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Why Is Beijing Leaking the Revolution?

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A book written in 1856 on the causes of the French Revolution has apparently gained popularity among Chinese intellectuals. China is known more for banning books than recommending them, but according to Business Insider, last year senior Party officials began suggesting Alexis de Tocqueville's The Old Regime and the Revolution, to their subordinates.

When Vice Premier Wang Qishan praised the book, it sold out in many bookstores in Beijing, according to the Citizen Journalism blog Global Voices. Hard to imagine Vice President Joe Biden emptying the shelves of Borders with a book review, but as Chong Ming, a history professor who studies Alexis de Tocqueville explains, 'In China, officials have a big influence on the political culture.' A recent search of the book on Weibo yielded 235,416 results. One netizen posted to the Chinese microblogging site that 'the description of the social conflict in France before the revolution and its development is a lot similar to today's China. If they remove the word "France," it's like a high resolution picture of Chinese society.'

'The argument that most resonates in China,' writes Banyan in the Economist 'is that old regimes fall to revolutions not when they resist change, but when they attempt reform yet dash the raised expectations they have evoked.' Professor Chong Ming suggests that 'reform is the best way to avoid revolution' but it's as if China's leaders are trying to prepare its people for the dissatisfaction that any such reform might bring.

This modest but telling move points to a leadership nervous about its future. And, according to economist, Gordon Chang, it has good reason to be:

'China today is going through a very self-destructive and self-reinforcing feedback loop. We see a slumping economy and a crisis of legitimacy. The legitimacy crisis is causing China's leaders to fall back on nationalism, and that is leading to increasing friction with its neighbors which is creating even more problems for the economy.'

Gordon Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China. Written in 2001, it predicted that we would be seeing China's financial system begin to crumble by 2006 and the death of the Communist Party by 2011. With China's economy going from strength to strength in recent years, Chang has been often criticized for being, well... wrong.

Chang admits his calendrical predictions were off, but remains confident that it is simply a matter of time before he's proved right:

'China's economy is obviously faltering. It's not growing at the double-digit rates that Beijing claims. We see the Communist Party splintering, the authority of the government eroding, and the military starting to dominate politics in the capital. Some believe that the People's Liberation Army is now the most powerful faction in the Party. And we see Chinese people taking to the streets. These are all symptoms of the failure of the state.'

With China famously adept at political horizon scanning, can't it's leaders anticipate the issues and adjust accordingly? Chang believes that even though China's leaders are well aware of the threats their country is facing, they are simply too invested in the established political system to allow for meaningful change. 'China is not going to be able to make the transition.'

The reason that we aren't seeing more political commentators and watchdogs making these predictions, he says, is that it is simply too hard to believe.

'Even after the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, very few people thought that the Soviet Union itself could crumble.'

'China's trying to make up for a fall in export growth with state investment, which is taking China away from the only sustainable growth model -- one based on consumption. Consumption's contribution to the Chinese economy is somewhere between 34 and 36 percent. Those are the lowest rates in the world. China needs more consumption to keep its economy going, but consumption's role has been declining as a contribution to GDP, not increasing. China has a growth model where low consumption is the inevitable result, but to change that model China will have to implement decisions that it's not prepared for right now. It was able to at the end of 1978, when Deng Xiaoping introduced his policy of reform, but there are no Deng Xiao Ping's now. The Party is really at a dead end.'

America's Untapped Leverage

Chang asserts that the United States has far more economic leverage than is generally believed. Taking an assertive line on China has traditionally been more of a campaign tactic rather than government policy, but Chang says this is beginning to change, especially since the Chinese government has been reducing opportunities for foreign competitors in the Chinese market.

'Of course, the multinationals still support China, but with the small and medium-size manufacturers, there's been a real sea-change in the way that they view manufacturing in China. Small manufacturers are already leaving China. We're seeing this especially in the garment business, which has by and large migrated to Bangladesh. But we're also seeing it at the top-end with Apple's announcement that it's going to be making a line of its products in the United States. General Electric is starting to make more of its appliances in Louisville, Kentucky. So this is a trend. Boston Consulting Group projects that in 2015, seven sectors will be easier and cheaper to manufacture in the US than in China.'

'China's merchandise trade surplus against the U.S. in 2011 was 190.5 percent of its overall merchandise surplus. That gives the U.S. incredible leverage because China's running enormous deficits with the rest of the world in order to run a surplus against the US. China has an economy that is geared to selling things to the U.S. The U.S. does not have an economy geared to selling things to China. The U.S. can use that leverage if it chooses to do so.'

Chang notes that the Obama White House has taken a noticeably stronger position vis a vis China than previous administrations, particularly in its second term:

'In February 2009, Secretary Clinton publicly downgraded human rights in connection with China, which she intended as a signal of friendship and a willingness to work with Beijing. Chinese officials saw this as a signal of weakness, however, so they pressed the advantage and our relations with Beijing deteriorated. At the November 2009 summit in Beijing, the Chinese gave President Obama a very difficult time. China went on a foreign policy bender soon after that, starting with the Copenhagen Climate Change Summit in December of that year. Clearly, the Obama was reassessing it's China policy from the end of its first year in office.

We've seen other countries adopt a much more acerbic positions with regard to Beijing. This is going to be a trend as China exhibits more signs of fragility. In 2006, when Shinzo Abe became Japan's prime minister for the first time, his first foreign trip was to China. This time, his first foreign trip was to Washington. This is an important signal, not only to people in the region, but also to the U.S. that countries need more American leadership, largely because China is on a trajectory that is causing concern to its neighbors.'

