Why Bad News Elsewhere Is Good News for China

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Tomohiro Ohsumi / Bloomberg / Getty Images

A paramilitary police officer stands guard in front of a portrait of former Chinese leader Mao Zedong at Tiananmen Gate in Beijing on March 2, 2013

China’s appearance in international headlines thus far in 2013 has often been because of quality of life issues. The year began with reports of unusually high smog levels in Beijing and images of massive numbers of dead pigs clogging Shanghai waterways. Next came stories of a run on milk-powder supplies in Hong Kong, triggered by ongoing fears over tainted baby formula on the mainland. And now comes a study suggesting that simply breathing the foul air of northern China can shorten your life expectancy by more than five years. Given the extent to which China’s leaders have based their legitimacy on the notion that they are making life better and better for ordinary Chinese people, it’s worth asking whether this rash of bad news could have an impact on a different sort of life-expectancy issue: that of China’s Communist Party.

This organization’s ability to stay alive and kicking more than two decades after the Berlin Wall’s collapse — and then the implosion of the Soviet Union, which allegedly signaled the start of a global postcommunist era — has long been a source of intense speculation and fascination. Could it be that the party’s ability to live on borrowed time is finally running out? If the only sort of bad news that mattered were the domestic kind, it would be tempting to say: Yes. In fact, though, another kind of bad news, which perversely tends to be good news for China’s leaders, has also been abundant this year. I mean news of chaos and misgovernment in other countries.

(COVER STORY: How China Sees the World)

China’s leaders, we need to remember, have long pursued a multipronged strategy to defend the status quo. They have cracked down hard on organized forms of opposition, while allowing greater individual freedom in some domains. They have filled their speeches and the airwaves with depictions of good things that the government is doing, such as raising China’s stature in the global arena, improving living standards, developing an impressive transportation infrastructure and maintaining stability. But in a subtler and more cynical fashion, they have gone to great lengths to highlight troubling developments in other parts of the world. This is done to discourage people from viewing foreign countries as potential models for emulation and to encourage them to wonder whether a change in how China is governed might result in the country spiraling off in a disturbing direction. In the 1990s, for example, much was made of how badly the former Yugoslavia and Russia fared, while more successful postcommunist states were largely ignored.

The years 2011 and 2012 were challenging for the storytelling side of this strategy. The July 2011 high-speed-rail crash near Wenzhou took some of the bloom off stories of China’s wondrous infrastructure moves. Food scares inspired doubts about whether living standards can be said to improve when you worry about what you eat. The Bo Xilai scandal undermined the idea that intense factional struggles within the elite, of the sort that created such havoc during Mao’s day, are a thing of the past. And on the international front, the Jasmine uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East and moves toward democracy in Burma caused the same kinds of jitters among Chinese leaders that the Color Revolutions had earlier in the century.

The first half of this year has been a mixed bag on the domestic side. There have been plenty of stories, including the pollution reports, which are hard to fit into the feel-good narratives beloved by the government. Still, the orderliness of the transition of power, which began in November with the announcement of a new Standing Committee of the Politburo and ended with Xi Jinping replacing Hu Jintao as China’s President this March, has dampened last year’s concern about factional struggles as a source of instability.

(MORE: 10 Reasons Not to Go Locavore in China)

Where the opening months of 2013 have been less of a mixed bag for China’s leaders has been in the international arena. Xi hasn’t accomplished much in diplomatic terms with his trips to foreign countries, but when it comes to events taking place in other parts of the world, there has been plenty of just the kind of bad news that is music to the ears of China’s leaders.

The latest reports out of Burma have been of interethnic violence rather than democratization. The leaks by Edward Snowden, meanwhile, have been a godsend for China’s leaders. His revelations about American spying operations have made it harder for Washington to take the high ground with Beijing on the issue of hacking. And his accounts of domestic surveillance operations undermine the idea that the only Big Brother states out there are ones that don’t hold elections.

Last but far from least, there is the news out of Egypt. When dictators began to fall in North Africa and the Middle East, Chinese official news organs were determined to frame the issue of what was happening in the region less in terms of whether democracy would come to formerly authoritarian lands, than in terms of whether once stable nations would descend into chaos. Recent events in Cairo have, alas, given the Chinese authorities just the sorts of images they need to support the notion that this was at least one, if not necessarily the most important or only, question to ask.

