Inside Story

Current affairs & culture from Australia and beyond

2560 words

Richer, more contentious, more powerful and more confusing

13 February 2013

China is changing fast but its greatest challenges remain the same. And at the centre is the blackest of black boxes, writes Kerry Brown


A vast migration within China has created a disenfranchised urban population of workers and their families. Tricia Wang/Flickr

A vast migration within China has created a disenfranchised urban population of workers and their families. Tricia Wang/Flickr

China’s Environmental Challenges
By Judith Shapiro | Polity Press | $29.95

Party Time: Who Runs China and How
By Rowan Callick | Black Inc | $29.95

China’s Urban Billion: The Story Behind the Biggest Migration in Human History
Tom Miller | Zed Books | $34.95

NOW that the excitement sparked by the emergence of a new leadership in Beijing last November has calmed down, and now that the fireworks surrounding the fall of Politburo member Bo Xilai and the conviction of his wife for murder are over, perhaps it is time to settle back and look at the state of play in China. In their different ways, these three books are sobering reminders that the more things in the People’s Republic have changed, the more they’ve stayed the same. The immense environmental, political and social challenges are still there. While these books – all of them by people with a long-term interest in China – offer different perspectives on what might happen next, it is very difficult to say which way the new leadership will move.

The environment and climate change are the issues about which there is the greatest consensus. After all, China has largely been run by scientists over the last two decades, and they, more than most elite groups in other countries, at least understand the science of climate change and other environmental problems. But, as Judith Shapiro shows in China’s Environmental Challenges, this matters little when they are up against the pressure to make the world’s most populous nation much richer. In the end, the longstanding trade-off between pumping out GDP at any cost and implementing environmental protection laws that might act as a drag on this all-important figure is always decided in favour of the former. Everything is predicated on the simple idea that only when China is rich can it start the world’s largest clean-up campaign. Till then, there is enough time, clean air and clean water to go for growth and damn the rest.

Shapiro has previously written a fine book about Mao Zedong’s peculiarly antagonistic attitudes towards nature. There, she showed that the chairman’s particular strand of megalomania even stretched to the conviction that not only should mankind conquer nature, but it had a moral obligation to do so. Environmental degradation was built into the crazy and destructive industrialisation programs of the Great Leap Forward and the Third Front campaign. They mobilised resources for wholly unrealistic objectives, introduced poorly thought-out measures that would pollute waterways, degraded scarce agricultural land, and created a warped sense of the relationship between humans and nature.

The great efforts in the last decade have been to create a conceptual framework in which policy-makers, activists and citizens can somehow deal with the looming environmental catastrophe. The government has consulted endlessly, and the environmental agency has been upgraded to ministry level. But as Beijing’s severe pollution problems over January and early February this year showed, all of this is as nothing when compared to the fact that the Chinese growth model is still poisoning people just as much as it is producing spectacular growth.

For Shapiro, a constellation of five challenges can help us get to grips with how China has, and will, deal with the environment. The first centres on national identity, and how Chinese believe that they have a right to a better life free from interference by outsiders. This means that decisions about the environment are considered an important element in national autonomy. This clashes somewhat with the second issue, globalisation. China’s economy has fundamentally opened up to the rest of the world over the past three decades, and particularly since 2001, and its entry into the World Trade Organization has deepened its links with global capital, investment and trade flows. Increasingly, its environmental problems are also global, and cannot be solved with stand-alone policies. As Shapiro observes, environmental problems don’t carry a passport, and there is evidence that the particles from Chinese pollution have spread well beyond its borders as it has become the world’s major manufacturer.

The third issue is one of justice. Shifting polluting entities to the poorer, less politically noisy areas of China is a game for the short term. The consciousness that everyone is in this together, and that the impact of the solutions can’t be shifted from one group onto another, needs to strengthen. Which brings us to the fourth issue, civil society. If China is ever going to come to grips with climate change and environmental issues, then civil society groups will need to act in alliance with, and sometimes in antagonism to, government. The Chinese government remains ambivalent about civil society, and is as hung up on what might be called friendly criticism as it has been since the late Tang dynasty. But creating space for that kind of opposition, in this area, is important. Activists, after all, are agitating about the environment because they care about their country, not because they have a visceral hatred of the Communist Party (though, of course, some of them may well have that too).

