Gerald Warner: Don’t expect democracy to halt China’s social meltdown

CHINA is on the cusp – or so many commentators would have us believe.

CHINA is on the cusp – or so many commentators would have us believe.

The fall of the corrupt Communist Party hardliner Bo Xilai, following the arrest of his wife in connection with the suspicious death of British businessman Neil Heywood, appears to have weakened the anti-reform faction within the Beijing government and strengthened the hand of “reformist” premier Wen Jiabao in advance of the 18th Party Congress this year.

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That may be so (everything in the opaque world of any Communist state is shrouded in doubt); but it would do the Western public a considerable service if its so-called quality media would grow up and stop interpreting the arcana of Chinese politics in the simplistic language of the liberal-progressive agenda. Nobody in the Chinese Communist Party hankers after democracy, or anything resembling it; it is questionable whether anybody in China wants it. The representation of one half of the ruling clique within the Communist Party as frustrated Liberal Democrats, eager to introduce multi-party ballots, proportional representation and gender quotas, is a symptom of the infantilisation of news analysis in this country.

There is little to be said in favour of the mass-murder machine that is the Chinese Communist Party, except this: at least its leadership understands that the kind of “reform” Hillary Clinton is trying to impose around the world, if implemented in China, would provoke the implosion of a society composed of 1.3 billion people. What it may not understand is that its demise is already inevitable; there is no policy – neither intransigence nor liberalisation – that can save it; and the consequences for China and the wider world will be dire. The heirs of Mao are in a Catch 22 situation and its outcome will be nightmarish.

The commentator most relevant to Beijing’s dilemma is not Confucius or Mao, Hayek or Keynes, but Alexis de Tocqueville. It was he who pointed out that revolutionary unrest is not provoked by poverty but by increased prosperity, not by repression but by reform and that any authoritarian government is at its most vulnerable when it attempts to reform itself. The Party has neither legitimacy nor moral authority (no Communist party ever did). Since 1949 it has slaughtered 65 million people. To that may be added the 370 million mandatory abortions – sorry, “remedial measures” – enforced since 1980. China’s demography has been distorted by the one-child policy to the extent that one Chinese man in 10 has no female counterpart; by the late 2020s the imbalance will be one man in five.

The social and economic consequences will be catastrophic. A huge population of feral males, not anchored in society by family responsibilities, has already doubled the crime rate. With more than 90,000 incidents of social unrest in 2009, the regime is sitting on a volcano. It has begun enlisting poor, single men into the People’s Liberation Army; if social fragmentation became a serious threat the temptation to engage in the diversion of a foreign adventure, most likely an invasion of Taiwan, might prove irresistible.

The Chinese economy has declined from an average growth rate of 10 per cent in recent decades to just 1.5 per cent in the last two quarters of 2011. The government hauled the economy out of the slump of 2008-09 with an enormous stimulus package it could not afford to repeat. The state banks are saddled with dubious loans, the public education and healthcare systems are in breakdown, the pension system cannot service an ageing population and now there are signs of over-heating in the property market (does any of this sound familiar?).

Contrary to the hype, China has not made the transition to a free-market economy: the public sector, which embraces such key areas as banking, technology and energy, represents 40 per cent of China’s GDP. The World Bank has urged Beijing to privatise the massive state enterprises, but under Hu Jintao the ideological tendency has been in the opposite direction. Now it is probably too late. The danger is that the regime will simply be overtaken by events. The country is so large that, in an economic meltdown, great swathes of it could revert to warlordism.

While Politburo members, divided between the elitist Shanghai Clique from the prosperous regions and the Populist Coalition from the poor rural areas, play palace politics like Manchu princes a century ago, the Middle Kingdom could slide into anarchy.

What that would mean for the already unstable world economy is matter for speculation (in the most literal sense). Like the Manchu dynasty of Aisin Gioro in 1911, the Communist Party has exhausted the mandate of Heaven. Its monopolist governmental system means there is no other political force to fill the vacuum. Whatever eventually succeeds, do not bet on its being parliamentary democracy.