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Kitchen Sink Laundry Lists and Broken Clocks

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Too often, discourse about China takes the same unfortunate format. I have seen it from the media, think tank and NGO reports, "popular" books written by academics, politicians, and even from students. First, a partial list of China's problems is summarized and then, the argument is made (implicitly or explicitly) that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) must fix these problems or it will lose its grip on power and/or that the CCP can ONLY fix these problems by relaxing its grip on power.

The lists of the problems in question generally include some combination of: corruption, lack of rule of law, lack of democracy, land expropriations, slowing economic growth, economic overheating, a real estate bubble, environmental degradation, lack of innovation, income inequality, export dependence, a bottomless appetite for natural resources, large numbers of executions, organ harvesting, sex selective abortions, ghost cities, unemployment, intellectual property protection, the arrest of foreign executives, inflation and unrest among and or the mistreatment of: workers, criminal suspects, Tibetans, Uighurs, Falun Gong practitioners, Christians, activists, lawyers, and/or journalists. While some bit of familiar argumentation usually accompanies each point, these lists tend to combine, conflate and confuse issues that are not necessarily related or even similar. There are two unwarranted suppositions in the prevailing logic: first, that these problems are actually regime threatening and second, that democratization and/or liberalization will help to solve them.

Issues like unemployment, inequality, land grabs, serious economic problems, and corruption have sufficient scale to be potentially regime threatening. On the other hand, as worrying as many of these other issues may be in their own right, there is little reason to believe that they pose a serious threat to the domination of the CCP. Even on many of the biggest flashpoint issues, China is not doing particularly poorly. Corruption perceptions indices suggest that China is not especially corrupt for its level of development and actually does better than many more developed countries, including Russia, Argentina, and Mexico. Additionally, economic inequality in China is similar to the level in the United States, is significantly lower than in South Africa or much of Latin America, is 40 percent a result of China's urban/rural divide, and may be levelling off. Predicting the fall of any regime is a fool's errand, and these lists are proof that, while China has problems, pundits are casting wide nets since they don't really know what could bring down the CCP.

While democracy has mostly been positively correlated with better scores on many important indicators, including environmental protection, rule of law, inequality and lower levels of corruption, such issues also tend to be closely linked with GDP per capita and it cannot be taken for granted that liberalization or democratization in China would lead to an improvement in the short to medium term. Taiwan and South Africa's democratizations for example, corresponded with increases in corruption and inequality, two of China's most frequently cited problems. In other words, champions of democracy and human rights in China should advocate these causes because they believe them to be important in their own right (as does this blogger). Explicit cogent arguments must be made to defend claims that such reforms would help solve China's other problems.

The above analysis is both over simplified and incomplete. Indeed the point of this post is that such long lists of problems neither can, nor should be, analysed in combination. It is instructive to consider that rarely, if ever, would a serious journalist, scholar or pundit think about writing an article about the United States that lumped together so many disparate issues, even though there is no reason to believe that the situation in China is any less complex.

One of the unfortunate effects of this lack of precise analysis is constant predictions of China's collapse, declaring this is to be "a dangerous year" for China, claiming "the bubble will burst" or that China is "fragile." Every year, pundits come up with new reasons to avow that this is a particularly worrying time for China. In 2008, it was the Olympics, riots in Tibet and the global financial crisis. In 2009 it was the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen and riots in Xinjiang. In 2010 it was Liu Xiaobo's Nobel Prize. In 2011 it was the Arab spring and in 2012 it is the leadership handover. This is more laundry list non-analysis; every year cannot be particularly dangerous anymore than every issue can.

Sooner or later, some of the incessant predictions of serious problems or collapse are bound to be vindicated, but unless the analysis is based on something more substantive than these kitchen sink laundry lists (if you can pardon the mixed metaphor), it will be no more than a lucky guess. Even a broken clock is right twice a day.