A hobbled China

A hobbled China

China’s economic growth and its external ambitions will run into humbling reversals long before 2050. There will be no express elevator ride to the top. A mix of three factors will slow and perhaps even stagger the People’s Republic – the country many believe will dominate the world by mid-century.

Each of the braking factors has a structural inevitability basically beyond the control of Beijing.

The first factor is the pressure for political pluralism that is building among the country’s middle classes. The second is the demographic distortion caused by the one-child population policy. The third factor is external: China’s increasingly robust neighbors will effectively contain and limit much of its reach abroad. A look at each factor may be instructive.

Political pluralism: Karl Marx wrote that the middle classes have been the most powerful revolutionary force in history. Today, China has on its hands a middle class approaching half a billion people. They travel abroad, catch glimpses of freedoms available in other countries and do their best to poke holes in the regime’s Internet barriers. As they chafe against the limits and coalesce into loose opposition units, the government’s only correctives will be dragnet arrests or Tiananmen-style crackdowns.

Some in the Communist Party leadership of the 1980s must have guessed that promising the people material abundance (“get rich”) in exchange for political obedience would sooner or later let the genie of bourgeois expectations out of the bottle and lead to something like real democracy, government by consent is excellent for human rights, but not for a clockwork economy. Democracy runs by fits and starts. No democratic government can ever have as efficient targets as a Beijing that can order an economic priority and know that a billion people will snap to attention. So as its middle class nudges it toward democracy, China’s economy will slow. Ten percent GNP growth will be a thing of the past. The future of a more plural China, in short, will parallel the experiences of India, where a rural peasant protest in 2009 was able to knock the nation’s main car manufacturer off the rails.

Demographic distortions: Just as the Communist Party’s decision to spread wealth in exchange for public obedience will have a transformational socio-economic blowback, so will the effects of the country’s 32-year-old one-child policy. A brilliant stroke only possible in a total dictatorship, it headed off nearly a half billion births and made China’s rise possible. However, it also pushed into the future an economic burden now being shouldered by the first 30-somethings of the single-child generation – and the first single-child married couples. Because the husbands and wives of these couples have no siblings, and since China has no across-the-board old-age pension and health plans, each couple has to bear alone a good portion of the support costs of eight older people – four parents and four grandparents. There are no brothers and sisters to share out the costs, as there were before the revolution, when six-child families were the average. These costs will inevitably weigh on how the couples spend and invest, and therefore on the larger economy.

Robust neighbors: The great powers of the past century had few neighbors or others militarily mature enough to push back against them. Nothing so easy will be available to China. It shares borders with 14 countries, and the only instinctive allies among them are its erratic and parasitic dependent, North Korea, and the world’s most dangerously unstable country, Pakistan. It has histories of large and small wars with four of its neighbors, Japan, Vietnam, Russia, and India. They are all heavyweights ready to push back against any general Asian hegemony by China but also, with countries like South Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines, against Beijing’s ownership of the South China Sea. These countries all have their own regional ambitions, and China gives them common cause.

In a world tired of the West and charmed by the novelty of a rising East, China looks like the century’s sure winner. That is far from certain. Self-inflicted vulnerabilities and sturdy rivals put its dominance in real doubt. The Soviet Union was the pundits’ chosen world-beater 50 years ago, just as Japan was in the 80s. In geopolitics there are no sure bets.