In-depth The Challenges for China’s New Leadership
Coming to Grips with China’s Risks

Kawashima Shin [Profile]

[2012.11.08] Read in: 日本語 | 简体字 | 繁體字 | FRANÇAIS | ESPAÑOL |

After watching China skyrocket to superpower status, the world has grown acutely aware of the mounting problems threatening the nation’s growth and stability. Kawashima Shin, a China expert and member of the editorial committee, discusses what these looming risks mean for China’s next-door neighbor, Japan.

Make no mistake, China is a major world power. Gross domestic product per capita is still low relative to the United States, Japan, or Europe, but China as a totality has become a critical player in the East Asian community and the world order.

China is also an enigmatic power. Not even its own leaders seem to know exactly what sort of nation China is today, let alone what it will become in the years ahead. There is no doubt, however, that the people of China are aware of profound changes in their immediate environment and in the China they see, and we can be certain that they are looking to the future with a mixture of hope and anxiety.

Getting a Handle on China

Here in Japan, some China watchers like to dwell on the idea of continuity rather than change, offering sweeping generalizations prefaced with “China has always been…” For them, the main issue is China’s “essential character.” At the opposite end of the spectrum are those who stress China’s diversity to the point of dismissing virtually all generalizations as nonsense. Both extremes doubtless contain an element of truth, and yet it seems to me that both the “eternal China” school and the “China does not exist” school are evading the task of explaining what is going on in the country today.

Japanese scholars in the field of Chinese studies are fond of telling us that the key to understanding China is to “maintain a balanced perspective.” This mantra has been repeated in answer to any number of fallacies, whether it be overgeneralization about a large and diverse country on the basis of particular aspects (like the blind men and the elephant), idealization of the Cultural Revolution to suit one’s own political ideology, or demonization of China as a whole.

But what, exactly, is “a balanced perspective”? Who is to decide? If one does not properly understand the true nature of China, there is no way to know whether one is keeping the various phenomena in perspective or not. For this reason, the admonition to “maintain a balanced perspective” may not be a particularly meaningful one. And of course, grasping the true nature of China is no easy matter.

When Constants Become Variables

There has always been a degree of uncertainty about China’s future owing to the large number of variables involved and the limited amount of information available to the public. What has changed is that factors long regarded as constants are now joining the list of variables.

In the political sphere, the key question is whether the Communist Party of China can remain in power. Needless to say, there is no easy answer to this question, but as Tomisaka Satoshi explains in this special report, the CPC must cope with mounting domestic problems if it is to maintain control of the nation, and while it is bound to develop new policies in the interests of self-preservation, collective leadership is not known for generating bold, innovative reforms. Moreover, as China’s interest groups proliferate and diversify, it is becoming increasingly difficult to sense any unity of purpose. We can see this in the way the Communist regime has governed of late—if, indeed, we can call it governing. Thus far, its main response to the nation’s growing social and economic inequities, such as the plight of migrant workers—the subject of Ako Tomoko’s article—has been to forcibly repress the movements that have emerged to address these injustices.

Over the years, a number of factors, including the party’s revolutionary roots and Chinese nationalism, have helped the CPC maintain its hold on power, but in the past two decades, the biggest boost by far has come from the affluence generated by economic development. Yet the new wealth that has strengthened China and its rulers (often enriching the party’s leadership) has also led to the inequity, and injustice that now threaten the survival of the regime. Meanwhile, after years of overinvestment, the Chinese government is reaching the limits of its ability to stimulate growth through continued overaccumulation of capital, as Kajitani Kai explains. This will make it all the more difficult for the CPC leadership to address the urgent problems demanding its attention.

But the biggest threats facing China today are environmental and demographic in nature. The one-child policy adopted around 1980 has made rapid demographic aging inevitable. Given the fact that China’s strength lies largely in the size of its population, and given the fact that its immigration policy is more restrictive even than Japan’s, the government may well be forced to relax its family planning policies in the not-too-distant future. Meanwhile, as pollution and other environmental problems approach critical levels (see Ueda Makoto’s report), serious questions are being raised in Japan and elsewhere about the amount and type of international aid we provide to China.

Diversifying our China Risk

China is also Japan’s next-door neighbor; our geographical proximity is an inescapable reality. From their relatively remote positions, the United States and European countries may see only the need for cooperation, but Japan does not have the luxury of such a viewpoint. As suggested by recent events surrounding the disputed Senkaku Islands, the risks attending China’s growing power have a particular immediacy for Japan.

How should we deal with these risks? Clearly, we must evaluate them as accurately and honestly as possible and minimize our exposure to them. While encouraging efforts by Beijing to reduce those risks, we must prepare ourselves for problems that may arise.

At the same time, we need to keep sight of China’s diversity and its varied possibilities going forward. Rather than focus narrowly on establishing positive intergovernmental ties, we should take a more balanced approach, building friendly relations with people and groups representing various sectors and viewpoints within Chinese society. Such multifaceted interaction was actually one of the strong points of Japan’s dealings with China prior to World War II, before militarism and expansionism took over. Though reflection is still needed over Japan’s past aggressions in China, we can learn selectively from the past in order to guide our dealings with the country today. The time has come for Japan to build a more multidimensional, forward-looking relationship with China and its people.

(Originally written in Japanese.)

  • [2012.11.08]

Editor in chief of, professor of international relations at the University of Tokyo, and senior researcher at the Institute for International Policy Studies. Born in Tokyo in 1968. Graduated in 1992 from the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, where he majored in Chinese area studies. Received his PhD in history from the University of Tokyo. Previously an associate professor at Hokkaidō University. Author of Chūgoku kindai gaikō no keisei (The Formation of China’s Modern Foreign Policy), Kindai kokka e no mosaku 1894–1925 (Moves Toward a Modern State, 1894–1925), and other works.

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  • China’s Environmental Picture: A Pastiche of Light and ShadowAlarmed by the environmental toll of rapid economic growth, the Chinese government has launched sustainable development initiatives. But Beijing’s ongoing water shortage exposes limits of this top-down environmental policy. Historian Ueda Makoto, an expert in Chinese environmental issues, looks at some recent environmental successes and failures from a cultural perspective.
  • China’s Safety Net Shackled to Family RegistersChina has become the world’s number two economy, but it is still a country with huge economic disparities. Some of the gaps are connected to the household registration system, which divides the population between urban and rural residents. Today this system is generating discontent and complicating the construction of a safety net.
  • China’s Excess of Capital: Causes and ConsequencesAlthough China was an engine for global growth in the aftermath of the Lehman bankruptcy, recently there have been fears that the engine may be stalling. Kajitani Kai argues that an excessive accumulation of capital has produced bubbles and disparities, and that the restraint of this accumulation is a key issue for the Xi Jinping administration.
  • The Outlook for China’s LeadershipThe National Congress of the Communist Party of China will start in Beijing on November 8, 2012. Due to term and age limit restrictions, much of the current party leadership, including Paramount Leader Hu Jintao, will be replaced. Journalist Tomisaka Satoshi looks at the current state of the party’s power structure and analyzes the near-term outlook.

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