At Large

China Confidential

For all its recent material success China can't come to grips with the ineptness of its governance.

By 10.16.09

In honor of China's 60th anniversary of Communist rule a massive and colorful parade recently was held in Beijing. A panoply of weapons was displayed as thousands of carefully chosen military cadre in tailored uniforms goose-stepped through Tiananmen Square. As one military observer noted: "They dance well, they wear well-cut battle dress, but can they fight?"

Of course the question was sarcastic, but it was not without an element of reality. China has become enamored of display. Their economic success has encouraged extravagance as a symbol. In fact, this has been part of Chinese culture for years. Even the puritanism of the early days of Mao Tse-tung's rule was carried on with such a sense of enormousness that the entire nation seemed to have lost all individuality.

Now the material changes wrought by nearly thirty years of steadily achieved economic success have reversed the purposeful drabness of the Mao period in exchange for the exoticism of soaring skyscrapers, French-like fashion consciousness in the big cities and modernity in everything from construction equipment to telecommunications and electronics. Nonetheless everything and everybody continues to march forward in Maoist lockstep, strutting their material wealth. This is accomplished the same way it was done sixty years ago -- by hiding the failures and inadequacies of the governance.

From a military standpoint even the People's Liberation Army (PLA) would have to acknowledge they have not seen combat since the Vietnamese embarrassed them in 1979. They may have an impressive array of weapons, conventional and nuclear, as well as a reasonably modern air force and a growing, yet still small, blue water navy -- but that's about it. They have no combat experience and the command is unproven, inexperienced and highly politicized. As such, at this time the PRC poses no direct military threat to the United States; that does not mean they might not in the future. But as the attaché noted -- they do parade well.

Most of the fighting that China does these days is either on the domestic front in the form of intense personal and group competition for political positioning -- or internationally for economic and political influence in world affairs. The domestic front sometimes becomes the roughest. There's just too much money floating about in Chinese business and political life to not have a corrupting influence. However, that has never been necessary in the always smoldering environment of the all-powerful Chinese Communist Party (CCP), as anyone who can remember the days of Mao's wife Jiang Qing and the Gang of Four can attest.

Perhaps one of the best examples of the current depth of corruption occurred in the recent case of the mayor of the city of Shenzhen, the original free enterprise zone nearby to Hong Kong. Apparently this once trusted party leader was found to have bought his political position and then proceeded to take payoffs for every major project under construction in that city.

What is truly stunning is the fact that lesser posts throughout China for years have been purchased, or at least rented. Such positions include functionaries on all levels of local government including, surprisingly, the Communist party, itself. These posts carry the leverage to influence all contracts, and are compensated by substantial cash bribes -- as many who have done business with the PRC well know.

Supposedly the extremely secretive and powerful Central Organization Department vets all management job candidates from the smallest to the most important corporations and government positions. In spite of a plethora of sophisticated personnel tools -- including polygraphs, intelligence tests, and psychological profiling -- the COD has been unable to stem the continuing tide of corruption in Chinese government and commerce. But then one is forced to ask whether the purpose of this powerful department is to organize and police the nation's executive work force or simply to move around acceptable individuals in an orderly fashion, thus perpetuating the system.

The mistake would be to relate in any way the success of China's economy with the structure of preference and advantage that guides the country's still totalitarian-run political system. The Chinese leadership has found a way to preserve its control, indeed domination, over this vast nation while at the same time utilizing the structure and benefits of a market economy. In that sense, the political economy of the PRC now more resembles the theory and practice of national socialism in Nazi Germany than of Soviet Communism.

The difference is that Communist China, in spite of periodic saber rattling toward Taiwan, appears to be smart enough not to become involved in military conflict. The greater future problem, however, is that the still monolithic political structure seems ready-made for a dictatorial takeover. In the centuries of China's existence that has been its tendency. It's a danger that cannot be disregarded.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.