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April 19, 2005

China's Two Fates, or How Beijing is Like a Vibrating Piano Wire

Yesterday's analysis of Chinese military history might lead you to think that war with China must be inevitable as soon as China's leaders face a serious domestic crisis. Fortunately that's not the case: the Chinese leadership have another option to shore up their appeal with the population, and they know it -- democracy. China's leaders have decreed elections with some competition in a large number of villages and a small number of townships; that's pretty far from the center of power, but close enough that if a Chinese leadership faction thought that provincial or even national elections would make them more powerful than their rivals, the infrastructure would be in place to make the elections happen.

"There is still one-party rule in China but today every village must hold direct elections and this generates awareness of the individual’s democratic rights throughout the system. People think that if uneducated farmers are capable of voting, then why not everyone?" - Jian Yi

While China is no democracy now, all its leaders have imbibed the idea of democracy as "what developed countries do", and Chinese Communist Party politicians these days use "democratic reforms" as a cudgel to beat their opponents with the way their fathers and uncles used "Marxist reforms." Township governments have actually pushed to hold local elections that are more free than the national government wants -- either because they find they need it for their authority or because they see it as good for the community. Every year makes China more technologically developed and more ready for war, and every year also makes China more susceptible to democracy and consequent long-term peace.

We trick ourselves if we think about China as fixed in any particular shape, belligerent or awkward or helpful. If ever the image of a China set in its ways was true, now it's better to think about China as a country being remolded by two strong and often contradictory forces: the roaring development of its economy and the transformation of nearly all its institutions.

Imagine a piano wire being struck over and over by a hammer: will the wire take the blows or will it snap off its pins? To answer that question, you won't look at the up-and-down vibrations of the wire at any given moment -- those would just distract you. You'll look at how strong the hammer blows are, and how resilient the wire seems to be. The fate of the piano wire doesn't lie in its appearance at any moment, but in which of the forces acting on it, the driving force or the restoring force, will dominate over time. China's fate is the same.

Posted by danielstarr at April 19, 2005 04:08 AM

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