A funny thing happened recently on the road to China’s supposedly inexorable rise to global power. Actually, a couple of funny things.
First and most prominent has been the scandal swirling around Bo Xilai, onetime Politburo member and party boss in Chonqqing, who has now been removed from power–and from sight–because of a variety of corruption and abuse-of-power allegations. The latest twist is the news that his wife, Gu Kailai, is a suspect in the murder of the mysterious upper-class British expatriate and fixer Neil Heywood, a character who seems to have wandered straight out of a Graham Greene novel. The whole affair is causing major embarrassment to the ruling class in China for the way it brings into the open the shady machinations and rich deals that are a regular part of life for Communist mandarins. While Bo Xilai’s fall is being used to spread the message that no one is above the law, in fact no one knows exactly what led to his downfall; there is widespread suspicion it was not the result of his crimes per se, whatever they may have been, but rather of a murky behind-the-scenes power struggle whose features can be glimpsed only dimly by outsiders.
The second news item of note is this standoff in disputed waters of the South China Sea between a Philippine Navy gunboat and two Chinese “surveillance” ships. It seems that the Philippine warship had arrived to discover Chinese fishing vessels operating in waters claimed by Manila. Filipino sailors found plenty of illegally harvested clams, corals and other sea treasures aboard the ships before being blocked from further access by the arrival of two Chinese “surveillance” ships–presumably unmarked vessels belonging to the People’s Liberation Army Navy.
Why are these two news items so important? Because both cast doubts about whether China’s rise is as inevitable as the pundits have it.
The Bo Xilai affair exposes the fragility of a regime that does not rest on the consent of the governed. The exposure of corrupt politicians is always traumatic even in a democratic system such as ours; they are far more serious in a one-party dictatorship such as China where civil unrest is never too far beneath the surface. The Communist Party justifies its monopoly on power by claiming that democracy is far too messy for a giant developing country like China and that wise, if unelected, mandarins can deliver economic growth and good government better than politicians beholden to grubby political parties. But scandals like the one swirling around Bo Xilai cast serious doubt on that propaganda line and in fact undermine the very legitimacy of the entire government–something that could not be said of even the most serious scandals (e.g., Watergate) in the United States.
Meanwhile, the South China Sea standoff is yet another indication of how China’s increasing assertiveness is alarming its neighbors and drawing them closer into an alliance with the United States. U.S.-Filipino relations are closer than they have been since the closing of the U.S. military bases in that country in the early 1990s–and we have China to thank for that. The same is true of U.S. relations with Singapore, Australia, India, and other neighbors of China–including even Vietnam and Burma. Thus China, like other dictatorial powers that aspired to great power (e.g., Wilhelmine Germany or Imperial Japan), seems to be creating with its own actions a coalition to keep it in check–even as its ruling infrastructure is showing fresh signs of fragility.
Does this really look like a country that is about to overtake the U.S. for global dominance? If it does,we will have only ourselves to blame, because, given China’s inherent weaknesses, our fall can only be the result of our own errors, such as failing to gain control of runaway entitlement spending or letting our best-in-the-world military atrophy due to excessive budget cuts.