China's Main Danger. Stagnation, Not Revolt

By David M. Lampton. David M. Lampton is president of the National Committee on United States-China Relations the of many books and articles on China. | The Christian Science Monitor, November 1, 1990 | Go to article overview

China's Main Danger. Stagnation, Not Revolt


David M. Lampton. David M. Lampton is president of the National Committee on United States-China Relations the of many books and articles on China., The Christian Science Monitor


CHINA is not a political and social volcano about to erupt, despite the impression left by much academic and popular analysis. Rather, the genuine issue is whether or not China's capacity to manage its growing problems effectively will diminish dangerously over time.

I say this recognizing the acute problems China faces and the human toll its modernization will exact in the future, a future in which there probably will be violence and unrest. This turbulence, however, will be episodic, localized, and manageable in the short and medium terms, albeit at possibly considerable cost.

Among the problems facing the People's Republic are: rising budgetary deficits; a money supply that threatens rekindled inflation; weakened central leadership; large unemployment and underemployment; rising popular expectations amidst the reality of a decline in some urban and rural incomes; mounting regional and social inequalities; alienation among intellectuals; stagnant industrial productivity and rising government subsidies to enterprises (33 percent of state enterprises lost money in the first half of 1990); a government fearful of political reform that would provide means for the peaceful transfer of power; and, no elite consensus on how to escape the cul-de-sacs of the planned economy.

Nevertheless, a principal danger of viewing China's current situation in overly apocalyptic terms is that American public and private decisionmakers will be inhibited from building economic and cultural relations out of a misplaced expectation that enduring and mutually beneficial links will be unwise due to a coming deluge.

We need to get back to basics in thinking about stabilizing factors at work in China. Beyond the oft-mentioned Chinese fear of disorder (an alleged cultural aversion that has not prevented disorder before), the single most important stabilizing factor is China's peasantry. This mass is not only comparatively isolated and uneducated. It has also benefited greatly from a decade of reform. There is little evidence that China's peasants are now motivated to destabilize things. In a discussion I had with a Chinese intellectual recently, we agreed that "the dreams of China's intellectuals seem not to be the dreams of China's peasants and workers."

This brings us to China's workers, notable participants in the later stages of the Tiananmen demonstrations. I believe that China's urban workers in state enterprises in some ways prefer the security of a planned economy to the uncertainties that are an essential feature of a reformed market economy. The past four decades of an egalitarian work ethic and industrial featherbedding of enormous proportions have taken their toll. …

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