitled “The Martyr,” is about how one peasant, Ding Zuoming, was murdered for daring to expose corruption and oppression in his village. After he complained about the corruption to a deputy of township security named Peng Zhizhong, Peng had three hired thugs beat him severely:

Against Ding Zuoming’s protests, Peng said to the three men, “The lout has no manners. Too spirited. Soften him up a bit.” Then he retired.

The three men knew what was meant by “softening up.” One of the men present, Zhu, had been Ding’s classmate in high school and now sneaked out to avoid a personal confrontation. But he knew that Boss Peng would never be satisfied unless they could break Ding, so before leaving, he suggested that the other two try the “horse’s walk,” one of their cruellest forms of torture.

Ji and Zhao dragged Ding Zuoming from the cell into an unused reception room to do the “horse’s walk.” Of course Ding resisted. Despite having spent twelve years in school, Ding was no pale scholar. Having been toughened by years of farm work, he was more than a handful for Ji and Zhao, who could hardly subdue him, not to mention doing the horse’s walk. Just then another security man, Wang Jinjun, came in with a club. Ji and Zhao clamoured that Ding Zuoming was attacking them, so Wang raised his club and struck Ding right and left. Ding tried to defend himself, but was hit repeatedly on the arms and the back. Although he was groaning in pain, he would not give in. Ding resisted the “horse’s walk,” and Wang beat him mercilessly with the club. When the club split, he kicked Ding and used an electric prodder to get him to a kneeling position. When Wang, exhausted, stopped the beating, Ji picked up the stump of a broken shoulder pole and continued where Wang had left off.

By now Ding Zuoming had stopped moaning. He was filled with shock and fear when he realized that as long as he did not “soften up,” these thugs would kill him. But he still would not give in. Glaring at Ji, Zhao, and Wang, he shouted at the top of his voice, “True, I accused the village cadres. They are bleeding the peasants. It’s against Party policy. Kill me, but I won’t give in. If you kill me, my ghost will haunt you all!” Ji looked up and met Ding Zuoming’s bloodshot eyes and the piece of wood slipped from his hand. This enraged Wang, who screamed hysterically, “You spineless bastard! Afraid of him! How dare he talk big in this place!” Goaded, Ji picked up the stump and went after Ding again. Meanwhile Zhao took a dirty rag and stuffed Ding’s mouth. The three men continued hitting Ding for another twenty minutes. (Chen 2006, 15-16)

Ding Zuoming died of his injuries the next day. Seven men involved in his death were captured and severely punished. Wang Jinjun, who wielded the club, was sentenced to death. Ding Zuoming did not die in vain because his case led to the significant reduction of peasants’ tax burdens.

Will the Boat Sink the Water? also details in other chapters how angry peasants appointed representatives to travel to Beijing to petition the highest authorities of the land for relief and how they were sometimes intercepted, mistreated, and returned to their homes without results. Tens of thousands of oppressed and angered people from the countryside still travel to Beijing with petitions for redress of their grievances, and they are routinely rounded up, imprisoned in secret prisons called “black houses,” mistreated, and sent back home. According to Andrew Jacobs of the New York Times, China’s petition system has been overwhelmed recently:

According to the state media, 10 million petitions have been filed in the last five years on complaints as diverse as illegal land seizures and unpaid wages. The numbers would be far higher but for the black houses, also called black jails, the newest weapon local officials use to prevent these aggrieved citizens from embarrassing them in front of central government superiors. Officially, these jails do not exist. In China’s authoritarian state, senior officials tally petitions to get a rough sense of social order around the country. A successfully filed petition—however illusory the prospect of justice—is considered a black mark on the bureaucratic record of the local officials accused of wrongdoing.

So the game, sometimes deadly, is to prevent a filing. The cat-and-mouse contest has created a sizable underground economy that enriches the interceptors, the police and those who run the city’s ad hoc detention centers.

