The United States has had it easy over the past third of a century in regards to China. Washington has been able to proclaim moral superiority over the Communist Party dictatorship in Beijing, even as those very dictators provided Washington with a stable, businesslike relationship that fostered immense opportunities for American companies in China and for the American economy overall. China's rulers, ever since Deng Xiaoping consolidated power in 1978, may have been nominally communist, but they have also been professionals and technocrats who have ruled in a self-effacing, collegial style. Yes, they may oppress dissidents, but they have also been enlightened autocrats by the standards of the suffocating rulers who have governed in the Middle East.
But the purging of the pseudo populist boss of the megacity of Chongqing, Bo Xilai, may indicate that a less predictable period in Chinese politics lies ahead. Bo was something not seen in China since Mao Zedong: a leader with real charisma. Bo may indicate that the age of the technocrats will give way to the age of politicians – and politicians, even in liberal democracies, exploit people's emotions. That could lead to more erratic, nationalistic rulers.
It is famously said that democracies don't go to war against each other. But the problem is not democracy; the problem is a vast and unruly state like China in the messy, decades-long process of liberalisation. The truth is that these communist dictators in Beijing, whom the media love to hate, may turn out to have been the most benign and easy-to-deal-with Chinese leaders that Americans will see in their lifetime. President Hu Jintao is as good as it gets from the point of view of a State Department policy planner.
China's autocrats have for many years been nervously riding a domestic tiger. With communism no longer a philosophical organising principle for the state, they have had to justify their rule by delivering double-digit annual economic growth – or close to that – to provide jobs for a potentially restive younger generation. Thus, even while China has amassed impressive new air and sea power, it has – by and large – not tried to employ that power in a particularly hostile way. China's communist rulers have had too much domestically to worry about without creating new problems for themselves by constantly challenging the United States or its allies on the high seas. While China's push to acquire air-sea power most specifically dates to 1996, when Beijing was humiliated by Washington's ability to drive two aircraft carrier strike groups through waters near the Taiwan Strait, the building of a substantial air force and navy have so far been part of the natural, organic process of a new and rising great power. At least so far, it has not been particularly destabilising to the world or regional order, unlike Iran's push to develop a nuclear capability as part of a drive for near eastern leadership. China's rulers may be dictatorial, but they are not radical and messianic.
But what if future Chinese politicians who are variants of Bo Xilai dial up nationalist rhetoric? Or what if the Communist Party itself, in order to stave off such challenges in the first place, dials up nationalism on its own? Or what if the factionalism of the party moves into higher gear, with each faction trying to outdo the other regarding its national-patriotic bona fides? It is political competition itself, in whatever form, that carries the potential to make future Chinese leaders rasher and more hot-blooded than the present ones. Of course, an utterly profound domestic crisis might have the opposite effect, shrinking China's power projection ability. But while that is certainly possible, it is still unlikely.
The point is, decentralisation of power – which counts as one form of democratisation – is likely to occur in China at some stage, given that oscillations between centralisation and decentralisation have long been a feature of Chinese history, as one dynasty has replaced another. And the next bout of decentralisation may alter Washington's perception of Chinese military strength for the worse. Washington now sees China's air and naval rise as a cause for concern but not as an imminent danger. That could change if China's domestic politics do.
Chinese political instability could well play out for years, making the past third of a century under authoritarian rule appear from hindsight as a relatively simple and clear-cut age in terms of devising a policy toward the middle kingdom. Until recently, Washington's diplomacy toward Beijing was a matter of dealing with a relatively small number of top officials; while crises have involved hard and tense negotiations, the number of players was limited. But as we go forward, the number of players could expand exponentially in Beijing, and many of them will not be as smooth, professional and predictable as the likes of Hu Jintao. Witness the fraught and convoluted negotiations over the fate of the blind Chinese dissident, Chen Guangcheng, whose own emotional instability became a factor complicating the talks. That could be a harbinger of coming difficulties.
Democratisation in its initial stages in any society means a diminution of the power of elites, and with the exception of totalitarian states – which China is not anymore – the fall of the elites may lead to more intemperate policies in the short run. Democracies are only stable when they have evolved to the point where they are run by bureaucratic and political elites – take, for example, Europe, the United States, Japan and Singapore.
In fact, America's founders were the epitome of an aristocratic elite. And when that elite gave way to Jacksonian frontiersmen in the early 19th century, American politics became a more unruly affair, culminating in the Civil War. Finally, the late 19th and 20th centuries saw a whole new meritocratic elite take over the halls of government in Washington.
Meanwhile, the problem with authoritarian systems is that if they remain in place for decades, the only people who end up capable of running ministries and formulating policies are the authoritarian elites themselves. Thus, toppling such systems entails serious risks. The new democracies in Central and Eastern Europe were helped along the path to stability by liberal elements within the former communist power structures who actually knew how to govern. One can only hope that China's eventual transition will go as smoothly as that of Poland and the Czech Republic.
But while Poland, for example, is a uniethnic country, China is a sprawling multiethnic one. The country has significant, geographically based minorities (Tibetans, Uighur Turks, Inner Mongolians) living generally in the high plateaus and peripheries around the ethnic Han Chinese core, which inhabits the lowlands closer to the Pacific. These ethnic minorities have deep grievances against the dominant Hans, as demonstrated by acts of protest over the years. Therefore, democratisation in China could lead to significant eruptions by minorities seeking some form of self-determination. China's Han core also contains divisions within it. China's Communist autocrats know all of this, and that is one reason they fear the very liberalisation the West recommends.
But change should come to China, and because of the country's continental geography, which harbours a variety of subject peoples, such change will likely manifest disorder. And that disorder will test the ability of officials in Beijing to a yet unseen level, for it will be just part of a larger ferment within Chinese society.
Interpreting China, even as it becomes freer, may ironically become more difficult for the West.
Stratfor.com Reprinted with permission of STRATFOR.