Reconstruction: Assessing ‘Demolition Man’ two decades after Deng Xiaoping’s death

In early 1997, Deng Xiaoping, the greatest of New China’s leaders, died. As Robert MacFarquhar wrote a month later in his definitive obituary of the diminutive man, while Deng’s colleagues would “eulogize him as the ‘chief architect’ of China’s reform program and it’s opening to the outside world,” the reality of Deng’s leadership was quite different. He was, MacFarquhar wrote, a “demolition man,” one who “deconstructed the China he took over: not the traditional China of Confucian values and Taoist cults”—for, indeed, he’d already helped Mao Zedong destroy that one—“but the China of Communist principles and practices.”[1] When Deng died, however, that demolition was incomplete; the remnant structures of Communist China that loomed over the Middle Kingdom still half intact seemed to MacFarquhar twisted, dangerous, and deep-rooted domestically as China entered a new age at the dawn of the 21st century. Now, more than 20 years after the death of MacFarquhar’s demolition man, it is worth revisiting the “myriad domestic problems” faced by the China Deng had left behind, problems MacFarquhar hinted might bring down the People’s Republic “dinosaur” as the country lurched toward “the end of history.”

1) Decentralization

MacFarquhar wrote that, if the central leadership was unable to maintain unity and authority, unrest in the periphery among minority groups might erupt. Erupt the peripheries have. Ethnic tensions have remained roiling in Xinjiang Province since the 1997 article, boiling over on occasion in the form of riots in the provincial capital Urumqi in 2009 and numerous terrorist attacks both inside and outside the province. The most infamous, a mass stabbing in Kunming Railway Station blamed on ethnic Ugyhur persons, left 35 dead and 143 wounded.[2] Decentralization, for the moment at least, is a word of the past, however, as the Chinese Communist Party’s response has shown. As of early 2020, some hundreds of thousands, if not more, ethnic Ughyurs have been detained in mass re-education prison camps throughout the region, draconian measures that seem to have their roots in the de-centralized experimentalist repression of Tibetans on the plateau.[3] Books that MacFarquhar said “celebrate localism or provincial chauvinism” have been replaced with Chairman Xi Jinping’s The Governance of China on the shelves of Beijing bookstores.[4]  The central authorities seem to have brought the restive provinces to heel, at least when it comes to national security, and the specter of decentralization has been banished, for now.

2) Cultural Anarchy

“China’s writers, artists, pop singers and film-makers are difficult to rein in,” MacFarquhar wrote. Alas, they have proven less resilient. The increasing sophistication and authoritarianism of China’s police state under Chairman Xi has seen the virtual—and sometimes literal—disappearance of cultural dissent, its tendrils reaching even so far these days as Hong Kong, where dissident booksellers were kidnapped by regime thugs in 2015.[5] Artists, filmmakers, and journalists face even more intense censorship and repression in the PRC proper. Christianity and religious cults, MacFarquhar’s other agents of cultural anarchy, have been met with a similar welcome in recent years.[6] While some still fret about the Party’s spiritual vacuum, Party leaders are attempting to fill it with a mix of neo-Confucianism, Xi Jinping’s “China Dream,” and a healthy dose of nationalism backed by authoritarianism.[7] Order has been imposed on anarchy.

3) Crime and migrant labor

MacFarquhar’s section on crime and migrant labor could very well be written today. And now, as in then, he would be overestimating their effects. China’s crime rate is notoriously difficult to gauge, untrustworthy are its official crime statistics.[8] Officially, the PRC’s murder rate, for example, is among the lowest in the world, less than 1 per 100,000 people.[9] Even if that rate were double, it would still rate lower than France; triple, about the same as Canada. Crime may be at levels that MacFarquar writes “earlier Communist governments would have considered unacceptable”—a strange metric by which to judge post-Deng China, anyway—but even if the actual crime rate is much, much higher than officially reported, most Chinese citizens have little to worry about, in reality. That crimes are blamed on migrant laborers—and that transient young men are responsible for some significant measure of crime in China—does however points to underlying fissures in Chinese society.[10]

In 1997, MacFarquhar noted that as much as 10 percent of China’s population worked as itinerant laborers in China’s massive cities; today that number is likely closer to 30 percent of the entire working population.[11] The increase in migrant labor is indicative of the uneven development that has occurred as China’s costal commercial cities have grown—and grown rich—while the much poorer interior and hinterlands languish and shrink. China has become a country of a few very rich and many still very poor.[12] That inequality may itself congeal into its own locus for discontent. But for now, the existence of migrant labor points instead to growing prosperity. Migrants are migrating for the economic opportunities that continue to develop in and around China’s eastern cities. The growth of illegal migrant communities is a challenge for municipal governance, and the occasional clearing efforts that take place on the margins of China’s biggest cities continue more than 20 years after MacFarquhar noted them. Migrant communities also create opportunities for civil unrest among a maligned, maltreated, and malcontented population being left behind by urban development. But the existence of migrant laborers in 2020 is more mere management challenge than a dire threat to the CCP.

