About the Author
Kerry Brown is Associate Fellow at Chatham House, and Director of Strategic China Ltd.
Jonathan Fenby is a British journalist. He has worked for numerous distinguished publications, including ‘The Observer’, ‘Reuters’, ‘The Economist’, ‘The Guardian’ and ‘South China Morning Post’.
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China in the 21st Century
By Kerry Brown
Wimbledon Publishing CompanyCopyright © 2007 Kerry Brown
All rights reserved.
CHINA AND THE TWO PATHS
Politicians and leaders in China, like everywhere else, have always liked metaphors. The treacherous political environment encouraged this. Speaking with metaphors avoided the pitfalls involved in baldly stating something and then being held to account for it. Metaphors supplied the insurance policy of ambiguity. At the dawn of the CR in 1966, the killer blow inflicted on the Vice Mayor of Beijing, Wu Han, after he had written a play about a clean Ming dynasty official hounded from office, was to have Mao Zedong bluntly state that the whole thing was an allegory about himself and his dismissal of one of his main Generals, Peng Dehuai, after criticizing him. From that point, Wu Han was walking wounded. He was among the CR's earliest high-level victims.
One of the most popular metaphors from the CR period was the one about the two paths. It had provenance long before this time, but sheer insistent usage got it irrevocably tied to that period. There was the good path, the path of the proletariat and the workers and the glorious Communist Party. And there was the bad path of the capitalists, colonialists, and landlords. Those who walked the capitalist path were simply written off as Capitalist Roaders. The two paths wound their separate ways, one to Utopia, and the other to oblivion. But three decades later, it seems they both have reached the same point — a Capitalist Socialist Utopian carnival.
Polarity, as I will argue later, is imbedded in modern Chinese discourse. The two paths are the staple means to convey this. So, it isn't inappropriate to use this metaphor now to set out the two sorts of future that China might have. Of course, as a recent book by one of the veterans of the 4 June Incident/Massacre, Wang Chaohua, put it, while there might be 'One China' (and we will look at this in more detail in the next chapter) there are in fact 'Many Paths'. But for simplicity's sake, I'll draw out two extremes. And then spend the rest of the book working out which one is closest to what is likely.
Path One: Stable China
Fast-forward 20 years. It is now 2026. China overtook the US as the world's largest economy nearly a year previously, going faster than even the most bullish analysts had predicted a generation before. Chinese companies like Haier and Wa Haha, are among the best known global brands. China leads the world in the production of hi-tech equipment, and is a world leader in research and development. Through heavy government interventions, the wealth from the coastal areas has now reached deep into the hinterland. Some of the country's richest millionaires are in Xinjiang and Tibet. Even these remote cities have a thriving middle class with sophisticated consumer tastes and expectations. This process has effectively solved the historical issue of separatism by enfranchising most people in the border areas, making them realize they have more to lose than gain from secession with China. It has also meant that the central government has been able to grant more genuine autonomy to these regions, especially after the death of the potent symbolic figure of the Dalai Lama, and his replacement by a highly controversial Beijing-appointee.
Because of aggressive implementation of environmentally friendly policies in the 2000s and 2010s, people can now joke about the period of the great fog years before, when cities existed in a cloud of pollution. The massive process of urbanization is over. The division between the cities and the countryside has stabilized, and the living environment, after a glut of construction and building, is greatly improved. Cities are full of green spaces, and the car ownership problem has been partly solved by the use of a far higher proportion of liquid gas vehicles than in the West. China has built excellent public transport facilities in most of its cities, and vastly improved its flight network. Foreigners with memories of trying to get around the country in the dark ages of the 1980s and 1990s are laughed at when they say how tough it was back then. China also offers one of the best connected motorway and hi-speed train networks in the world.
In 2026, seven of the world's top banks are Chinese. Chinese companies make up over 50 per cent of the world's top companies. The Fortune 100 list consists of about 40 individuals who are based in China, or from China originally. The world's richest man is a 70-year old entrepreneur who made his money originally by devising the Chinese equivalent of Google, which then expanded into the provision of key financial services, taking the whole of the Chinese speaking world market. China is exporting its own technology abroad, though it is increasingly irritated at the IPR (Intellectual Property Rights) infringements occurring in the West and America, which it puts down to the desperation from their poor performing economies and high levels of unemployment. In 2025, China became the world's largest aid donor, and the largest outward investor, its colossal foreign reserves used to buy companies in Africa, Europe and America.
Business people visiting China are all expected to speak Chinese, as it has become the international language of trade. In most schools in Europe and the US, Chinese has become the most popular second language to study. The French government complained recently about the large number of Chinese loan words creeping into the French language. Things like 'La guangxi' for connections, and 'Le Gaoji Lingdao' for top-level leader. But, the French government, like most others, is wary of upsetting the Chinese, not only because of the vast amounts of investment being made into their country, but also because of the endless numbers of Chinese tourists filling their cities, and the huge revenues still being brought in by the second and third generation of Chinese students who have followed their parents abroad to study. Some laugh at the idea that in fact Europe serves three functions — as a school and university to the Chinese, as a tourist playground and as a source of cheap labour. Especially in Eastern Europe (which now embraces Russia), and the outer edges of the continent, many Chinese companies are setting up plants to manufacture their products for the market back home.
