This CNN piece is an excellent analysis as far as it goes. It doesn’t really discuss the dangers and uncertainties Xi faces as he takes China down the state capitalist road with a Marxist gloss.
And it ignores perhaps the greatest challenge facing China – that is – whether it can decarbonize its ever-growing economy fast enough to ensure a livable environment for future generations. The toll of pollution on public health is already high. Every coal-fired power plant old or new raises the cost in lost productivity, more hospitalizations, and shortened lives. The same is true for every oil-fired plant or factory, and to a somewhat lesser extent, to every plant or factory run on natural gas.
At the United Nations General Assembly in September 2020, China has committed itself to reach peak CO2 emissions before 2030 and to reach carbon neutrality by 2060. World leaders and climate activists welcomed the announcement, but considerable skepticism remains both as to whether China is serious about taking the herculean steps needed to reorient its vast, heavily fossil fuel-dependent economy to green energy sources, and, if it is, whether it can actually accomplish such a massive transformation.
It is absolutely essential that China succeed in this endeavor, given that it is the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, by far. If China doesn’t try hard to green its economy or if it tries but fails badly, the world’s inhabitants, both human and wildlife, will have to contend with a hostile climate that will kill many of the old, the very young, the sick or infirm; it will make life miserable for most of the rest. Coastal cities will flood. Crops will fail. Millions of climate refugees will seek a better life elsewhere but find no welcome, no haven.The countries to which the migrants flock will be destabilized; regimes will teeter, some will fall. Civilization itself will be at risk of collapse. The center may not hold. If it doesn’t, life as we have known it for centuries will revert to a more primitive form of existence. There’s even the possibility, however remote, that the human experiment could fail, and humans could go the way of the dinosaurs.
Economically, can the Chinese State manage the economy better than the market-driven capitalist system? History would say probably (certainly?) not. China is undergoing a massive migration from the countryside to the cities. Will a managed economy be able to provide employment for the millions who’ve fled the land that no longer sustains them? In an era increasingly automated, computerized, digitized, and robotized, the answer is very probably not. Will China adopt a universal basic income (UBI)? Unlikely, but it may have to. China’s economy also faces a huge demographic challenge brought on by decades of its one child policy, namely a rapidly aging society with insufficient children to care and provide for elderly parents, and an inadequate or nonexistent social safety net. China’s 1.4 billion people are its greatest asset and its greatest liability.
Politically, Xi must prove wrong the maxim that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Xi himself may be incorruptible, but what about provincial officials, local factory owners, and billionaire tycoons?
Socially, Xi must incorporate China’s ethnic minorities into his vision, not alienate them, not suppress their aspirations. He must somehow handle the (inevitable?) revolution of rising expectations. As the masses get some, won’t they want more and more? The chasms that have developed in China between the very rich and the no longer desperately destitute are huge, and must be negotiated. And when mere survival is no longer one’s only concern, will not demands arise for control of other aspects of life, for the freedom to voice concerns or demands, to dissent, to oppose, to disrupt? Even though the powers of the State to surveil its citizens with ubiquitous video cameras and facial-recognition software integrated with huge databases, and through pervasive bureaucratic means its ability to control the movement and place of residence of its peoples have reached unprecedented levels, State control is and will remain tenuous. Can the Party rule the masses? For a long time, yes; but forever, no.
Xi’s espousal of Marxism is a direct challenge to democracy. Can State capitalism infused with some Marxist principles build a vibrant, self-confident, sustainable society in the 21st century? Can it overcome the many challenges facing Chinese society today and in the foreseeable future? Besides the challenge of a rapidly urbanizing society and a concomitant depopulation of many rural areas, China will have to adjust to a rapidly aging population. Together with urbanization, this trend threatens traditional family-oriented intergenerational services. Who will care for parents if most or all of the children have moved to the cities? Who will care for the few children that there are if both parents are off working? What if because of rapid digitization there aren’t jobs for all who want and need them? Will the Chinese State have to develop a social safety net? Will it be forced to implement some form of Universal Basic Income? How will the State feed its people if most of the farmers have had to move to the cities in order to survive?
The challenges confronting China’s autocratic state capitalist system of government are many and daunting. Several are existential. In this, China bears an odd resemblance to the situation the United States finds itself at start of the decade of the 2020s. Both countries, both systems, must provide a tolerable and at least the hope for a better life for all or at least the great majority of its citizens. Failure to provide that will, eventually, foment rebellion or at least regime change, if not system change. Vast disparities of wealth and power condemn the poor and powerless to a growing despair that inevitably will reach a breaking point and find an irrefutable argument for change.
The climate is an existential issue as much for China as for the U.S., indeed for all humanity. If the two superpowers who are also super-polluters don’t curtail greenhouse gas emissions roughly by half in this decade and completely by 2050, neither great nation will retain much of its greatness. Neither will have a comfortable present, much less a hospitable future. The U.S., along with the other Western democracies, must deal with similar existential threats. While the two major systems of governance may devolve into hostile competition reminiscent of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, both sides are only too aware that the outcome of a nuclear exchange would be mutual annihilation. Therefore, while the possibility of a miscalculation or a miscommunication could trigger a nuclear holocaust always exists, a far more likely outcome will be a mutual if uncodified understanding that the the two power centers will both compete and collaborate when it is in their interest to do so.
“Frenemies” writ large. Each power will strive to demonstrate the superiority of their model. The contestants have taken the stage, the rules of the game are being established, the red lines implied or demarcated, the first challenges issued, the first skirmishes soon to be joined. Both players know that not only are their regimes and their countries’ standing in the global community at stake, but so too is the fate of the world.
The most significant area of competition in the new Cold War is leadership on climate change action, now that President Biden has rejoined the Paris Agreement. Both superpowers are vying for climate change leadership and the economic benefits that will accrue to the winner in clean energy technology. That competition may not be a bad thing since it will likely accelerate the required technological development. Plus, we need everyone on the planet – living and working under both hegemonies — to transform to carbon neutrality in the coming decades.
Let the games begin.