Human rights activists and petitioners say plainclothes security officers and hired thugs grab the aggrieved off the streets and hide them in a growing constellation of unmarked detention centers. There, the activists say, the aggrieved will be insulted, roughed up and then escorted back to their home provinces. Some are held for weeks and months without charge, activists say, and in a few cases, the beatings are fatal. (Jacobs 2009)

Thousands of incidents of public unrest have occurred in China every year for the past several years. Most but not all of them occur in the countryside. Kristin Jones of The Committee to Protect Journalists states succinctly the major reasons behind the turmoil:

“Mass incidents” is the term the Chinese government uses to describe demonstrations, riots, and group petitioning. In January 2006, the Ministry of Public Security announced that there were 87,000 such incidents in 2005, a 6.6 percent increase over the previous year. Protests over corruption, taxes, and environmental degradation caused by China’s breakneck economic development contributed to the rise. But some of the most highly charged disputes have occurred over government seizure of farmland for construction of the factories, power plants, shopping malls, roads, and apartment complexes that are fueling China’s boom. (Jones 2006)

The New York Times website occasionally posted video footage of protests and disturbances, but in 2006 China issued new restrictions on foreign media that required all news reports to be cleared and vetted with Xinhua News Agency, China’s state-controlled propaganda arm. Websites for the New York Times and many other foreign news media outlets are frequently blocked by “The Great Firewall of China,” or the Chinese Communists’ Internet filters.

C. Religious Movements

The Chinese Communists dislike organized religion primarily because they look at it in political terms and see in it a possible source of social turmoil and national upheaval. (One has only to recall the Taiping Rebellion of the nineteenth century to see that concerns about the political and even military implications of organized religion are, or at least have been, somewhat warranted.) If they could, the Chinese Communists would simply eliminate organized religion altogether, but they know they cannot. Even Mao once speculated that in the future, in a truly classless and communist society, religion might still exist.

China claims that its citizens enjoy freedom of religion, and indeed they are much freer religiously than they were during Mao’s rule. But China is careful to cut off Chinese religious groups from any foreign connections and watches over them closely. This is because the Chinese Communists fear any organization of whatever type that can rival the Communist Party in numbers and influence. Chinese Protestants, for example, are required to belong to the “Three-Self Patriotic” state church, the “three self” referring to the church being self-administering, self-financing, and self-propagating, all without foreign interference or participation. The Chinese government micromanages the state church and carefully monitors the doctrines it teaches and the numbers of Bibles it uses. (The state church is required, for example, to teach that Mao Zedong has gone to heaven, and not to hell.) Many Chinese Protestants resent the officiousness of the official state church and attend unofficial “House Church” congregations in private homes. Surveillance and persecution of the House Churches varies with time and region. Mainland China is a much less religious place than Hong Kong or Taiwan, where Buddhist and Taoist temples and Catholic and Protestant chapels, and also an occasional Islamic mosque, are ordinary parts of any large city or small town. Years of anti-religious propaganda and Marxist-Leninist materialism in the mainland have taken their toll, but there is evidence that religious life is gradually making a comeback.

Of all Chinese religious groups, it is probably Falun Gong that has received the most media attention, both domestically and abroad. Falun Gong, also called Falun Dafa, is a spiritual discipline first made public in China by Li Hongzhi in 1992, toward the end of China’s “qigong boom.” The practice includes a regimen of qigong meditation but distinguished itself from other qigong disciplines with a moral philosophy rooted in Buddhist tradition, centered on the tenets of Truth, Compassion, and Tolerance. Although the practice does not maintain formal rituals, temples, or the worship of any specific deity, it fits within commonly accepted definitions of a religion in that it seeks to enable the practitioner to attain higher states of being or enlightenment.

Li traveled throughout China between 1992 and 1994 giving lectures to the public. By late 1998, government estimates put the number of Falun Gong adherents in China at over 70 million. In 1996 a rift formed between Falun Gong and the government-run qigong association. Li Hongzhi withdrew from the association in March of 1996, and some scholars have speculated that Falun Gong was bullied out of it because Falun Gong failed to accept the authority of the association over its religious operations.