Pundits have been proved wrong by the constant predictions of the fall of the Communist Party. After some nasty hiccoughs in the 2010s, when three large demonstrations that nearly overthrew the Party were put down, the Party seems as strong as ever. It is a Marxist Capitalist orientated People's Party, with multi-class appeal, and with a thriving entrepreneurial cadre, who have been labelled the vanguard of the business revolutionaries. So successful has the Party been that it is now as closely studied and copied as the Japanese were at the peak of their powers almost half a century earlier. But people say there is a difference. The Chinese have patience and staying power. They will not drop away like the Japanese did. The first woman President of the US, Chelsea Clinton, declared during a recent Democratic Convention that the US needed to study the CPC (Chinese Communist Party), look to how it had maintained stability, and strengthened its economy. US officials have been sent on courses to the CPC School, looking to learn from them about new skills like opaque, and deep opaque management. There is also a huge amount of exchange between the People's Liberation Army (PLA) and the US Army, and both cooperated fully in the recent invasion of Russia, though the aftermath of this has proved difficult, with a UN peacekeeping force saying the country is sliding towards civil war and that the interim administration cannot cope, raising the spectre of the disastrous invasion of Iraq and the lengthy civil war that ensued two decades before.
With the shift in allegiance from Taiwan to China by the last country to recognize the government in Taipei, the leadership in the Republic of China are preparing for the fourth plebiscite on whether to enter talks for a final resolution to the problem of Taiwan's status. Popular opinion in Taiwan is now committed to the idea that unification is better than the current status of being independent but increasingly marginalized. There is even a strand of thought in China that believes the island is more of a burden than a gain, and shouldn't be accepted back. As the biggest giver of aid, with the largest military budget, China dominates Asia. It has secured compensation and apologies from Japan over the war almost a century before. Indonesia is indeed so reliant on Chinese aid that it recently allowed China to buy its three largest banks. The Prime Minister of Australia, himself ethnically Chinese, said that as Australia was now so much part of Asia, Australia had no objection.
It is internationally agreed that democracy, which was the most successful form of government in the last century, had severe limitations, and that the CPC has devised a new form, one party democracy, otherwise known as Intra-Party Democracy. Scholars and academics agree that democracy can successfully exist within a single party, if that party has diverse constituents and membership. This idea has been embraced internationally. Commentators have also agreed that the extreme low level of participation in western elections indicated a lack of interest and apathy, and a desire to return to older style authoritarianism. The governments of Austria and Italy have been at the forefront of introducing elections simply for important issues, via network portal points, and having governments run along the same lines as a company, with a board of directors elected by a panel, themselves chosen by institutions contracted to headhunt the best qualified leadership candidates.
As a result of these changes, the CPC has removed the controversial commitment to democracy previously slated to be implemented in 2050, contained in some of its official pronouncements. Its greatest challenge is simply how to deal with the recently unified Korea, which, having undergone over half a decade of streamlining, is looking set to become one of the world's greatest economic powerhouses, led by the dynamic leadership of Kim Jong Il's daughter. Part of the final deal was to allow the South Koreans to maintain their political system for two decades, but to the surprise of everyone, the South Koreans are keen to embrace the hard line ideology of the north, which, having survived every attack, is now widely seen as far more resilient and robust than the weaker democratic models available.
Path Two: An Unstable China
In 2026, the pundits are united about one thing. The development of China that started over half a century before was, though, no one knew it at the time, effectively a death knell for the world's environment. Energy and natural resources had been totally overestimated and with no urgent research into alternative sources, what had happened was too little too late. China had simply, in its gallop towards a developed nation status, gulped up most of what the world had in two dazzling decades, in which it had posted official growth statistics of over 10 per cent each year. Having effectively exhausted the world's petrol and gas resources, it had built, with little real planning, a dozen massive nuclear power stations, one of which had had a disastrous accident in 2020, making over a third of Xinjiang in the north-west uninhabitable. The huge number of fatalities there had been seen, by many outside and inside the region, as a deliberate attempt to eradicate so-called separatist threat from the Muslims living there. This had only served to make the region even more unstable, with an increasingly active terrorist group now more than capable of making attacks deep within China. They had recently succeeded in assassinating a Vice Premier while on a visit to Shanghai.
China's handling of its ethnic minority regions was the least of its problems. The rapid expansion of the Chinese middle class had pushed car usage through the roof, shooting up from only 1 per cent to almost 25 per cent of the population owning cars. The roads in cities were in a state of permanent gridlock. 400 million cars were spouting out fumes that were simply choking the people to death. The joke that instead of a one child policy like in the old days, China would need a one car policy was no longer so funny. China looked like the first culture in the history of the world likely to simply be destroyed by the car.