4) Unemployment and unrest

If migrant workers are not a major problem, MacFarquar is right to argue that migrant non-workers very well could be. China’s economy continued to enjoy astounding growth in the decades following MacFarquhar’s article, but that growth is slowing. Due to the coronavirus outbreak this year, for first time in half a century China’s economy shrank in the first quarter.[13] While the pandemic is an anomaly, the slowing economy is not, and there could be difficulties ahead for the CCP if China’s economy stalls.

Although official numbers out of Beijing have put unemployment between 4 and 5 percent over the last few decades, just as in1997, those numbers are likely at least double according to many estimates.[14] Labor protests have also been on the rise as workers feel Xi’s “China Dream” slipping out of their grasps.[15] China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based labor advocacy group, recorded nearly 1,400 labor disputes in 2019, less than the at least 1,700 of 2018, but the numbers have persistently remained above 1,300 per year since they spiked in 2015.[16] The titanic efforts of the Chinese government to keep workers employed during the coronavirus shutdown, meanwhile, should be an indication of just how seriously party leadership takes the threat of unemployment.[17] Widespread unemployment would likely shake the foundations of China’s party-state, which has implicitly promised economic growth and stability in return for power. Although China has made some progress reforming its hulking State-Owned Enterprises,[18] unless China can find other ways to re-rev its economic engine, the potentially existential challenges of unemployment and unrest will only grow in scale. MacFarquhar’s forecast was postponed in 1997 by economic growth, but instability caused by unemployment and economic inefficiency may return with a vengeance.

5) Corruption

When Xi took leadership of China in 2012, he would have agreed with MacFarquhar’s diagnosis that in China “corruption is now prevalent at all levels, and to an extraordinary degree.” Eight years later, that may no longer be so true; millions of “tigers and flies” have been snapped up by Xi’s anti-corruption campaign. Although it remains difficult to untangle the targeting of political rivals from real anti-corruption efforts, more than 1.5 million party officials have been disciplined by Wang Qishan and the CCP’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection.[19] The result has been wide public praise, a less corrupt party-bureaucracy-business apparatus, and consolidated central control for Xi. While the longer-term effects of the anti-corruption drive remain to be seen (they have not, after all, much targeted Xi’s friends and allies), prosecutions of top officials and oligarchs continue. It seems likely that the party has cleaned out a least some of the rot that settled into the party infrastructure as China grew richer.

6) The military

The entrenched People’s Liberation Army has not escaped the anti-corrupt drive unscathed. Dozens of top generals and even some as high as Fang Fenghui, former military chief of staff, are now behind bars—something that seemed unthinkable in past administrations.[20] Corruption investigations have only been one piece of a sustained effort by Xi to reorganize the PLA and consolidate his control over it. Parallel to the anti-corruption drive, Xi also set out to reshuffle the PLA’s structure, to make it leaner, more responsive, and perhaps most importantly, more his own.[21] MacFarquhar noted that in any power struggle, the PLA chiefs would be decisive. Those chiefs now belong to Xi.

7) The secession

Secession issues never publicly materialized as Deng handed the party over to Jiang Zemin. Nor did they as Jiang handed it to Hu Jintao or Hu to Xi. For two decades after Deng, China was ruled by committee and consensus. That is no longer the case. The CCP abolished term limits in 2018, clearing the way for Xi Jinping to remain in power for life.[22] Whether that will happen—and what will come after— remain to be seen. Succession was not a problem in 1997, but it may be in 2022 or beyond.[23]

Conclusion:

“Is the People’s Republic a dinosaur—large, powerful, but destined for extinction in some enormous catastrophe? Or can its leaders surf the democratic ‘third wave,’ bypass ‘the end of history,’ and avert the ‘grand failure.’ Is there something invincible about a twenty-century-old “oriental despotism,” which transformed itself into arguably the most thoroughly totalitarian system of the twentieth century, the nation of so-called ‘blue ants?’ Or was the Tiananmen massacre only a Pyrrhic victory as China’s convulsive process of modernization lurches toward the democratic denouement sought by Sun Yat-sen?” MacFaquhar asks these questions to close his essay. Given the challenges he poses at the end of “Demolition Man,” in the heady days of the end of history, it seems MacFaquhar thought he could guess the answer.

