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Last night the Asia Society, in conjunction with the New York Review of Books, hosted a speaker series with guest speakers Ian Johnson – Beijing-based writer and foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal – and Roderick MacFarquhar, a Professor of History and former Director of the John King Fairbank centre for East Asian Research at Harvard University. The session was moderated by the Director of the centre on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York, Orville Schell.The panel topic was, “How Stable is China: Can Its Economic Miracle Continue Under Its Current Political System?”
In the process of answering that question, three things were made very clear: no one is quite sure what China means anymore, no one is quite sure how much China is making progress, and no one is quite sure where China’s power lies.
Johnson started by explaining that, “during the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, China meant wealth and prosperity. With the opening up of the world, and especially through his mandated special economic zones (SEZ’s), people were able to get rich extremely quick.”
More importantly, Johnson noted, “‘to get rich was glorious’ and Deng was able to provide what Mao had only been able to promise. But this economic liberation came at a price and in exchange for the ability to amass vast amounts of wealth, the Chinese had to promise their silence and cooperation. In other words, ‘get on with what you’re doing and we’ll do our best to make you rich.'”
Today, 18 million people depend on the Party for their wealth, power, status, and that goes hand in hand with corruption, as the Chongqing scandal shows. MacFarquhar now suggests that “China needs to ‘save face'”, and that there’s a growing realisation that leaders need a basis of trust and empowerment on part of the people.
So is China unstable?
Photo: Getty Images / Scott Olson
MacFarquhar certainly thinks so: “There is no legitimation procedure for Chinese leadership. Deng’s reforms addressed many things, but how leaders were chosen wasn’t one of them.”Now they’re just waiting for some kind of “trauma” to trigger it. (Referring to Schell’s Californian residence) “China is like the San Andreas fault. You know that the cracks are there, but you can’t determine when or where it will go off, and you don’t know what will trigger it going off. What you do know however, is that the consequences will be disastrous.”
After further thought, he concluded, “China’s situation right now is similar to the end of the former USSR. The position that Hu Jintao is currently in and certainly the next leader will be in as well is similar to that of Mikhail Gorbachev’s in 1989. In an attempt to change the government apparatus, Gorbachev ordered a mini Cultural Revolution. And look how that turned out. No one [in China] wants to be the next Gorbachev because that will mean the end of the Communist Party.“
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