The Chinese state is on its last legs. The strategy to have wealth trickle from the coastal regions inland stalled in the 2010s when it was realized that the capital investment in these areas, and the massive brain drain of human capital out of them, meant the task was far greater than had originally been predicted. Many cities, regions on the coast and richer areas reached crisis point in the mid 2010s, simply banning outsiders from coming in. This created a scenario similar to a city state, with increasingly strident appeals to local interests over national ones. Attempts to broker quotas for cities to accept outsiders broke down because of the amount of fraud and false documents being used. Foreign countries too, tired of this constant wave of people coming out of China, imposed increasingly restrictive requirements, including massive bonds, and even, in some countries (including the UK) electronic tags on Chinese nationals coming in which were only removed when they physically got on the plane or vessel out of the country. The UK had managed to introduce this measure despite strenuous opposition by both the European Union (EU) and the International Court of Human Rights, successfully arguing that the human rights of those in the UK were being violated by the hundreds of thousands of Chinese who had come into the country, only to sink underground and never leave. The sheer size of these communities had made them conspicuous and a major political problem for the government, which felt it had been forced into taking this measure.
The Central Government, in a nutshell, was simply incapable of running China. In many areas of the country regional governments and strongmen acted as they pleased. Some analysts predicted that by 2050, the country would no longer exist as a single entity. Sichuan, Yunan, and Guangzhou had already made clear signs of their desire to break away. Massive demonstrations in these areas had occurred throughout the last decade, with a weaker and weaker response by the PLA and the Central government each time. There were respected voices in Beijing that argued that, in many ways, with all it current problems, China was better off letting these restive and time consuming areas break away.
While there was no dispute about there being some rich people in China, there was great controversy about how many. A property boom in the 2010s had collapsed, along with a disastrous fall on the stock market, and the final convertibility of the Chinese Yuan, which had exposed it to speculative runs. All of this had seen many of the new middle class reduced to where they had started from two decades earlier. The fabled Chinese private sector had, in fact, been exposed as the state trying to pretend that some of its operations were in others' hands, even when they weren't. A string of high profile 'private companies' had collapsed, leaving massive debts, and causing hundreds of thousands to be laid off, creating the joke that this was the second 'falling into the pond' after the first in the 1990s. But this pond had proved itself to be far deeper than the one before. Increasing discontent had seen vicious uprisings in the 2010s, and in 2025, the latter by way and far the worst, with the PLA being unable to control over a million and a half protesters in Beijing who had torn down the walls of the central government compound with impunity. The full leadership of the party had been forced to resign, for the first time ever, and a new generation of leaders, mostly foreign educated, had taken their place. But these too had run out of ideas about how to deal with China's three great demons — instability, the environment and the poor.
Political scientists and economists now agreed that China never had been a state as such. It had operated as an informal coalition of interests, somehow producing the networks to keep the whole untidy unwieldy mess of what was called China together. But in fact, even in terms of the economy, there had been an elite who had stockpiled enormous wealth, squirreling massive amounts of it abroad, and meaning that both the banks, and companies, and indeed all of the construction and economic activity in China were built on thin air. The great dreams of the twenty-first century belonging to China were now regarded as nothing more than a bad joke. Statisticians and researchers had long since given up believing any of the statistics produced from the 1980s. China's growth rate, it was now agreed, was far lower than any of these had ever stated. Its economic growth was called the greatest myth after Atlantis and the Bermuda Triangle.
Excerpted from Struggling Giant by Kerry Brown. Copyright © 2007 Kerry Brown. Excerpted by permission of Wimbledon Publishing Company.
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Table of Contents
Foreword by Jonathan Fenby; Introduction; China and the Two Paths; What Do We Mean When We Say China?; A Mao for All Seasons: The Master on Contradictions in the Twenty-First Century; The History Game; The Dark Side of the New PRC; Getting Used to Understanding Modern Chinese Doublespeak; How to Win Friends and Influence People in the PRC; The Kindness of Strangers: ‘Outsiders’ and Being Chinese; The Chinese Economy; Chinese Characters; Conclusions: Many Chinas, Many Truths; A Polemical Bibliography; Index
What People are Saying About This
'Kerry Brown’s long association with his subject as a scholar, diplomat and businessman allow him to make confident, authentic judgements on many of the key China questions.' —James Kynge, author of ‘China Shakes the World’
'Offers a broad and challenging view of China, past and present and – venturing where many scholars fear to tread – of its likely future too.' —John Gittings, author of ‘The Changing Face of China’
'A witty and original book by someone who knows every aspect of China. Everyone will find this a refreshing read.' —Jasper Becker, author of ‘Hungry Ghosts’
'It says a lot, says it well, leaves you more knowledgeable than when you started, and then promptly exits stage left.' —Paul French, author of ‘Through the Looking Glass: China’s Foreign Journalists from Opium Wars to Mao’