Top Ten Myths About China in 2012

At The New Yorker, Evan Osnos suggests that 2012 may have marked a turning point in the erosion of accepted myths about China. Ten, he says, have collapsed over the past year: myths about government efficiency, a hard landing, benign corruption, human rights diplomacy, leftover women, Xi Jinping, risk aversion, online controls, cyberutopianism and the purity of political elites. The bookends to Osnos’ list:

1. China’s political system has the efficiency and consensus to produce far-sighted decisions that Washington can only envy. Faced with our own gridlock and polarization, Americans are understandably eager to find a rhetorical cudgel, and we entered 2012 repeating the line that Chinese leaders had become all that ours were not: ambitious, visionary, willing to pull for a larger purpose. In last year’s State of the Union, President Obama invoked China as the “home to the world’s largest private solar research facility, and the world’s fastest computer. “So, yes,” Obama said, “the world has changed.” And he was not wrong. But this year added some sobering facts about the haste, waste, and corruption associated with China’s Great Leap. When a bridge collapsed in August, killing three people and injuring five, it was the sixth bridge collapse in a little over a year. The authorities blamed overloaded trucks, but it turned out that the concrete had been adulterated with sticks and plastic bags, the kind of corner-cutting that Chinese regulators have found in the nation’s enormous railway construction project. For this and other reasons that follow, the myth of China’s political efficiency can be retired.

10. Local bureaucrats might be corrupt, but decision-makers at the top are carefully selected and have deep public approval. “If we speak candidly,” wrote Deng Yuwen, a deputy editor of the Party-run newspaper called Study Times, “this decade has seeded or created massive problems, and the problems are even more numerous than the achievements.” The Bo Xilai debacle exposed a gangland element to Party politics that reaches to the top, and the revelations about Wen Jiabao’s family wealth leaves no doubt about the extent of self-dealing. Inside and outside the Party, reformists are calling not only for economic liberalization but also for credible efforts to end the two-tiered society, to resume political reform, and to narrow the widening wealth gap. China faces more urgent threats to growth and social stability than any time since the uprising at Tiananmen Square, in 1989. Between 2006 and 2010, the number of strikes and riots and what Chinese officials call “mass incidents,” doubled to a hundred eighty thousand a year—and that will continue to grow until the political culture improves.