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Hey guys, I posted this on my blog a few days ago, as a response to people emailing me their questions about the political situation in China. Please forgive me for taking the liberty to post it here as well. I am interested in your thoughts on the matter!|
The Tiger Argument
Everyone can be afraid sometimes, even countries, and even if they are really big.
If we can agree to generalize a bit, then the rulers of Ancient China basically knew three major fears:
the barbarians (mostly from the North)
natural calamities (like the Yellow River (黄河) changing its course)
and – most importantly – peasant uprisings
Of course these three scenarios were often interdependent, with a combination of 1 and 2 eventually leading to 3.
Even today, these fears are still there.
Ever since the massive influx of the “devils from overseas” (洋鬼子) in the 19th century, China has experienced the trauma of being kicked around by foreign powers.
The environment is obviously on the verge of collapse in many regions, with clean water and clean air becoming more and more of a luxury.
There are as many as 200 “mass incidents” (群体性事件) throughout the country – per day. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we are talking about actual rioting, but it is still a force to be reckoned with.
Like a tiger.
There is a Chinese proverb that describes the present political situation pretty accurately:
骑虎难下 (qíhǔnánxià – “If you are riding a tiger, then it’s hard to dismount”).
Because progress is irreversible
There is only one direction that China can go: forward. For the last thirty years, progress (发展) has been the CCP’s top doctrine, and it has in fact greatly improved the lives of hundreds of millions of people. However, it has also brought a vast amount of foreign influences (1), environmental problems (2), and a force of approximately 200 million migrant workers (3) along with it.
(1) What do you do with foreigners who annoy you?
China isn’t North Korea. Ever since she has mounted the tiger some 30 years ago, she hasn’t been able to shy away from the outside world anymore. And while most people from abroad are more or less warmly welcomed, others are in fact considered threatening. There are foreigners who seem to be agitating the population, foreigners who propagate secessionism, and even foreigners who walk around remote areas and get into arguments with the police.
It’s a thin line between safeguarding political stability and making everybody feel uncomfortable. And while the country’s progress strongly depends on international trade and exchange of ideas, there is just no way to invite only investors and engineers and kick everybody out who messes with your tiger.
(2) What do you do if the land dries up?
However, foreign influences seem pretty harmless compared to the scenario of a major environmental disaster. What if the Yellow River completely fails to reach the province of Shandong (山东) one day? Or if a major industrial spill renders a densely populated part of the country inhabitable? If the air becomes too polluted for families to raise their children?
Again, the government can only try to exert damage control. Of course it would be a great idea to go ahead and modernize all of the country’s factories, simply because they are currently wasting way too much energy and resources. But what if this meant that Chinese products got too expensive on the international markets? Wouldn’t that mean crippling progress and making the tiger angry?
(3) How do you keep 200 million migrant workers happy?
And this is the most scary part: 200 million migrant workers. Even if this estimate isn’t very accurate, the total number is probably still much higher than the population of any given European country. These migrant workers have left their homes behind and come to the cities to claim their share of an idea called progress. They don’t ask for much, but you can’t leave them with nothing either.
So they are given things to build: high rises, flyovers, bridges, roads, tunnels, railroads, and so on. The migrant workers are everywhere, and they can never stop building, or else they would get seriously unhappy. Ever wondered why Chinese construction quality often seems to be so flawed? Well, maybe some of those things were never built to last anyway, but rather built for the sake of building. To keep the tiger busy.
So where is all this going?
Of the three fears, I think the first one can be overcome most easily. Foreigners are just not as influential to Chinese society as they themselves would like to believe, and there will always be ways to deal with them. But if the environmental problems are not kept under control, and if there is no way to reincorporate the migrant workers into society and generate a domestic market that can support a sort of “sensible progress” on its own, then things don’t look too bright for this tiger ride.
Would you be prepared to dismount and look it in the eye?