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Fall of the Dragon: The Challenge Facing China

Stephen is an online writer and former English teacher who is interested in sociology, economics, and literature.


Chunyun is like Thanksgiving on steroids. Chunyun is a specific term for the travel rush over the 40-day period around the Chinese New Year. Like Thanksgiving, it's traditional for families to gather together for the holiday. In China, the pressure on the transport system is immense. Over three billion trips are made as people use the annual holiday as an opportunity to see family back home.

China's astonishing economic growth has caused a tidal wave of migration from the countryside to often distant cities. Workers and students might be staying hundreds of miles from their roots. Of course, many in the West live away from home, but in China, the sheer scale of this annual movement is astonishing.

The Key to Victory

The Key to Victory

A Wrong Turn

In the late 18th century, Chinese officials believed that the key to victory in a border dispute with Russia lay in cutting off the export of rhubarb. Without a regular supply of rhubarb, the constipated Russians would be in no mood to press the issue and would be forced to accept Chinese demands.

This may seem ludicrous, and indeed it is. But it serves to illustrate how China was misreading the international situation. The Chinese were convinced that their Middle Kingdom embodied all that was valuable in civilization. What the barbarians to the west did was of little or no importance. China had everything it needed.

It largely ignored the advances made during the Industrial Revolution and the increasing expansion of the European powers into foreign lands. Wars in the 19th century saw China beaten, again and again, forcing her into a position of humiliating subservience to the western powers. When Emperor Zhou Yi abdicated in 1912, China was dominated by foreign powers—especially Japan.

Finally, in 1949, the Communists under Mao Zedong came to power and have remained there ever since. Mao understood perfectly well that his country needed to create a new space for itself in the world.

However, his attempts at internal reform—the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution—did more harm than good. The population was growing rapidly (it has nearly tripled to around 1.4 billion since 1950), and when Mao died in 1976, it was obvious to many that a different approach was needed.

The Hall of Supreme Harmony

The Hall of Supreme Harmony

1978: The Turn to the Future

In 1978, Deng Xiaoping took over the reins. He made important economic reforms that he thought were necessary to modernize China and draw in foreign capital. Under Mao, Chinese society was closely controlled, there was little room for individualism and no dissent from the Communist party line.

Naturally, this stifled personal initiative. Deng Xiaoping gave Chinese citizens more room for maneuver and the results were spectacular.

Since 1978, GDP growth has been spectacular. Chinese statistics might not be entirely trustworthy, but it looks as if GDP growth has hovered at around 10% year on year. In the United States, the average since 1948 has been 3.14%.

By some measures, China is now the largest economy in the world. Since 1978, an astonishing 800 million Chinese citizens have left poverty behind them and joined a growing middle class.

Every year, around 700,000 students leave China to study abroad. The population is well-educated and aspirational. This is where China's problem lies.

Taking to the streets

Taking to the streets

Too Late to Stop Now?

With more and more freedom, the Chinese showed an entrepreneurial spirit that created fabulous wealth for a few and relative comfort for many. Pragmatic reforms under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping (1978-1989) saw both the economy and the culture of China open up.

There was some opposition to the speed of change, but most of the influential members of the Communist Party were in broad agreement that change was necessary. No one wanted to see too much power vested in the hands of one person—as it had been under Mao—so it was agreed to limit a leader's term in office.

Deng Xiaoping's successors, Jiang Zemin (1989-2002) and Hu Jintao (2002-2012), broadly continued the new path. China's wealth grew and continued to do so under Xi Jinping (2012-present).

Xi Jinping in Power

Xi Jinping was born in 1953 in a position of privilege within the Communist Party ranks. His father, Xi Zhongxun, was a veteran member of the party who had played a key role in the revolution. But Mao targeted him during the Cultural Revolution and banished the Xi family to the countryside.

You might expect that Xi Jinping would resent the party. But he didn't turn his back on it. It took time for him to be accepted as a member, but once within the ranks, he worked tirelessly to improve his position.

For Xi Jinping, the party wasn't the problem; the problem was Mao's carelessness. The key to success, he believes, lies in stability. People must be loyal to the party and, in return, the party would ensure that wealth was more evenly redistributed, rents would become cheaper, and workers would gain more rights.


The Uncertain Future

Xi Jinping has more power and control than any other leader since Mao. He wants to command a disciplined and focused country in which everyone is working towards the same end. The challenge he faces is that he has to keep the momentum going.

China is an economic giant. It can't risk getting involved in global conflicts because wars damage trade. Can he maintain the heady rate of growth that has marked China over the last few years?

I don't believe that he can. The Chinese people expect further progress and these expectations will outstrip the ability of the Communist Party to provide the demanded benefits. Xi Jinping is demanding more discipline but the freedoms that have been given to citizens will be difficult to curb.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.