“When is an anticorruption campaign not just an anticorruption campaign? When it might be a harbinger of a regime’s approaching developmental crisis,” writes Foreign Affairs Editor Gideon Rose in an introduction to the magazine’s May/June issue. China has experienced an extraordinary rise from “totalitarian poverty” to “middle-income authoritarianism” at a scale and speed that ranks as “one of the great events in human history.” Considering this ascent, the magazine focuses on the here and now: the political, economic, and demographic conditions underpinning contemporary China, and the factors that will determine what comes next for this nation in flux.
The End of Reform in China
Using the pseudonym Youwei, a Chinese scholar shows that the Chinese Communist Party’s decades-long practice of “authoritarian adaptation”—effecting “policy reforms to substitute for fundamental institutional change”—has hit a wall. Small reforms have created new benefits, but larger, systemic issues—the state’s monopoly over land and the economy, and a far-from-independent judiciary—remain unaddressed. Although economic development has raised expectations among China’s growing middle class and the Internet has allowed for some dissent at the margins, the necessary political space for civil society to flourish “is almost nonexistent.” China’s leaders will try to maintain the status quo, but doing so runs the risk that the country will backslide into a more aggressive form of authoritarianism, or that the Communist Party’s grip on power will collapse altogether. Youwei maintains that “the best way for the West to help China’s eventual political evolution is to remain strong, liberal, democratic, and successful itself.”
Embracing China’s “New Normal”
Some experts might be “skeptical about [China’s] prospects,” writes Hu Angang, professor at Tsinghua University. But “such thinking is misguided. China is not nearing the edge of a cliff; it is entering a new stage of development”—what President Xi Jinping calls a “new normal”—“a crucial rebalancing…in which the country diversifies its economy, embraces a more sustainable level of growth, and distributes the benefits more evenly.” In an optimistic depiction of China’s economic progress, innovative prowess, and expanded social services, the author argues that to maintain its growing global influence and attract more foreign investment, Beijing must demonstrate an openness to further economic and political reforms.
China’s Dangerous Debt
China’s unprecedented recovery from the 2008 financial crisis—the result of its highly centralized government, state-owned land and assets, and booming real-estate market—does not mean its economy is resilient: By 2014, China’s debt reached 282 percent of its gross domestic product. “If China doesn’t get on top of its debt problem,” warns Zhiwu Chen of Yale University, “the road ahead will be far bumpier than it was in 2008 and could even lead to a prolonged and painful crash.” Chen advises China’s local governments, “to cut spending and sell off wasteful assets,” lest “a crippling crisis” become “unavoidable.”
China Will Get Rich Before It Gets Old
Many fear that China will be unable to accommodate its aging population, and warn that “the country’s economic productivity will plummet” and “China will find itself without the money and resources to provide for its elderly, who will become a financial burden.” Baozhen Luo of Western Washington University acknowledges these risks but minimizes their gravity, emphasizing that “if China prepares itself, it may be able to grow rich before it goes gray.” Thanks to continuing economic growth and major recent reforms of China’s pension and health-care systems, “China will not be caught off-guard,” she asserts.
What It Means to Be Chinese
As he investigates the foundations of Chinese identity, Perry Link of the University of California, Riverside, contends that “the popular Western view of China as a self-confidently rising power is dangerously superficial.” Link explores whether the “moral model” of “Chineseness”—rooted in “premodern times”—is “still relevant in the modern political context” defined by “new grounds for conceiving of national identity, based on something other than identification with the [Chinese Communist] party.” President Xi’s “Chinese dream” pays lip service to democracy, human rights, and modernization, but at its core is a nationalist, party-centric vision. The party’s attempt to “engineer its retrograde political vision at home and export authoritarianism abroad” will hurt both China and the world, and leave the country “waiting for a vision of Chinese identity more suitable for the present age.”
Xi’s Corruption Crackdown
“Xi has no interest in creating a Western-style democratic system, but he does think that China could produce a cleaner and more effective form of authoritarianism.” So writes James Leung—the pseudonym used by the author, an economist with extensive experience in China, Europe, and the United States—as he assesses President Xi’s anticorruption campaign that has given the leader a “populist edge.” But some consider the initiative to be “little more than a politically motivated purge designed to help Xi solidify his own grip on power”; critics describe a “tightly controlled process” in which “Xi’s inner circle has remained immune” and “investigations are far from transparent.” The long-term fate of Xi’s campaign, the author concludes, “will depend on how well [he] manages to integrate it into a broader economic, legal, and political reform program” that “involves maintaining a powerful investigative force that is loyal to an honest, centralized leadership.”
China’s Race Problem
Despite China’s rising global prominence, its treatment of ethnic minorities remains dismal. Some might attribute ethnic discrimination to “the central government’s authoritarian response to dissent,” but Columbia University’s Gray Tuttle argues that it also stems from “deep-seated ethnic prejudices and racism at the core of contemporary Chinese society.” Accordingly, he considers China’s racist policies “symptoms of a deeper disease, a social pathology” too often papered over by Chinese observers and missed altogether by analysts in the West. “As China grows more prosperous and powerful,” Tuttle warns, “the enforced exclusion of the country’s ethnic minorities will undermine Beijing’s efforts to foster a ‘harmonious society’ and present China as a model to the rest of the world.”
The May/June issue also features essays on subjects shaping international debate, from the fate of the “European way” and U.S. banking culture to political Islam and the future of drones.