As it turns out, there may indeed be something invincible—at least in the near term—about the nation that has now certainly transformed itself into the most thoroughly totalitarian system of the 21st century. Worries of instability seem destined to plague the CCP, but it has, by any measure, taken firm hold of the domestic challenges MacFarquar thought might bring it down. In many ways, China seems to have learned lessons from the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, and not the ones MacFarquar thought it would. Xi Jinping’s China now rules the hinterlands, the artistic commons, the party infrastructure, and the military. Its economy is slowing, to be sure, but if there is anything that has been true about Deng’s China and the China that came after, it has been China’s ability to defy predictions.

History has returned, and the People’s Republic of China has not yet gone the way of the dinosaurs.


[1] Roderick MacFarquhar, “Demolition Man,” The New York Review of Books (Vol. 44, No. 5, March 27, 1997).
[2] Reuters, “China launches campaign to promote ethnic unity in violence-torn Xinjiang region,” (March 31, 2016).
[3] The Economist, “China’s successful repression in Tibet provides a model for Xinjiang,” (December 10, 2019).
[4] The Economist, “Xi Jinping’s new blockbuster is getting a hard sell,” (April 26, 2018).
[5] Alex Palmer, “The Case of Hong Kong’s Missing Booksellers: As Xi Jinping consolidates power, owners of Hong Kong bookstores trafficking in banned books find themselves playing a very dangerous game,” The New York Times (April 3, 2018).
[6] Nectar Gan, “Beijing plans to continue tightening grip on Christianity and Islam as China pushes ahead with the ‘Sinicisation of religion,’” The South China Morning Post (March 6, 2019).
[7] Amy Qin and Javier C. Hernandez, “How China’s Rulers Control Society: Opportunity, Nationalism, Fear,” The New York Times (November 25, 2018).
[8] Christopher Giles, “Reality Check: How safe is it to live in China,” BBC (January 13, 2019).
[9] The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “Global Study on Homicide” (2013).
[10] Wang Huazhong, “Young migrants cause crime wave,” China Daily (Feb. 25, 2011).
[11] China Labour Bulletin “Migrant workers and their children,” (May 2019).
[12] Thomas Piketty, Li Yang, and Gabriel Zucman, “Income inequality is growing fast in China and making it look more like the US,” LSE Business Review (April 1, 2019).
[13] BBC, “China’s virus-hit economy shrinks for first time in decades,” (April 17, 2020).
[14] Christopher Balding, “Bad Jobs Data Could Bite China,” Bloomberg Opinion (Feb. 19, 2019).
[15] Javier C. Hernandez, “Workers’ Activism Rising as Economy Slows. Xi Aims to Rein them In,” The New York Times (Feb. 6, 2019)
[16] China Labour Bulletin, Strike Map (https://maps.clb.org.hk/?i18n_language=en_US&map=1&startDate=2012-01&endDate=2012-12&eventId=).
[17] Laura He “China is really worried about unemployment. Here’s what it’s doing to avoid mass layoffs,” CNN Business (Jan. 13, 2020).
[18] Xi li and Kjeld Erik BrØdsgaard, “SOE Reform in China: Past, Present, and Future”, The Copenhagen Journal of East Asian Studies (Vol. 31, No. 2, May 2014).
[19] Andrew Gilholm, “Xi Jinping’s New Watchdog: An Ever More Powerful Anti-Corruption Tool,” Foreign Affairs (March 6, 2018).
[20] Chris Buckley and Steven Lee Myers, “Xi Jinping Presses Military Overhaul and Two Generals Disappear,” The New York Times (Oct. 11, 2017).
[21] Kenneth W. Allen, Dennis J. Blasko, John F. Corbett, Jr., “The PLA’s New Organizational Structure: What is known, unknown and speculation,” China Brief (Vol. 16, Issue 3, Feb. 2016).
[22] James Doubek, “China Removes Presidential Term Limits, Enabling Xi to Rule Indefinitely,” National Public Radio (March 11, 2018).
[23] Johnathon Brookfield, “China has New Leaders: What now?” The Diplomat (Oct. 31, 2017).

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