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China, a colossus with clay feet

By Claude Arpi
March 18, 2003 13:40 IST
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Zhu Rongji, who retired as China's premier on Tuesday, is usually a very frank man. A few years ago he admitted the Chinese system was flawed by two plagues: incorrect figures sent by regional leaders about the development in their respective regions and the rampant corruption gangrening the Communist Party and the nation. Unfortunately, his warnings did not change the state of affairs: after five years at the helm of the State Council (the Chinese cabinet), Zhu left the scene with a host of unsolved problems.

During the 10th National People's Congress, China's top legislature, which opened last week in Beijing in front of nearly 3,000 deputies, Zhu gave an routine speech praising his government's success. 'Under the leadership of the Communist Party of China the Chinese people of all ethnic groups have forged ahead, worked still harder in solidarity, surmounted numerous difficulties and made great achievements in reform, opening up and economic and social development that have won worldwide recognition.'

True to his reputation he later spoke of what he prosaically called 'difficulties' left for his successor.

He told the delegates: 'We are clearly aware there are still some outstanding difficulties and problems in China's economic and social life.'

He then listed what he saw as the main problems facing China:

  • Slow growth in the income of farmers and some urban residents
  • Rise in the unemployed and serious difficulties in some people's livelihood
  • Continued inequities in the distribution of income
  • Arduous tasks remaining in the reform of state-owned enterprises
  • Sporadic occurrence of major industrial accidents
  • Degradation of the ecological environment in some areas
  • Continued isolation from the people and perpetration of formalism, bureaucracy, falsification, extravagance and waste among some government officials, and certain types of corruption remaining conspicuous

For political reasons, Zhu did not mention a few other issues which might be major challenges for China's future.

The main one is water. No doubt the Chinese leaders are aware that water is one of the most important factors for the nation's development.

Many years ago, environmentalist Lester Brown published a path breaking study of the consequence of water shortage in China. When his book Who will feed China? was released in the mid-nineties many were sceptical. I remember speaking to an eminent Indian agronomist. He felt science would progress and new means would certainly be found to take care of the scarcity of water.

Brown's theory was due to industrial development, an increase in the standards of living and other factors, water was  receding fast.

His conclusions were 'the abrupt decline in the supply of water for China's farmers poses a rising threat to world food security. China depends on irrigated land to produce 70 percent of the grain for its huge population of 1.2 billion people, but it is drawing more and more of that water to supply the needs of its fast-growing cities and industries. As rivers run dry and aquifers are depleted, the emerging water shortages could sharply raise the country's demand for grain imports, pushing the world's total import needs beyond exportable supplies.'

More recently, he warned again China's leaders of what lied ahead. He pointed out 'the south, with 700 million people, has one third of the nation's cropland and four fifths of its water. The north, with 550 million people, has two thirds of the cropland and one fifth of the water. The water per hectare of cropland in the north is one eighth that of the south.'

The problem is so serious that the US government recently called it 'a global security risk.' The US National Intelligence Council has been monitoring the situation with the same attention it gives to terrorist threats. The NIC sponsored a major interdisciplinary assessment of China's food prospect. Headed by Michael McElroy, chairman of Harvard's department of earth and planetary sciences, the study used information from intelligence satellites to refine cropland area estimates, and commissioned computer modeling to assess the extent of future water shortages in each of China's river basins. The results of this research corroborate Brown's findings: water scarcity is increasing, creating food shortages which in turn, will bring social unrest in China and a world-wide food problem.

Though Zhu's government first denied Brown's findings, it nevertheless took the warning very seriously. A White Paper entitled The Grain Issue in China was published by the State Council in which the following questions were answered: 'What is the food situation in China? What is the country's grain production potential? Can the Chinese people feed themselves? And how will China improve its grain production?'

The study said the Chinese government wanted to 'seek the truth from facts' and address 'these questions of universal concern … by scientific analysis.'