And finally, at the head of all of this, is the issue of governance. One of the most trenchant criticisms of the Hu Jintao period, which is drawing to an end, was that it was dominated by bureaucrat-speak and grand slogans that seemed to have no relevance to the world as it existed. At a time when China’s society and economy, and its place in the world, has been changing almost by the day, and with the country filled with a palpable dynamism, the elite of the elites, the Standing Committee of the Politburo, seemed almost detached. One accusation in particular was that Hu promoted a wu wei – doing nothing – approach. And on the environment, as Shapiro’s case studies show, little will happen without firm implementation and a robust offensive against the various vested interests that stand in the way of whole-hearted environmental protection. The question that lingers over this book, therefore, is whether China can achieve this with a governance structure in which one party is the law-maker, the judge, and the holder of all power.

THE party itself is ostensibly the subject of Australian journalist and one-time Beijing resident Rowan Callick’s book Party Games. The party, which can seem a faceless, anonymous and somewhat sinister organisation, doesn’t help itself by being so opaque about its processes, and in particular its finances. Callick refers to the now-celebrated moment when an official was asked during a press conference about how precisely the voting within the Central Committee for the new leadership at the eighteenth party congress might be conducted. What were the rules? The official made some highly abstract comments to the effect that a process did exist, that it was a good one, and that it would come up with a good result – but its precise nature was an internal party issue and he was unable to say any more.

In fact, the means by which members of the congress were selected, manipulated and manoeuvred into coming up with the “right” result remains as much a mystery, several months after it happened, as it was at the time. It seems remarkable that the world’s second-biggest economy, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, should be deciding its key leaders in this way. The parallels between the Chinese Communist Party, with its central committee, and the Catholic Church, with its college of cardinals, perhaps do the most to help us understand. The two organisations have many similarities – their foundation by a charismatic but highly contentious figure, their narrative of their previous history full of sanctified figures, and their fundamental belief in the need for a tight, highly motivated elite to carry their message out into the world. These parallels are not explicitly mentioned by Callick, though they have not been lost on the party itself, which looks enviously at the Catholic Church’s many centuries of organisational cohesion and perhaps wonders whether it too could one day exercise a two-millennium imperium.

Callick’s descriptions of what day-to-day life is like for party members, why they join the party, and the different degrees of intensity of their belief are a useful reminder of two things: that, in the end, this mysterious entity is a collection of people, and that it works – as it began to soon after its foundation almost a century ago – as something akin to a state within a state. How it maintains discipline is a particularly thorny question. Xi Jinping, the new party head, with his grandee bloodline to former great founding leaders of the party, is as good a trustee as any of its mission and ideals, and has been stomping around China making savage-sounding threats about what will happen to those who violate the moral codes of the party. Even so, while China continues its phenomenal economic rise the temptation for officials to look after their families and their networks in this profoundly networked society is often too great. For them, charity also begins at home.

Callick’s book soon shifts away from a discussion of how the country is ruled to looking at the different voices and groups contending in this increasingly complex society. There are the military, the businesspeople and the officials who are undergoing training at the burgeoning network of Party Schools across the country, and then there are the dissidents, local government figures and disgruntled petitioners. And, as a journalist on the ground, Callick was able to get access to some interesting interviewees: he refers to meetings with premier Wen Jiabao and the Nobel Prize Laureate and prisoner Liu Xiaobo. He was also able to visit one of the outposts of the Central Discipline and Inspection Commission, which is meant to keep China’s party members and officials in line.

