The Economist on China’s Crackdown

Two articles in this week’s Economist focus on the ongoing crackdown in China, described as the worst since Tiananmen and its aftermath. A third investigates ominous economic trends whose eventual effects the authorities may be attempting to forestall.

The first suggests that the unusual harshness of recent months reflects the growing influence of China’s “princelings” ahead of impending leadership changes.

“THERE are some sour and smelly literati these days who are utterly abominable,” a retired military officer reportedly told a recent gathering in Beijing. “They attack Chairman Mao and practise de-Maoification. We must fight to repel this reactionary counter-current.” At the time, two months ago, the colonel’s crusty words might have had the whiff of a bygone era. Today, amid a heavy crackdown on dissent, they sound cruelly prescient ….

Since the late 1970s, when China began to turn its back on Maoist totalitarianism, the country has gone through several cycles of relative tolerance of dissent, followed by periods of repression. But the latest backlash, which was first felt late last year and intensified in late February, has raised eyebrows. It has involved more systematic police harassment of foreign journalists than at any time since the early 1990s. More ominously, activists such as Mr Ai have often simply disappeared rather than being formally arrested.

It is an abnormally heavy-handed approach, one unprompted by any mass disturbances (recent anonymous calls on the internet for a Chinese “jasmine revolution” hardly count). This suggests that shifting forces within the Chinese leadership could well be playing a part. China is entering a period of heightened political uncertainty as it prepares for changes in many top positions in the Communist Party, government and army, beginning late next year. This is the first transfer of power after a decade of rapid social change. Within the state, new interest groups have emerged. These are now struggling to set the agenda for China’s new rulers.

The second also draws a link between this handover and the current crackdown, which may be intended as a sweeping away of possible troublemakers ahead of the sensitive transition.

Western observers tend to describe the crackdown as a massive overreaction to perceived threats, but it may well be that China’s rulers know better. True, no seething mass stands ready to overthrow the regime. But in a vast country, many aggrieved people, from dispossessed villagers through unemployed graduates to angry bloggers, resent the state. The government is quite capable of handling each of these groups separately. But were those with grievances ever to coalesce, especially if the growth slows—as it will sooner rather than later (see article)—they would represent a potent force.

The view from Beijing, thus, is different to the view from abroad. Whereas the outside world regards China’s rulers as all-powerful, the rulers themselves detect threats at every turn. The roots of this repression lie not in the leaders’ overweening confidence but in their nervousness. Their response to threats is to threaten others ….

In the short term at least, these troubling developments undermine the comforting idea that economic openness necessarily leads to the political sort. All the more reason, then, for the West to hold China to account. America and the European Union are right strongly to condemn Mr Ai’s detention, though it would have been better had they taken a stand sooner. Speaking out might just help constrain the regime’s behaviour. It will certainly give succour to those in China working bravely to create a better future.

The third article, cited in the second above, examines recent research into the dissipation of developing countries’ “catch-up” momentum, which may destabilise China when it arrives.

The authors are careful to say that there is no iron law of slowdowns. Even so, their analysis is unlikely to cheer the leadership in Beijing. China’s torrid growth puts it on course to hit the $16,740 GDP-per-head threshold by 2015, well ahead of the likes of Brazil and India. Given the Chinese economy’s long list of risk factors—including an older population, low levels of consumption and a substantially undervalued currency—the authors suggest that the odds of a slowdown are over 70%.

It is hazardous to extend any analysis to a country as unique as China. The authors acknowledge that rapid development could shift inland, where millions of workers have yet to move into manufacturing, while the coastal cities nurture an ability to innovate. The IMF forecasts real GDP growth rates above 9% through to 2016; a slowdown to 7-8% does not sound that scary. But past experience indicates that slowdowns are frequently accompanied by crises.