Europe’s Shattered Dream of Order
The end of the Cold War stoked optimism that a “distinctly European model of international conduct”—a Europe that had “washed its hands of old notions of sovereignty”—would flourish. But “Russia shattered that assumption last year when it invaded Crimea,” write Mark Leonard of the European Council on Foreign Relations and Ivan Krastev of the Centre for Liberal Strategies and the Institute for Human Sciences. The “European way” is not dead, but the authors “acknowledg[e] that the European order has limits,” and criticize Western countries for “misjudg[ing] their ability to coerce Putin through sanctions and diplomatic isolation.” In fact, sanctions have “served Putin’s effort to limit Russia’s exposure to the West” and facilitated his domestic crackdown on civil liberties. “The West,” they conclude, “needs a long-term Russia strategy that allows for cooperation but does not shy away from confrontation.”
Protecting America’s Competitive Advantage
The U.S. Export-Import bank, reauthorized with bipartisan majorities sixteen times, has supported more than 1.3 million American jobs and generated more than $2 billion in deficit-reducing profits in the last six years—and is now on the verge of being shuttered. Fred P. Hochberg, chair of the bank, denounces the minority of conservative Republicans who have imperiled the bank’s survival and made the United States “the only country in which there is a raging political debate being waged by a small but potent minority over whether to actually weaken its bank’s financing capacity.” The stakes of this debate are high: U.S. exports now trail China’s, and ongoing political rancor over trade is distracting from a looming “export race of unprecedented scope, one that holds the potential to touch more lives than any invention, conflict, or initiative in recent history.”
In Defense of Financial Innovation
“Bankers were lionized” in the decade leading up to the 2008 financial crisis, recalls the Economist’s Andrew Palmer. But the crisis’ aftermath prompted a “profound shift in public attitudes,” in which bankers were “portrayed as villains whose irresponsible practices and shady techniques unleashed disaster.” Although “such anger is well founded,” he admits, “demonizing finance is also a mistake, and restricting the sector to its most familiar elements would do nothing to mend its flaws.” Taking note of everything from bonds that fund social programs to groups that offer lottery prizes to encourage saving, Palmer highlights the financial industry’s “visionary innovators that are rethinking the ways in which money, livelihoods, and technology relate to one another.” Still, he emphasizes the “destructive logic to the way that the seething brains of finance innovate, experiment, and standardize.” Palmer implores regulators and financiers to “strike a careful balance between watchfulness for the risks that can cause economic damage and tolerance for creativity that can yield real benefits.”
From Calvin to the Caliphate
The conflicts and chaos that plague the contemporary Middle East are hardly unprecedented in political history. “Parts of the Muslim world today, in fact, bear an uncanny resemblance to northwestern Europe 450 years ago, during the so-called Wars of Religion”—the period of civil infighting between French Catholics and Protestants that reigned from 1562 to 1598, observes the University of Virginia’s John M. Owen IV. That period offers “crucial lessons for the present.” The West must not “underestimate” the destabilizing ideological rift between Islamism and secularism. But, the author notes, “competing ideologies could begin to converge, adopting some of one another’s institutions and practices”; political Islam and democracy might not prove mutually exclusive. Owen urges the United States to nurture moderate forces, but stresses that “only Muslims themselves can settle their ideological war.”
Drones are no longer “exclusively the province of militaries” and are “poised for greatness,” asserts Gretchen West, a former lobbyist for the commercial drone industry who now works at the drone-software startup DroneDeploy. Drones have “spilled over” across the public sector and attracted the interest of private companies, which recognize their “nearly limitless” commercial potential in everything from real estate photography to industrial inspection. But the Federal Aviation Administration has impeded the industry’s development with “business-unfriendly” restrictions that have already driven many U.S. firms to move their drone operations overseas. “The result: the United States could well miss out on an economic windfall.”
The Precision Agriculture Revolution
Information technology is revolutionizing farming; “precision agriculture” enables farmers to “collect precise data about their fields and use that knowledge to customize how they cultivate each square foot.” Purdue University’s Jess Lowenberg-Deboer details the potential of this burgeoning approach, which could one day see the introduction of robot farm workers, “thus eliminating the drudgery that has characterized agriculture since its invention.” But farmers must collaborate in order to reap the benefits, and tools must be “sold in easy-to-use forms.” If successful, “precision agriculture could take humans out of the loop entirely,” not only drastically increasing productivity but heralding “a fundamental shift in the history of agriculture: farming without farmers.”
The issue closes with reviews of books on secrecy in Washington, the “botched” Senate report on CIA torture, Putin’s hard turn, and the potential dissolution of the Western model, as well as responses to Foreign Affairs articles on U.S. challenges in the Asia-Pacific region, the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya (in which former Obama administration officials defend the mission), and theories on state stability.
As a member of the media, you receive free access to select text of this issue on ForeignAffairs.com. Links to bypass the registration wall accompany each article title. These links will give you free access to each article for four weeks.
Andrew Palladino, Media Relations, Foreign Affairs
For information about syndicating articles and op-eds from Foreign Affairs, please contact Tribune Media Services.
# # # #
Foreign Affairs, published by the Council on Foreign Relations since 1922, is an independent magazine of analysis and commentary on foreign policy and international affairs. In recent biannual surveys, Foreign Affairs has been ranked among the top ten most influential media outlets by the independent research firm Erdos & Morgan.