The China "Time Bomb"

The importance of Obama’s recent efforts to strengthen ties in the region cannot be understated. As the Former Beijing Bureau Chief for the WSJ reports, in times of economic instability, the country is ripe for political turmoil.
  • Transcript


Question: Where is China going moving forward with respect to political and social reform?

Adi Ignatius: I think the political reform question is unresolved because there is a kind of bottled-up pressure. If the government can somehow handle it and finesse this unresolved question—great, it will continue forever. I doubt they can. You know, the movement 20 years ago was very unexpected. People marched because of the death of a communist party general secretary. You wouldn’t have predicted that. Yet suddenly you had many people in the street and not just in Beijing, but all across the country. It was truly a national movement.

You don’t know what might trigger something else like that but I think something will—not even necessarily mass unrest but just a movement for political freedom, for a kind of modernization of the political system to accommodate the modernization in the economy. I don’t think those yearnings go away.

The economic development has been so successful that most Chinese are not demanding political reform. They are not really thinking about it. But if the rising expectations that had been built into society because of the economic growth suddenly are dashed and people are really worried about whatever it is—a slowdown in growth, lost jobs, higher prices, corruption—that can feed into political discontent and at some point these issues have to be resolved. Hopefully, that can happen without a crises but the tighter the control on political freedom now, in my mind, the more its likely to erupt in crises when it does emerge.

Question: Do you see increased government transparency as preceding political reform?

Adi Ignatius: I'm not saying China hasn’t improved in 20 years. It has. There are more NGOs operating and there are some important things that are happening that are not controlled by the communist party now. There’s probably more transparency in the process.

20 years ago you had Deng Xiaoping, you had a generation of kind of revolutionary veterans who didn’t have official titles but essentially ran the country. That’s not a healthy situation. That’s not a transparent accountable government. So you have a more normal government structure now. It’s not particularly transparent. We don’t really know what happens behind the scenes but it has all improved.

Question: Is it possible for China to continue its economic surge without reform?

Adi Ignatius: That's a good question. The model is so far—creating a great deal of economic freedom and very little political freedom—you have to look at it and say, “Hmmm. That seems to work.”

They have a long way to go. The Chinese economy, I would say, is partially reformed. To keep going they need to free up a lot of people to move around, to have freedom to do what they want, to employ themselves when they want, to take all kinds of risks, to enter aspects of the economy closed off to them.

There needs to be some kind of further reform, I don't know if that’s political or economic at this point. I just think you have a kind of a built in time bomb that if you don’t allow people to let off political steam, it builds up, and it could build up in a way that threatens stability. What the Chinese government says is, ''By clamping down we ensure stability, and stability allows the economy to grow.'' But I think that works up to a point, but if you keep people down you have essentially created instability—it’s just the question of when had how that will arrive.

Recorded on: June 19, 2009