Although some individuals and departments in the government continued to encourage Falun Gong’s growth, the group felt under increased scrutiny following its split from the state qigong association. Its books were banned from further publication in 1996, and government monitoring of Falun Gong exercise groups gradually increased, culminating in the April 1999 beating and arrest of several Falun Gong practitioners in the city of Tianjin. In response, some 10,000 Falun Gong adherents gathered peacefully outside the central appeal office, adjacent the government compound at Zhongnanhai, to request official recognition and an end to the escalating harassment against them. Premier Zhu Rongzhi met with several representatives and agreed to address their concerns, and the crowd dispersed as quietly and suddenly as it had formed. President Jiang Zemin, however, was deeply unsettled by Falun Gong’s ability to summon such a large gathering without the government’s knowledge and reportedly felt threatened by Falun Gong’s popularity and independent moral philosophy. That evening, Jiang sent a letter through the party ranks declaring that the atheist ideology of the Communist Party must “defeat” Falun Gong.

In the months that followed, Jiang formed a new department called the Falun Gong Control Office. The office was charged with overseeing the eradication of Falun Gong and was given extrajudicial power to execute its mandate. Lawyers were prohibited from representing Falun Gong cases, and on July 22, 1999, the government issued an official ban on the practice of Falun Gong. It also prohibited citizens from protesting the ban.

Reports of the crackdown that followed alleged the arrests and detentions of hundreds of thousands of Falun Gong followers in prisons, labor camps, and mental hospitals. There have also been consistent reports of beatings and torture of Falun Gong practitioners, and two-thirds of all Chinese torture cases reported through the United Nation’s special rapporteur on torture have involved Falun Gong practitioners. The U.S. Department of State estimates that Falun Gong adherents comprise as much as half of China’s reeducation-through-labor camp population.

In 2006, persistent reports emerged alleging that China’s organ transplant industry has been supplied in part with the organs of non-consenting Falun Gong prisoners. Assessing the veracity of these reports is difficult, but later in 2006 Canadian human rights lawyer David Matas and former Canadian Secretary of State David Kilgour concluded that large-scale organ seizures from unwilling Falun Gong practitioners were fairly common in China.

Falun Gong’s response to persecution has been nonviolent, focusing primarily on grassroots education campaigns. Perhaps their most common form of resistance has been through the establishment of a network of largely autonomous, underground printing houses that produce and distribute literature about the persecution throughout China. Falun Gong practitioners outside China have established dissident media outlets, including a Chinese-language satellite television station, to broadcast information to mainland China. In 2001, Chinese-American Falun Gong practitioners developed now-widely used software to circumvent China’s Internet blockade. In late 2004, some Falun Gong dissidents began circulating a series of critical commentaries on the Chinese Communist Party. Falun Gong practitioners claim that many millions of Chinese have severed all affiliations with the Party as a result of these critical commentaries.

Falun Gong maintains a robust presence in North America and frequently sponsors media campaigns, cultural events, and protests against the Chinese Communists’ restrictive policies against their religious practices. The Epoch News is an English-language newspaper with ties to Falun Gong, and its Chinese version (Dajiyuan) is often among the most popular newspapers in North American Chinese communities. It seems certain that Falun Gong will remain a thorn in the side of the Chinese Communists for some time to come. Religious persecution in China is focused for now on Falun Gong, and perhaps on militant Islam in Xinjiang as well, but waves of it have coursed through the history of the People’s Republic of China, and it may well return to some extent in the future. Religious tolerance and freedom are important indicators of the maturity and freedom of a country, and where they are lacking, freedom in general is also lacking.

