United States worries about China’s rise, but Washington rarely considers how the world looks through Beijing’s eyes. Even when U.S. officials speak sweetly and softly, their Chinese counterparts hear sugarcoated threats and focus on the big stick in the background. America should not shrink from setting out its expectations of Asia’s rising superpower -- but it should do so calmly, coolly, and professionally.
Managing Editor Jonathan Tepperman interviews Eurasia Group analyst Damien Ma on China's political transition, economic slowdown, and social inequality.
A semi-finished portrait of incoming Chinese leader Xi Jinping. (Siu Chiu / Courtesy Reuters)
For the first time since 1992, the United States’ and China’s political calendars are syncing up, with presidential elections in the former and a leadership transition in the latter. But unlike in the United States, where Mitt Romney would have had to defeat President Barack Obama in a national election to win the White House, Xi Jinping, who is expected to take office as China’s next president this month, will not face an open contest against the incumbent, Hu Jintao. If the Chinese people were allowed such a choice, however, they would likely ask the perennial question of U.S. presidential elections since the time of Ronald Reagan, albeit in a slightly modified form: Are you better off now than you were ten years ago?
Despite all that is made of China’s spectacular rise, the numbers show that many people in China would likely answer no. As Hu prepares to leave office, China is prosperous but staggeringly unequal, and strong but profoundly insecure. Indeed, in recent years, China has experienced intensifying clashes between bottom-up demands for social equality, individual freedoms, and environmental stewardship and the Chinese Communist Party’s aggressive defense of the status quo. On the whole, Hu and his premier, Wen Jiabao, are handing the new Xi administration an economic legacy that is far from stellar and a society that is shakier than the one they inherited. More important, they are leaving behind a political environment that is likely more corrupt and stifling than the relatively entrepreneurial and liberal era of the 1990s. This is in part because the government’s role in the economy grew, which meant that those who possessed political power could translate it into financial gain. Meanwhile, those lacking political connections -- the vast majority of Chinese -- saw their economic opportunities shrink as money flowed toward the political classes.
IT’S NOT CHINESE CALCULUS