Potemkin China?

POTEMKIN CHINA?….Minxin Pei writes in Foreign Policy that China is headed for decay, not world domination. Tyler Cowen reduces his argument to a long soundbite:

If you are not convinced, raise your right hand and repeat after me: “China in the 20th century had two major revolutions, a civil war, a World War, The Great Leap Forward [sic], mass starvation, the Cultural Revolution, arguably the most tyrannical dictator ever and he didn’t even brush his teeth, and now they will go from rags to riches without even a business cycle burp.” I don’t think you can do it with a straight face.

I don’t have a strong opinion about this since I’ve read very little Chinese history, but if there’s a common theme to the stuff I have read it’s China’s historic and recurring pattern of strong central government followed by dissolution and chaos ? followed by another round of strong central government, of course. Twenty-first century technology probably makes a difference in this pattern, but centripetal forces are still strong in China and it’s not clear that the octogenerians in Beijing can hold it together forever. If their control ever starts to slip, some kind of USSR-style breakup seems at least reasonably likely to me ? and probably to them too. Thus the iron fisted control and rampant corruption that Pei focuses on.

It’s funny that we don’t read more about this. Op-ed pages carry pieces about China periodically, but most of them focus on economic issues: China’s skyrocketing GDP, the supposed post-Mao unleashing of market forces, competition with the West for oil, the odd bit of outsourcing paranoia, fears about the growing pile of U.S. government bonds in the hands of the Chinese central bank, etc. Conversely, very few focus in any serious way on internal Chinese politics beyond things like Falun Gong and the occasional color piece on censorship in internet cafes. If we’re going to spend a trillion dollars or so over the next decade on military equipment whose only conceivable purpose is to fight a war with China, it seems like a topic that should be of more than passing interest.