For most of its 2300 year history, the Chinese empire has rattled between strong leaders who brought famine, and weak leaders who brought temporary reprieve. Mao, a strong leader, killed his associates plus over 100 million by his “great leap forward” famine. Since then, 30+ years, we’ve had some weaker leaders, semi-democracy, and some personal wealth, plus the occasional massacre, e.g. at Tiananmen square, and a growing demographic problem. And now a new strongman is establishing himself with hopes of solving China’s problems. I hope for the best, but fear the repeat of the worse parts of Chinese history.
Two weeks ago, Chairman Xi amended the Chinese constitution to make himself emperor for life, essentially. He’s already in charge of the government, the party, and the military. Yesterday (Tuesday), he consolidated his power further by replacing the head of the banks. The legal system is, in theory, is the last independent part of government, but there is hardly any legal system in the sense of a balance of power. If history is any guide, “Emperor” Xi will weaken the courts further before the year is out. He will also likely remove many or all of his close associates and relatives. It is not for nothing that Nero, Stalin, and Mao killed their relatives and friends — generally for “corruption” following a show trial.
Xi might be different, but he faces a looming demographic problem that makes it likely he will follow the president of the stronger emperors. China’s growth was fueled in part by a one child policy. Left behind is an aging, rural population with no children to take care of the elderly. As top-down societies do not tolerate “useless workers,” I can expect a killing famine within the next 10 years. This would shed the rural burden while providing a warning to potential critics. “Burn the chicken to scare the monkey,” is a Chinese Imperial aphorism. Besides, who needs dirt farmers when we have modern machines.
Currently about 40% of the country is rural, about 560 million people spread out over a country the size of Canada or the US. The rest, 60% or 830 million, live concentrated in a few cities. The cities are rich, industrial, and young. The countryside is old, agricultural and poor, salaries are about 1/3 those of the cities. The countryside holds about 2/3 of those over 65, about 100 million elderly with no social safety net. The demographic imbalance is likely to become worse — a lot worse — within the next decade.
What is likely to happen, I fear, is that the party leaders — all of whom live in the cities — will decide that the countryside is full of non-productive, uneducated whiners. They will demand that more food should be produced, and will help them achieve this by misguided science and severe punishments. Mao’s experts, like Stalin’s and Queen Victoria’s, demanded unachievable quotas and academic-based advice that neither the leaders nor the academics had ever tried to make work. Mao’s experts told peasants to kill the birds that were stealing their grain. It worked for a while until the insects multiplied. As for the quotas, the party took grain as if the quotas were being met. If the peasants starved, they starved.
I expect that China’s experts will propose machine-based modern agriculture, perhaps imported from the US or Israel: Whatever is in style at the time. The expert attitude exists everywhere to this day, and the results are always the same. See potato famine picture above. When the famine comes, the old will request food and healthcare, but the city leaders will provide none, or just opioids as they did to ailing Elvis. When the complaining stops the doctor is happy.
In single leader societies, newspapers do not report bad news. Rather, they like to show happy, well-fed peasants singing the leaders’ praise. When there’s a riot too big to ignore, rioters are presented as lazy malcontents and counter-revolutionaries. Sympathizers are sent to work in the fields. American academia will sing the praises of the autocratic leader, or will be silent. We never see the peasants, but often see the experts. And we live in a society where newspapers report only the bad, and where we only believe when there pictures. No pictures, no story. As with Stalin’s Gulags, Mao’s famine, or North Korea today, there are likely to be few pictures released to the press. Eventually, a census will reveal that tens of million aged have vanished, and we’ll have to guess where they went.
I can expect China to continue its military buildup over the next decade. The military will be necessary to put down riots, and keep young men occupied, and to protect China from foreign intervention. China will especially need to protect its ill-gotten, new oil-assets. Oil is needed if China is to replace its farmers with machines. It will be a challenge for a wise American leader to avoid being drawn into war with China, while protecting some of our interests: Taiwan, Hong Kong, etc. As with Theodore Roosevelt, he should offer support and non-biassed mediation. Is Trump up to this? Hu Knows?