Even before the death of North Korea’s Kim Jong-Il, the Year of The Dragon was to be one of potentially massive change, with the US, China, Russia, and South Korea all selecting new leaders.
With tensions rising between the U.S. and China and the world economy sputtering, UBC Institute of Asian Research experts Paul Evans and Timothy Cheek outline major issues and potential conflicts in 2012, with a focus on China.
China’s ‘princelings’ grab the brass ring
If all goes according to script this October, Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang will become China’s new general secretary and prime minister, respectively. This will likely be the fourth peaceful succession since Mao’s death, which is remarkable in a communist system.
Chinese power rotates between three groups and their relative tendencies are instructive. The outgoing leaders, from the party’s more ideological “youth league,” took a characteristic hard line on dissent. Before them, the “Shanghai group,” characteristically focused on the economy. It is now a third group’s turn, the “princelings,” from which Xi and Li emerged.
The “princelings,” comprised of elites and former leaders’ families, have an interest in preserving class privileges. Xi and Li will understand intuitively that confrontation with the U.S., social unrest and disparity are not in their class interests. Both are smart, proven administrators who have worked closely and effectively with the party’s Shanghai and youth league factions.
Disparity grows as China’s economy slows down
China’s economic growth has been extraordinary for 30 years. The number of people that have been pulled out of poverty is astonishing. But it’s very apparent that huge inequalities have emerged. Even China’s current premier has stated the country’s economic model is unsustainable and unfair.
The new leadership faces difficult choices in rebalancing China’s role in the global economy in a period that its growth rate is declining and social disaffection is growing. The leadership is exploring social safety nets, health and welfare systems which have almost completely collapsed in the era of reform and openness. The question is: how do you preserve growth, while distributing its benefits more equally? The challenge is not unique to China, but nowhere is the disparity or risk of unrest greater. Paul Evans
Rising unrest as citizens find their voice
By the government’s own count, there were more than 180,000 “social incidents” in China in 2010, a staggering figure. These are public demonstrations, sometimes riots, against corruption, working conditions, pollution and land expropriation. They are usually led by poor farmers or workers, but China’s middle class is now starting to protest infringements on their lives.
China’s government realizes this unrest is inherently tied to their model of development. Lack of democracy, regulations, protections and standards is precisely why China outperforms the West. The people, unable to vote, must express dissatisfaction in other ways. A burgeoning “rights movement”
is gathering steam, fuelled by social media.
China’s challenge is to find a mechanism to absorb feedback, address citizen’s issues and clean its bureaucracy of corruption. If they fail – and they mostly likely will, because the new leaders resemble the current ones – the unrest will worsen. Tim Cheek
Social media + unrest = Chinese Spring?
Blogs, SMS texts, and QQ, a Chinese Twitter, are helping to fuel the unrest in China, but the government is too competent and way too tough for a “Chinese Spring” to occur. While many Chinese hate their local officials—who they view as corrupt and incompetent—they still hold China’s central government in extremely high regard, and don’t see a viable alternative. They are nowhere near the levels of alienation we saw in North Africa. Tim Cheek
Potential flashpoints: South China Sea and cyberspace
China began asserting its claims on the South China Sea more assertively in 2010. This rang alarm bells in Southeast Asia and opened a door for the United States to play a more active role on the issue. In December, Obama committed 2,500 marines to nearby Australia and stated that democracy is the only legitimate form of government. While the US-China relationship is complex and mutually important, Obama was signaling a policy shift in the direction of military containment even as the strategy of economic engagement remains in place.
The South China Sea has always seen incidents, but the chances of these escalating are now more significant.
The cyber realm is another potential flashpoint, with China’s increasingly sophisticated capabilities. President Obama said in May that a cyber attack on US military infrastructure would be considered equivalent to a military attack. With opposing views of “freedom” on the internet, and China’s failure to regulate in its own cyber backyard, there is growing potential for major international conflict. Not military conflict, but a trigger to rising tension and a greater deterioration of diplomatic relationships. Paul Evans
What does China want?
In the G20 and other international institutions, Asian countries so far have a poor record of working together. China and India are active players in these institutions, but rarely leaders. It is difficult to imagine progress on key issues like climate change and financial regulation until they play a bigger and more constructive role in setting rules that transcend their immediate interests. Asia is increasingly at the centre of global economic power, accounting for nearly 75 per cent of global growth. But it is not yet at the centre of institutional and normative power. 2012 promises to be a pivotal year in testing how far an American-centred world order can be maintained and whether Asia’s rising powers will live within that order or begin to establish an alternative. Paul Evans
Subscribe to the Asia Pacific Memo, a weekly publication from UBC’s Institute of Asian Research, at: www.asiapacificmemo.ca