D. Human Rights Abuses

China is prickly about criticisms of its human rights abuses. The Chinese Communists do not see in human rights concerns the same potential for political and social turmoil that they do in organized religion, but they still remain surprisingly touchy about the subject, perhaps because they are more concerned about their international image than about the human rights of their subjects at home. China is a signatory nation to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in late 1948. The text of the UDHR clearly and unambiguously outlines specific inalienable rights possessed by every individual throughout the world, regardless of the country in which they were born or in which they reside. People enjoy human rights simply by virtue of being human beings, and human rights transcend and trump considerations of national sovereignty and national territorial borders.

China frequently claims to abide by the UDHR, but its actions belie its words. China today often seeks desperately to argue that human rights are culturally and nationally relative concepts and not the absolute, unambiguous rights as outlined in the UDHR. Chinese Communists and the Chinese intellectuals who serve them sometimes also attempt to cast aspersions over the entire concept of human rights by caricaturing it as an instance of anachronistic Western pushiness or cultural imperialism.

Every year the U.S. Department of State issues a report on human rights in other countries, including China, and every year China responds with its own report detailing American human rights issues, thus focusing on the accuser rather than on the substance of the accusation.

But it is not just the U.S. government that accuses China of having a very poor human rights record. Amnesty International regularly reports on China’s human rights abuses, as does Freedom House, a nonpartisan group founded in 1941 that monitors the states of democracy, human rights, and political freedoms throughout the world. (According to its own website, Freedom House “has been a vigorous proponent of democratic values and a steadfast opponent of dictatorships of the far left and the far right.”) Freedom House has consistently ranked mainland China as “not free” and noted in 2009 that, “Despite expectations that it would enact at least symbolic human rights improvements during its year as host of the Olympic Games, the Chinese government in 2008 increased restrictions on online writers, human rights lawyers, democracy activists, migrant workers, and individuals seeking to petition the central government on abuses by local officials.” In 2009 Freedom House also awarded China its lowest rating for political rights and its second lowest rating for civil liberties. Interestingly enough, that same year Taiwan achieved Freedom House’s highest score for its political rights and the second highest score for its civil liberties.

E. The Free Flow of Information

Gone forever are the days when strict government control over telephones, radios, radio transceivers, newspapers, books, and magazines could accomplish the obscurantist purposes of the state. Information technology has now exploded beyond the ability of any government or state on earth to control it. The Chinese Communists fear the unimpeded free flow of information because it will lead, among other things, to public discovery of their own party’s past and present misdeeds and misgovernment.

The “Great Firewall of China,” which the Chinese Communists attempt to use in restricting their subjects’ access to information, is something of a problem for Chinese Internet users today. But resourceful and computer-savvy people in China always find a way around it. Proxy servers outside China do help, as does software that can circumvent Great Firewall restrictions. The Chinese Communists periodically block major world news sites such as BBC, CNN, and the New York Times.

In 2010 the Internet search engine giant Google announced that it was growing weary of the Chinese Communists’ insistence on censoring all search results within China. Google also went public with complaints about the constant barrage of cyber-attacks originating within China against its computer facilities. Google even floated the possibility of withdrawing from the China market entirely rather than continue accepting and condoning censorship in China while enduring cyber-attacks.

A famous example of how the Chinese Communists require Google to censor search results involves entering the term “Tiananmen” into the uncensored, international Google images search engine (images.google.com) and comparing the results with those obtained by entering the same term into the censored Chinese version of Google image search (images.google.cn). Typically the uncensored international version of Google will include photographs of tanks and gore from the 1989 Tiananmen massacre among its first images, whereas the first images retrieved by Chinese version will be mostly of smiling tourists, colorful Tiananmen historical sites, and the like. But things can get interesting when graphic photographs of the Tiananmen massacre make it among the images called up by the Chinese version and remain up for a few hours or even days before China’s army of tens of thousands of hyper-vigilant cyber-cops finally takes them down.

As might be expected, Baidu, the indigenous Chinese search engine, is better at Chinese-language searches than Google, whereas Google is better at English-language Internet searches. Most of China’s university students prefer to use Google, and because this generation of students will one day be China’s leadership, Google’s withdrawal from China in the face of difficulties would constitute a large setback for the up-and-coming educated Chinese elite and, ultimately, for the world itself. The final resolution of the Google issue will be an important bellwether for freedom of expression in China.