'We have seen a much more assertive and hostile China, especially in the last three years. It has challenged its neighbors to the south, in India, and to the north in South Korea. This is a real cause for concern, not only in East Asia, but in the United States as well, because if there has been any consistent foreign policy throughout two centuries of America's existence, it has been the defense of freedom of navigation. China is challenging this in the South China Sea and in other places.

Beijing's Ire More Bluster Than Muscle

A 2010 research paper by two economists at the Georg August University of Goettingen in Germany, Andreas Fuchs and Nils-Hendrik Klann, called Paying a Visit: The Dalai Lama Effect, analyzed countries whose heads of state had met with the Dalai Lama in terms of diplomatic and economic repercussions with China. What they found was a pattern involving an initial nominal decrease in the offending county's China-bound exports (12.5 percent) that normalized after a couple of years.

'I think we're going to have to begin to understand that with its trade dependent economy, China's government really cannot risk carrying through on its threats.'

A case in point was China's treatment of Norway after granting the Nobel Peace Prize to high profile Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. Perhaps because China is seeking a seat on the Arctic Council to take advantage of melting sea ice that could drastically shorten its maritime routes, there was a lot of bark from Beijing but very little bite. A rather lackluster boycott on salmon imports salmon from Norway, which Chang notes are now back to where they were before.

An Historic Opportunity for Tibet

Chang believes that the Tibet issue is going to begin to receive more full-bodied support from the international community. 'Up to now, governments have really only been paying lip service to the Tibetans because they don't want to offend Chinese leaders. But when the problems in China become more evident, I think leaders around the world will get in touch with their better instincts and will start to understand that it's in their interest to help the Tibetan people.'

Chang is not optimistic, however, about China's new leadership reassessing its hard-line policies in Tibet. 'The only way that Beijing is considering reassessing its policies in Tibetan areas is deciding whether to make them tougher and more coercive. The general view in China is that Tibetans are ungrateful for all the money they've been investing in the region. But Tibetans have actually benefited very little from China's economic development, which is really aimed at benefiting the Han populations. We've also seen, especially with the extractive industries, minerals taken away from Tibet, and Chinese officials privately pocketing hundreds of millions of dollars.'

As the prime minister of the exiled Tibetan government, Dr. Lobsang Sangay stated in a recent address, it appears that 'China wants Tibet but not the Tibetan people.'

'The Chinese should not feel surprised that Tibetans don't feel overtly grateful,' says Chang. 'And this is self-evidenced through the high number of self-immolations that we've been seeing among Tibetan populations.'

So, if the conditions come together to create a perfect storm that overwhelms China's present system's ability to hold things together, what implications does that have for Tibetans? Chang, never one to hedge his bets, is bold in his prediction. 'I think that as the problems in China grow more evident, we're going to see the Chinese occupiers leave Tibet. I think that there will be a vacuum that will last months, a year at the most, where the Chinese are not effectively governing Tibet. And that is an opportunity for the Central Tibetan Administration to return to Tibet, establish a government, and hopefully get it recognized by other nations.'

This would not have been the first time that China released its grip on the plateau:

'After the 1911 revolution when the Qing dynasty fell, China stopped exercising any sort of influence in Tibet, and Tibet was clearly a sovereign independent nation from that period going forward until Mao Zedong invaded in early 1950. There isn't going to be a big window for the Tibetans, but there will be an historic opportunity to re-establish a sovereign state. I'm not predicting that they will necessarily be successful, but I think they will have an opportunity to try.'

But with the Tibetan plateau providing China with so many minerals and resources, why on earth would China leave Tibet?

'Chinese troops will leave if they're needed elsewhere to defend the Party,' says Chang. 'This has happened many times in the past, where problems at the center have resulted in the Chinese occupiers leaving not only Tibet, but also what the Uighurs call the East Turkestan Republic and what the Chinese call the Xinjiang Autonomous Region.

Chang also believes that the Dalai Lama will be able to go back to Tibet and that all this is going to happen in the near future. And he shared his opinion with the exiled Tibetan leader when he visited the exiled Tibetan stronghold in Dharamsala to attend a international seminar by the Central Tibetan Administration's Tibet Policy Institute on the future of China and Tibet. 'At this point, nobody thinks that's possible except for me. That doesn't mean I'm wrong, it just means that at this particular moment I'm in a minority.'

'Tibetans now seem weak and China seems strong, but Tibetan society is very resilient and has the strength of conviction. I think it will survive the Communist Party.'

Columbia University Tibet scholar Robbie Barnett takes a more cautious line. As he told Radio Free Asia in a recent interview, "Even if there was a total collapse, it might not lead to any improvement in Tibetans' situation." It's quite possible, for example, that China would reorganize itself along even more nationalistic and militaristic lines.

If Chang's predictions are accurate, the results in China could be dramatic. But why would the scent of revolution be in the air when the country is seeing more prosperity than at any time in its history? Perhaps Alexis Tocqueville has the answer. 'It is almost never when a state of things is the most detestable that it is smashed,' he wrote 'but when, beginning to improve. It permits men to breathe, to reflect, to communicate their thoughts with each other, and to gauge by what they already have the extent of their rights and their grievances. The weight, although less heavy, seems then all the more unbearable.'

What China's leadership seems to have failed to notice is that the French Revolution is generally considered to have been a good thing by the people of France, not to mention the liberal democracies it inspired. Bastille Day is celebrated with fireworks, not with earnest reflections on the costs of social upheaval. It's amusing to imagine what Alexis de Tocqueville, with his sharp sense of irony, would make of a Communist dictatorship recommending his 'Revolution' to its people. As for the message that China's leaders are sending with the Tocqueville review, perhaps as one Chinese netizen puts it, 'It's better to watch what they actually do than to listen to what they say and try to guess what it means.'