During the NPC, China's uneasiness about the water and food situation was addressed again and again by Zhu, though most of the time indirectly.

He first listed a number of key water conservancy projects launched or completed, particularly on the Yellow river and the Yangtse river, including the controversial Three Gorges Dam. He also mentioned the South-North Water Diversion mega project aimed at correcting the South-North imbalance. This venture makes the Indian rivers interlinking scheme look small.

Zhu also insisted that 'China should speed up the construction of facilities for water-saving irrigation and for supplying potable water for people and livestock.'

As the Chinese government is aware of the tremendous social consequences of the shortage of water and food, Zhu put a great emphasis on the fate of the farmers. 'We should continue to take developing agriculture and the rural economy and increasing farmers' income as the top priority of our economic work.... We cannot neglect them or relax at any time… If we do not change these conditions, they will severely dampen farmers' enthusiasm to produce, undermine the foundations of agriculture and even threaten the overall health of the national economy.'

Zhu, though an engineer, must have studied Chinese history. He no doubt knows that most of the great rebellions in China's history have come from famished peasants. This issue was the main source of the ideological struggle between Moscow and Beijing: Mao's revolution thought a new order could only be brought out by a peasant's revolution while the Soviets believed in a proletarian one.

In the past, all the Chinese emperors knew the mandate given to them by Heaven to rule over Chinese land could be withdrawn at any time if millions of farmers had their stomachs empty. In fact, was it not the sign that Heaven had withdrawn its mandate?

The present emperors are certainly aware of the rules of Heaven. The white paper on grain opened on the same note, though put in Marxist terms: 'The semi-colonial and semi-feudal old China before Liberation in 1949 was perennially haunted by the specter of starvation.'

The pride of modern China is to have got rid of this calamity and to have been able to feed the masses. Development at any cost, had been the motto of Deng Xiaopeng. In becoming rich, China's new emperors thought they could ward off the old fate.

Unfortunately, development has brought over-industrialization, over-utilization of natural resources and in the end depletion of these resources.

Perhaps, more than the social unrest created by millions of unemployed people after the reforms in State-owned enterprises, it is the food issue that most scares the Chinese leadership. The possibility of a return of the famines of old and the consequent rebellion will continue to haunt Chinese party bosses.

Many analysts predict that China, due to her robust economy, will be able be able to import more food from the rest of the world, but the threat remains nevertheless: How long will China be able to pay for the imports? In the end, who will feed China?

There has been a debate amongst China watchers: Is China a superpower? Is China the main security threat for India?

It seems to me that today's China is like the famous terracotta army in the historic city of Xi'an, the warriors may look scary, but their feet are made of clay.

Unless China resolves the contradiction -- to continue developing at the same pace while feeding her people -- China will not be a superpower.

China has other difficulties plaguing her future.

The timid recently-introduced experiment in democracy at the village level shows that the Communist Party is rapidly losing control at the grass root level. How will the new bosses in Beijing face the issue if development growth is not on expected lines?

In contrast, India remains a democracy with its vicissitudes, but also its safety valves. In spite of the aberrant 'democratic' nonsense, at the end of the day, the people's representatives have to go through the ballot from time to time, forcing them to behave, which is not the case in China.

Another problem is the so-called minorities: recent reports from Xinjiang show that, under the pretext of fighting terrorism, repression of local aspirations have been ferocious. This may result in a real extremist movement for separation from China.

In Tibet, the problem is different, but even mild demands such as 'genuine' autonomy with China as demanded by the Dalai Lama are rejected. In his March 10 annual statement the Tibetan leader warned: 'Looking around the world we cannot fail to notice how unattended conflicts with ethnic roots can erupt in ways that make them extremely difficult to solve.' Here again, will the new leadership will be bold enough to find creative solutions to the issue?

All these factors make China a colossus with clay feet. The new leaders may be tempted to divert public attention by threatening India, but it is a risky game, especially if the Indian government remains firm and determined to defend the nation's interests.


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Claude Arpi