The China Threat

Mao’s old ideas about “people’s war,” or fighting off a land invasion of China by a foreign force such as Japan or the Soviet Union, are largely regarded as passe and irrelevant by a significant majority of China’s military establishment today. Ever since the technological performance of the United States military in Iraq during the first Gulf War, Chinese strategic thinkers have conceptualized more modern types of warfare, which they have labeled “limited wars under high-tech conditions.” With this new emphasis on military technology have come new ideas about how to resist foreign interference in what China regards as its internal territorial matters, namely the Taiwan issue. In 2000 RAND Corporation researchers Michael D. Swaine and Ashley J. Tellis pointed out in their now-classic study of China’s strategic intentions in the twenty-first century that:

Beijing has also embarked on a serious effort to acquire capabilities that could increase the risks accruing to any U.S. attempts at armed diplomacy or outright intervention. These efforts have focused principally on improving China’s ability to detect, track, and target U.S. carrier battle groups by multiple means as far away as possible from the Mainland. This includes developing air- and ground-launched cruise missile systems for standoff attack, sea denial capabilities centered on subsurface platforms as well as anti-surface attack and mine warfare systems, and information attack capabilities, centered on anti-satellite warfare, electronic warfare, and deception and denial operations. (126)

Does this mean that China is now preparing for war with the United States at some future date? Perhaps. (It would, in fact, be surprising if China did not envision possible wars or battles with the United States in at least some of its war-planning scenarios. All major militaries have these scenarios.)

In Chinese studies in the West and particularly in the United States, there exists something of a dichotomy between Sinophiles on the one hand and Sinophobes or on the other. The former supposedly lap up at face value the Pablum the Party and its newspaper (the People’s Daily) dish out to them.

Sinophobes, on the other hand, are now legion, as an online search of the offerings of any major booksellers will indicate. They tend to be suspicious of Chinese motives, be wary of Chinese nationalism, and see the devil in every Chinese detail. At this, the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, China threat books and blogs are a dime a dozen. Such authors think they see in China another incipient Soviet Union or Nazi Germany and write alarmist diatribes predicting doom and destruction for the free world unless the United States wakes up quickly to the threat of the restive dragon.

Most China threat books are sensationalist and irrelevant, but a few do stand out for the depth of their research, knowledge, rigorous scholarship, and fully demonstrated competency with the written and spoken Chinese language. Among such are those by Arthur Waldron, Ralph D. Sawyer, and Michael Pillsbury.

Every year the U.S. Department of Defense, as required by law, issues a report on the military capabilities of the People’s Republic of China, and every year Beijing issues a retort claiming that U.S. estimates of China’s military might and intentions are distorted and inflated. The People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party, reports dutifully on this in Chinese and English in both its printed and electronic editions.

Some Sinophobes are constantly dinning into the ears of the American and Western publics that war between China and the United States is inevitable, but in this they are not necessarily any more accurate than all of the Cold War prophets of doom who insisted that a great and final war between the Soviet Union and the free world was a future certainty. There are very few if any certainties in history and in human experience, other than the mortality of us all. War with China does not have to happen, in spite of what they fear. Perhaps China will, like the Soviet Union before it, eventually collapse. Perhaps China and the United States will learn to tolerate each other, if not have a great deal of affection for each other. Perhaps something else entirely, which we cannot fully imagine now, will happen. The twenty-first century in China will be interesting.

