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Journal of Democracy 14.1 (2003) 66-72

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A Volcanic Stability

Qinglian He

How much longer can the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) last? Could China collapse into disunity or even civil war? These are challenging questions with no easy answers, and I have been asked both many times over the last few years, in China itself as well as overseas. While it is hard to predict the future with any precision, some provisional forecasting of structural changes is possible.

China is a one-party state in which the interests of the government and the CCP are indivisible. Over recent years, the only answer the Party has had in its quest to uphold civil order has been to "pull up by the roots all factors with the potential to cause instability." The Party has worked hard to create a reality in which no organizational force can replace Communist rule. In the CCP's view, the death of the Party would mean nothing less than the death of China itself.

The supposed logical corollaries are that we must tolerate the CCP's use of "reform" as a mechanism to stave off unrest and collapse, and that we must accept the CCP's formula of "market economics plus totalitarian rule."

The construction of this scenario has been extremely beneficial to the Party's goal of stabilizing its status in the international community, which in turn has adopted a policy of appeasement toward China. Much to the CCP's delight, calls for China to improve its human rights record and work toward becoming more democratic have grown ever fainter. Since 2000, the international community's response to the doddering incompetence of Jiang Zemin has been to hedge its bets and hope that the transfer of power to the next generation of Party leaders will foster "healthy" factions within the CCP and promote stability. [End Page 66]

This approach focuses too much on the Party's monopoly of force and ignores the things that make for genuine stability. These include limits on ecological and environmental exploitation as well as the formation of moral and ethical values that can serve as benchmarks for society as a whole. If biological ecosystems and the environment in which they exist are the physical foundation for the continued survival of a nation and its people, morality and moral discourse do something similar on the spiritual level. Every society needs a healthy "moral ecology" to sustain it in real yet informal ways that are not captured by a focus purely on written laws and formal institutions.

An Environment in Crisis

China today is gravely threatened by severe, even life-threatening pollution. Since the Party took power, China's environment has been wantonly plundered; whatever else economic reforms have achieved, they have clearly increased the pace of exploitation. Widespread use of chemical fertilizers has progressively reduced the fertility of arable land, while salinization and general soil degradation have reduced the quality of the land over large areas of the country. Deserts now cover 38 percent of China's landmass as a result of destructive land use, and the output from cultivated land is already strained to the limit, rendering a bad situation potentially disastrous. China's rich mineral resources are being consumed at a higher rate than ever (it averages four times the comparable per capita rate that one finds in a typical developed country), while the actual productivity gains associated with mineral inputs are meager—a sure sign of enormous waste. If we use the concept of a "green" Gross Domestic Product (GDP) 1 to take into account the true environmental and ecological costs associated with China's manner of pursuing economic development, the average figure for the last 23 years would have a negative value.

From a moral perspective as well, China is in poor condition. Honest public officials are the exception, corruption is the rule. In the sphere of economic relations, the collapse can be measured by the fact that just 60 percent of all contracts in China are honored and an abnormal lack of trust has descended over economic activity in general.

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