More Shambaugh and American democracy through the lens of environmental crisis

Foreign Policy has an excellent reader discussing that Shambaugh piece about China’s future.

From Ho-fung Hung at Johns Hopkins, this is a key point:

Finally, there is no evidence that the biggest and most important political constituency in China — the rising urban bourgeoisie — has much interest in changing the system. In my conversations with members of this class, I hear many complaints, but more generally a satisfaction with the material progress China has made in the last two decades. Except for a tiny group of brave dissidents, this group in general displays little interest in political reform and none in democracy. One reason may be that they find uninspiring the record of democratic governance in other big Asian countries, such as India. More important is probably the fear that in a representative system, the interests of the urban bourgeoisie (at most 25 percent of the population) would lose out to those of the rural masses.

The party may well be somewhat insecure, but the only force that might plausibly unseat it is more insecure still.

It’s also interesting to consider what kind of model American-style democracy provides. Undoubtedly, China faces some enormous challenges, most worryingly the environmental catastrophe in which we live but also a bevy of others, economic and social. To tackle these problems, the government is going to have summon massive willpower, spend substantial political capital, and force reforms through the often-sclerotic systems. It won’t be easy and it will make a lot of people unhappy.

When faced with, for example, the air, water, and soil pollution that threaten to make parts of China nigh unlivable unless something colossal and immediate is done to stop it, if you’re the Chinese leadership which model looks best to you? A system like America’s that seems to spend most of its willpower and political capital squabbling about the president’s religion? A system that is so deeply ideologically divided that it cannot pass even the simplest of legislation? A system that makes international news when its legislators usurp the president’s authority to send pedantic and poorly written letters to the leaders of other countries? A system the primary purpose of which might seem to be election campaigning rather than governing? A system that even at its best is a messy and slow and given to factionalism?

Or, if you’re the Chinese leadership, does embracing such a system seem like lunacy, especially given the scale of your country’s challenges?

I also think that Shambaugh is wrong — or at least not emphatic enough — about the primary cause of the flight of money, people, and brains out of China.

My students never stop talking about the pollution. In fact, it’s often difficult to get them to say anything positive about Beijing, so much does the pollution cloud their feelings about life here. Nearly without exception, they want to leave China someday soon, and nearly without exception, the biggest reason is not economic or educational but environmental. If that’s what’s on their minds, it’s on their parents’ minds, too. It’s heavy on the mind of the urban bourgeoisie.

Unless the government can find a way to make China livable again, those cracks that Shambaugh points to will continue to widen. The Chinese leadership knows that, and it simply doesn’t see political liberalization as a good way to seal them back up. It may be right.


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