Prospects for Chinese Democracy

The Chinese government claims that China is democratic already, but this is largely untrue. The Chinese people have little direct say in how they are governed, especially at the national level, and there are no meaningful elections in the country. The Chinese word for “democracy,” minzhu, means literally “people as sovereign.” But today the Party, and not the people, is sovereign in China. It could be said in Chinese that China today is a dangzhu (“Party as sovereign”) society, not a democratic society. (The Chinese people have never yet been fully sovereign over their own country.) Just as the emperors of imperial times were sovereign over China and ruled with Neo-Confucian ideology, so the Chinese Communists today are sovereign over China and rule with their own state orthodoxy. And they, like the emperors of yore, brook no serious challenges to either their rule or their ideology.

Like their predecessors the emperors of imperial China, the Chinese Communists today insist that ideology trumps democracy. That is, they maintain that politically correct ideological assessment of the basic needs and desires of the people obviates the need for national elections and parliamentary democracy. For the emperors of the late imperial age, this ideology or state orthodoxy was Confucian thought as interpreted and annotated by the Southern Song Neo-Confucian thinker Zhu Xi (1130-1200). For the Chinese Communists, state orthodoxy today is a convoluted comingling of thought systems that might be called Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought as refined by Deng Xiaoping, focused by Jiang Zemin, and maybe even tweaked a bit by Hu Jintao. But it is often simply called “socialism with Chinese characteristics” for short. Today the ideology-over-democracy notion is summed up in Jiang Zemin’s “Three Represents” theory, first propounded in 2002, which holds that the Party (and thus not the Chinese public itself) represents the best interests of “advanced social productive forces” (the economy), China’s culture, and “the fundamental interests of the majority” (the popular consensus).

Actually, the view that correct ideology makes democracy and democratic institutions unnecessary was also shared by the former Soviet Union. Both the Soviet and the Chinese Communist political systems “utilized ideology to buttress the legitimacy of the system, and held that leaders embodied the correct ideology, leaving no room for private, individual interests or for organized opposition to the state” (Lieberthal 1995, 157).

Will China someday have a democratic form of government? Prior to the Tiananmen crackdown, some Western observers were optimistic about the prospects for democracy in China. Merle Goldman’s 1993 book Sowing the Seeds of Democracy in China, for example, covered the democratic thought of the group around Hu Yaobang, the democratically minded general secretary of the Party until his death in the spring of 1987. But now, for the time being or at least ever since Tiananmen, the Chinese Communists seem to have ruled out any possibility of allowing the emergence of a multiparty democratic system in China. On 9 March 2009 Wu Bangguo, China’s second-highest ranking Communist Party member, iterated tersely that China would never implement democratic reforms. Wu represented the Party’s conclusion that a multiparty political system, an independent judiciary, and the separation of powers were unworkable for China. “Without a single Communist Party in control, [China] would be torn by strife and incapable of accomplishing anything,” he stated flatly (NYT, 9 March 2009).

The Chinese Communist Party today is not as fearful of a violent overthrow of its rule as it is of what it calls “peaceful evolution” (heping yanbian) away from its one-party dictatorial rule. The Chinese Communists fear that economic development, rising standards of living, and the influences of Western (and perhaps South Korean) culture will combine to make the Communist Party less appealing to the Chinese people and lead to the formation of other, more democratically minded parties and a multiparty democratic political system. This is in fact what may well happen in the long run, but exactly how long that long run will be is anybody’s guess. Meanwhile the Party maintains a hyper-vigilant, almost paranoid defensive stance against “peaceful evolution” and regularly inveighs against it in public propaganda campaigns and in political harangues by Party spokespersons.

But enlightened intellectuals and Party members already know that democracy is the wave of the future for China. Zhao Ziyang, the high Communist Party official who was cashiered and put under house arrest for the rest of his life for opposing Deng Xiaoping’s bloody Tiananmen Massacre on June 4, 1989, forcefully came to this realization during the last two decades of his life. His comments on parliamentary democracy in his recently discovered political memoirs are courageously forthright, trenchant, and prescient:

I once believed that people were the masters of their own affairs not in the parliamentary democracies of the developed nations in the West, but only in the Soviet and socialist nations’ systems with a people’s congress, making the latter system more advanced and a better-realized form of democracy.

