For several years, I was vice president of the US-China Strategic Review Commission, and we spent a lot of time with the top experts. We all generally agreed that China would grow larger and more powerful, but the central question was whether this would be a peaceful transformation or a violent one. Very few of these people (almost all men) thought China could get through the transition without some sort of violent convulsion, as we see today.
Chinese unification has long been a challenge to the chiefs of their dynasties, and today there are three big areas that seek various degrees of independence from Beijing: Tibet, Hong Kong, and the Uighur territories.
Each territory has made its own arrangements with the capital, giving formal control to Beijing while retaining varying degrees of independence for themselves. The Dalai Lama has sworn he will stay away from his Tibetan homeland, but the nature of contemporary communications is such that he maintains a constant channel to his people. The violence in Hong Kong we see daily. And the Uigurs, who for some time received support—including military training—from Iran, are now prime targets of Chairman Xi.
So the Chinese are facing three convulsions, shortly after making Xi president for life, and they are dealing with a nationwide economic challenge that is testing the abilities of Xi and his colleagues to manage the highly ambitious global expansion they have set for themselves. The Belt and Road Initiative, flush with cash just a year ago, is cutting back on investment in places like sub-Saharan Africa. And if you remember all those artificial islands in the South China Sea that the Chinese dredged up in apparent preparation for offensive action in the Pacific, you’ll be surprised to learn that Beijing isn’t pressing ahead to arm them. As Stephen Green writes in Pj Media:
But as conspicuous as the bases’ capacity to project China’s offensive power is how little of that might Beijing has actually deployed there. The Pentagon’s latest report on China’s military notes that no new militarization has been observed since China placed air defense and anti-ship missiles in the Spratlys last year.
The decision to withhold offensive power likely goes hand-in-hand with Xi’s long-term thinking, hoping that Trump is replaced a year from November with a more “moderate” president.
Meanwhile, Xi has his hands full with the monster demonstrations in Hong Kong, provoked at least in part by the dictator’s decision to crack down on the protests. If he cannot reassert control there, he may face similar demands for greater freedom around the country. In fact, there has been considerable disruption already, as demonstrated in the Uighur territories.
The US-China Strategic Review Commission found that internal Chinese reporting on the real state of economic affairs was often “a hoax,” suggesting that official growth rates were simply made up We don’t know how much contemporary data has been falsified, but we do know—on the basis of our own intelligence—that the tempo of militarization of the islands has diminished. It may be that the reduction of the tempo is the result of a shortage in available funding, or that it is the result of a desire by Xi and his men to at least temporarily avoid direct military conflict with the United States, or for some other reason.
I keep thinking back to all those experts who confidently predicted that China would have to overcome a period of crises before—or if—the country could find its way to a stable unity. Ever since Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon saw a chance to bring Beijing into the “community of nations” by offering American largesse, Western diplomats have pursued this goal with the confidence that a wealthy China would inevitably seek warm relations with those who had made it possible for China to become a rich nation. Current events suggest that culture, tradition and politics play a role at least as important.
China has a long history of rebellion against would-be tyrants, and the three large pieces of territory in more or less open revolt show that the tradition is still vibrant. Xi has the support of the Beijing bureaucracy, but the rest of the country remains at odds with him. At the moment, Hong Kong presents his greatest challenge. How will he deal with it? Will he eventually send in the armed forces? Will he step back and leave Hong Kong to its own devices, transferring the city’s wealth and experience in the international marketplace to another place? Nobody knows if either expedient can or will succeed.
We only know that, as in eras past, China is trying to find some way to survive its crisis.