All of this creates a great sense of how dynamic and complex Chinese society is becoming, and Callick refers generously to the work of other scholars and analysts who have also tried to make sense of it all. But by the time he comes back to the party itself, and in particular the people who run it, we are no closer to understanding just how this remarkable but secretive organisation really runs itself. We have, for instance, as Callick acknowledges, absolutely no idea about how the party is funded and how it spends its money.

And the blackest of the black boxes is the leadership right at the centre – the guys (they are all men) who walked out on 15 November to face the world. How were they chosen? What do they really think of each other? What are their real ideological beliefs? What debts have they incurred on their journey to this place, and how many enemies have they made? What will they do if China hits an economic or health crisis? And what is their vision for this country they are now ostensibly in charge of? Lacking any kind of campaigning process, we have no real knowledge base to draw on in trying to address these questions.

Callick’s haunting description of the isolated, remote life that senior party leaders lead once they are elevated makes them sound more like prisoners. Touched by this amount of power, they are set apart from the world around them for the rest of their lives, largely unapproachable, living in the island of Zhongnanhai in Beijing and doing their leadership thing while China grows richer, more contentious, more powerful and more confusing.

ONE of the few things we can be sure about is that China’s future will be an urban one. In 2010, the national census put rural and urban inhabitants roughly on a par. For the first time in its history, China was now as much an urban as a rural country. But as Tom Miller’s neat, elegant book shows, the impact of this shift is going to take decades to work out. Migrant labourers, the real heroes of the last thirty years of economic reform, have sweated blood and tears for China’s growth. But all 230 million of them are disenfranchised, lacking in property and work rights, and subject to widespread discrimination. There is a real question about how much longer their sacrifices can continue to be so poorly rewarded.

This brings us back to the sustainability issues that Shapiro deals with. Miller’s focus is on Chongqing when the great Bo Xilai was still running the city. By night, Chongqing can look like Hong Kong, its skyscrapers lit up across the water as you arrive from the airport. By day, it is more complicated. The city can be horribly polluted, and despite the grand claims about its being the world’s most populous metropolis, visitors soon find that the government area covers an area the size of a province, large parts of which are impoverished, undeveloped rural areas. Bo undertook some improvements – more housing, more social welfare and attempts to deal with the city’s very serious environmental issues – and this accounts for his relative popularity there. But as Miller describes it, the city’s poor water and air quality are indicative of underlying social and governance problems. How can you build a sustainable city when you have so many new arrivals each week and no proper health or education infrastructure?

Reform has to be the answer. Miller refers to household registration and land reform, both of which have been extensively, almost exhaustively, discussed. It makes no sense to urbanise and yet deprive the participants in this process of the right to security over their property and the right to reside in the place where they choose to live, contribute and make a community and life. But despite discussions at the National People’s Congress over the last decade, progress on both these issues has been glacial. While China goes like the speed of lightning, its political leaders proceed at a snail’s pace.

Maybe their caution is right. When I hear non-Chinese berate the government in Beijing, I often think of the number of vast problems they have to address. As long as growth continues and society is relatively stable, why risk introducing bold reforms that might have highly unpredictable outcomes? In the final analysis, the evidence we have suggests that Chinese people, whatever their position in society, are largely optimistic about their country’s future. They do believe their lives are better than their parents’ were. They are largely aspirational, and when the government and the party speaks to this, it at least has some emotional traction.

Perhaps it is no bad thing that Chinese, like people across the world, have low expectations of their rulers. Mao, after all, was an idealist, but the costs of his dreams were counted in millions of lives lost. Having humdrum, boring leaders who just do what is expected and nothing more, at least for now, might not be a bad thing. Sometime in the future, however, the leaders will have to decide what to do about the vast issues facing their country as it grows richer and more powerful. And then, like it or not, the Chinese people, and we, will have to start taking their leaders seriously again. They do actually matter in all of this, however remote they might seem. •

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Working-class boy from Walworth: Sir Stamford Raffles FRS in 1817. Detail from a portrait by James Lonsdale

Working-class boy from Walworth: Sir Stamford Raffles FRS in 1817. Detail from a portrait by James Lonsdale