This, in fact, is not the case. The democratic systems of our socialist nations are all just superficial; they are not systems in which the people are in charge, but rather are ruled by a few or even a single person…

In fact, it is the Western parliamentary democratic system that has demonstrated the most vitality. This system is currently the best one available. It is able to manifest the spirit of democracy and meet the demands of a modern society, and it is a relatively mature system …

In the past few decades, the newly emerging nations with their fast-paced development have illustrated more clearly the trend to converge on a parliamentary democratic system. I am certain this is not by chance. Why is there not even one developed nation practicing any other system? This shows that if a country wants to modernize, to realize a modern market economy, it must practice parliamentary democracy as its political system…

Given current conditions in China, we must establish that the final goal of political reform is the realization of this advanced political system. (Zhao 2009, 269-70)

During the course of their Meiji Restoration in the late nineteenth century, the Japanese had already realized the universal applicability of Western-style parliamentary democracy. In the words of Taguchi Ikichi (1855-1905), an influential Meiji-era economist and essayist, “We study physics, psychology, economics, and the other sciences not because the West discovered them, but because they are the universal truth. We seek to establish constitutional government in our country [Japan] not because it is a Western form of government, but because it conforms with man’s own nature” (Pyle 1969, 90). The large majority of bright young Chinese students also now believe that parliamentary democracy is the world’s best form of government, and they quietly and privately tell North American students and professors that they too will someday have an open democratic political system, but that they are concerned about the possible disruptiveness that a rush into democratization might cause in China. Therefore they are content with a slow and incremental progression toward authentic democratization.

China may well be a democratic country one day. It is perhaps something of a naive American article of faith that democratic countries are necessarily friendly, peace-loving countries. But a fully democratic China could turn out to be even more restively anti-American (and anti-Japanese) than it is right now. The Chinese Communists are acutely aware that any mass passions, be they political, nationalistic, or religious, are potentially destabilizing politically and socially. That is why the Chinese government manages periodic outbursts of nationalistic fervor quite adroitly, as during the Sino-American spy plane collision incident off the coast of Hainan Island in the spring of 2001 or the vandalous anti-Japanese protest marches in Shanghai over the content of newly revised Japanese history textbooks in the spring of 2005. The Chinese government’s formula for managing such periodic outbursts of public nationalistic fervor seems to be “validate, facilitate, deescalate.” In other words, the state first acknowledges the legitimate public outrage at whatever indignity, real or imagined, China has suffered. Then the state may facilitate protests, for example by busing angry students to protest sites or allowing incendiary comments on Internet sites to remain a few hours (or even days) longer than normal. Finally the state deescalates the matter by encouraging the public and the students to return to their jobs and classes and work hard to make China strong and great again.

Will democratization be the nostrum for all, or even most, of China’s ills? Will democratization really transform the Chinese dragon into a fuzzy and loveable panda doll? Is China indeed ready for democracy? What would China be like without the restraining hand of the Communist Party on Chinese nationalism, which sometimes borders on irrational xenophobia? Zealous Chinese and Western ideologues who hope and agitate for the quick democratization of China might do well to contemplate such questions carefully and soberly. An even more urgent question than whether the Chinese people will eventually tire of the Chinese Communist Party and cast it aside, whether peacefully or violently, is this: Who and what will replace the Party if and when they do? The bedraggled Republic of China, eloigned to Taiwan since 1949, is not currently an alternative, if it ever was. The “ROChinese,” or the Blue-leaning people of Taiwan, are not real mainland Chinese and have no idea how to govern mainland China. The Falun Gong is a religious group and not a government in waiting or exile. Perhaps the biggest difficulty for China so far in the twentieth-first century is that the Chinese Communists win through simple default, for want of a better or more viable alternative.

But this will not always be the case. The Chinese writer Lin Yutang once wrote during the height of the Cold War in 1966 that “The Chinese people have always outlived their tyrants” (Lin 1966, opposite xvi). The twenty-first century in China will be interesting.