China’s Problems


Riot police in Zengcheng, China (Photo Courtesy of Reuters)

Washington, DC, July 28, 2011

This week has revealed a host of internal and international problems confronting China. While the list is nothing new, the fact that they have all come to a head at once indicates mutually reinforcing crises that will inform any shift in China’s domestic and foreign polciies if they are to respond adequately. Chinese officials must simultaneously grapple with infrastructure failures, social unrest in new-urbanizing provinces, and contention with neighboring countries in the South China Sea.

Last week, a high-speed rail crashed in eastern Zhejiang Province, killing nearly 40 people.  China’s expansive rail system had long drawn criticism from outside observers as well as Chinese whistleblowers in the know, despite high level boasts and state-led investments that waxed eloquently of its triumphs.

Just two days ago, protests and clashes with police rocked the city of Anshun in Guizhou Province after Chinese security forces reportedly beat to death a one-legged street vendor.  Mr. Deng Qiguo, 52, had started an argument with auxiliary security forces, but details remain sketchy.  What resulted was an eruption of violence and chaos in the city, pointing to a now undeniable trend in China’s ongoing urbanization and massive economic transformations.

Social inequality and unrest, long swept under the carpet by state-censored media, now demand the Communist Party’s concerted attention.  If China is to maintain double-digit annual growth rates – indeed, as many experts speculate it won’t be able to uphold – it must redirect its focus toward a more balanced and socially conscious development agenda.

Finally, the South China Sea has been an area of heated controversy among China, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member countries, and the United States.  While China claims roughly 80% of the territory contained in these waters, other nations such as the Philippines and Vietnam contest those sovereign claims.

ASEAN nations, buoyed by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s statement of support at a summit in Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi, last year, have held joint talks between Southeast Asian naval chiefs this week to express common agreement regarding China’s illegitimate claims to the Spratly and Paracel Islands archipelagos.  The newfound regional solidarity on this cause should give China reason to pause before pursuing further aggressive relations in the South China Sea.

What do these three critical issues have in common?  Well, China has to start investing in quality infrastructure and social welfare rather than seeking purely quantifiable economic gains.  Otherwise, widespread unrest and the collapse of its transportation (as well as manufacturing and export) industries, are inevitable.

The same may be extended to China’s foreign policy.  The middle kingdom must re-examine its regional partnerships in light of widespread distrust of its overreaching territorial projections, which have only led to fear and opposition.  If China really wants the US to adhere to non-interference in its territorial disputes, Beijing must reassure its Southeast Asian neighbors with a more transparent and cooperative stance in the region.

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