Not quite a revolution for China



Currently, in China, many people feel glum and lack bright prospects to aspire to. But is it really a political problem? What can people do? [1]

A few scattered protests erupting in small cities will go unnoticed and disregarded. Such incidents have been occurring on a small or large scale for years without much attention. Unless there is a significant wave of demonstrations in multiple cities or major protests in Beijing or Shanghai, or even a violent uprising taking control of a city, the unrest can be easily brought under control.

However, an organization is required to have a wave of demonstrations or major protests in large cities, either through an extensive underground structure or with splits in the top leadership. At the moment, neither is apparent.

In December 2022, President Xi Jinping made a U-turn on Covid measures without thorough consultations. Last year, Xi replaced the foreign and defense ministers and purged the PLA’s top ranks without a party plenum or any opposition. These actions indicate that he has full control and there is no obstruction within the party or the state.

If Xi can maintain control, he may weather China’s severe and potentially long-lasting economic downturn. People will have to slowly adapt to worsening conditions and lower their expectations for the future. When faced with a first sudden hurdle, there may be initial resistance. Still, with Xi, this occurred in 2020 with the anti-Covid measures, which were widely accepted without struggle as people accepted the national effort against the disease.

People accepted the dramatic changes then, and after Covid, it became easier to implement various restrictions, with anti-epidemic measures easing up at the end of 2022.

The middle class appears to be a problem, but is it really? The value of their houses may be depreciating, but they still hold value; they may be unhappy about their losses but fear losing even more or everything. Once the process of gradual economic slowdown has started, as it has now, without significant upheavals, it could continue for years. The beginning is challenging, but people tend to go with the flow.

Some believe the middle class nurtures a possible revolution in China. It might be false. The middle class is actually an anchor of stability. They may complain, but they often refrain from taking any action out of fear of losing what they have.

It is the opposite for poor people; they may be content and not complain, but as they have little or nothing to lose, any opportunity can trigger social advancement. Hence, they can join in an explosion overnight, as was witnessed in 1989 with the Tiananmen protests or in 1999 with the demonstrations against the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade.

These considerations should lead to the understanding that a degree of social complaint is conducive to social and political stability, whereas no complaints can be more deceptive.

What will happen if the real estate market does not recover and foreign trade gradually shrinks, the two main growth drivers? The domestic market is already prepared, and the government will try to navigate through, gaining some space and growth on both fronts, although a breakthrough may not be unlikely.

This situation could continue for years unless a significant internal or external event alters the political dynamics. The ongoing wars present both an opportunity and a risk. They offer an opportunity to divert international attention from China, allowing Beijing to gain more room for maneuver. Still, they also pose a risk, as many things can go wrong in times of war and suddenly turn against Beijing.

Nevertheless, even if everything appears to be under control on paper, we are in uncharted waters when things are generally bad. If an economic downturn occurs, unexpected circumstances could arise. There is a 200-year cycle; the Ming and Qing dynasties collapsed because they could not manage their globalization crisis[2]. Now, China may face a similar challenge.

On the other hand, things may take a different turn if America, China’s main adversary, loses its nerve, becomes engulfed in internal conflicts, and gets entangled in various small and large fights. From Beijing’s perspective, it seems to be happening with Donald Trump’s controversial electoral campaign, wars in Ukraine and Gaza, and growing friction in Yemen. Then, chaos in America and the world would save China’s domestic troubles.

These factors present reasons for Beijing to remain cautious, observe the evolution of events, and prepare for possible outcomes.

[1] The article comes from a conversation with Anne Stevenson Yang, whom I thank here.

[2] See and Jin Xu Empire of Silver 2022.

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2 Commenti

  1. Marcello Neri 4 febbraio 2024
  2. Marcello Neri 4 febbraio 2024

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