When it comes to the life expectancy of individuals, as the recent report on northern China reminds us, we need to take into account not just what the people in question are doing but also the kind of world in which they are living. The same rule applies to the survival of the Chinese Communist Party, with the key difference that the worse the news about the wider world is, the longer it is likely to keep defying the odds and sticking around.

Wasserstrom is Chancellor’s Professor of History at UC Irvine and the author of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, an updated edition of which has just been published.

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42 comments
Alejandro79
Alejandro79

The Chinese invasion of Tibet has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Tibetans and the imprisonment and torture of thousands more. Resist and save Tibet's unique culture, fight for the Tibetans' human rights to be respected

Bookevil
Bookevil

"In the 1990s, for example, much was made of how badly the former Yugoslavia and Russia fared, while more successful postcommunist states were largely ignored."

Which post communist Eastern European can be even closely classified as successful? The reality is most of them are still struggle to make their economy and living standards to the level of communist Vietnam; none of them dare to think about developing it to the level of communist China.

jwassers
jwassers

@reshmapatil11 yes re bad news from India, a big threat to CCP would be an India that became freer of corruption & drew close to PRC in GDP

jefforsythe9
jefforsythe9

One may go on line and read The Nine Commentaries to learn the truth about the heinous CCP.

lambda
lambda

Yes, Some countries is so-called "Freedom Fighter"  or "World Police", but the only things they made is chaos. "Arab Spring" is a good instance, I can't see any "spring" things, only killing, blooding, turbulence... is that freedom or human right? 

jefforsythe9
jefforsythe9

Mainland China is a country totally controlled by a brutal gangster regime known as the Chinese Communist Party. The CCP has murdered 100 million of its people since 1949 and is now attempting the heinous genocide of  tens of millions of innocent Falun Gong practitioners by the use of torture, slavery, organ harvesting and murder. None of these brutal facts are ever mentioned by Western media or Governments because of corporate greed. The worst crime of all is the crime against conscience.

ysprefer
ysprefer

America is the country who not only benefit but actually encourage chaos around the world, if you look at arab spring, it is obvious. In fact, the word "Arab Spring" is invented by the America, we now, can see clearly, how this spring comes, with tens of thousands people died and blood shed.   China may have a lot of problem, such as increasing gap between the rich and the poor, corruptions, environmental pollution, we will handle it well, the mind of the author of this article is malicious. But China and Chinese people will not be fooled by the wolf in the sheep skin. A simple question is, does the author more concern about the China than Chinese people, does the author more love China than Chinese people, probably not. What he want is just another chaos around the world, that may best benefit the interest of America. Chinese people has thought himself as the center of the world for thousands of years, it is only during the last thousand years, that she is repeatedly humiliated by foreign invaders, the Japanese invasion and the invasion of western countries, is a good thing for China, it like a blow, which make China wake.

HaavBline
HaavBline

Using the same reasoning of this author, America has enjoyed all those bad news around the world far more than China has, and I have our stock market's performance to prove my point.  

Many of the problems around the world seem to have root cause that are somehow linked to  American economic and foreign policies, and yet America is the one country benefiting from all those problems by becoming the least bad place in a chaotic world. 

lambda
lambda

At least, CCP make china more and more powerful... Maybe there have corruption, Maybe there lake of freedom or human right, but please look at Syria or Egypt how hard did they walk on the way to so-called democracy... Did US Govt really care about Chinese people's life? No, I don't think so.

guesswusim
guesswusim

You make a living out of seeing China fail !

BrightNote
BrightNote

Good article.  Cue the paid Chinese government "50 Cent Party" posters to try to deflect the conversation to other countries and topics.  Must be a raw deal to get paid 50 renmibi per post to support the CCP while Premiers Wen Jiabao and Xi Jinping steal $270,000,000,000 in wealth from the Chinese people. 

flyerwolf
flyerwolf

Did this opinion piece really make it to Times magazine? I really hope not... 

You have not truly understood China if you still think it is a "communist" state. Which communist state, could have achieved such staggering economic development, with 5%-8% GDP growth each year? And in China, influenced by the father of communism, Karl Marx, the strongest massage that is left is by no means "death to all capitalists", but "material determinism" - all upper structures such as government and law are dependent on economy, i.e. money. If people are making money, people are happy. The complaint is about who is making more money.. In this, China shares the same sentiment with US.

And with all due respect, of all the Western countries that I have live in, however small, who would not boast itself as the best country in the world and laugh at others' - especially China's misfortune? GDP increase stagnation, price rise, violation of human rights? But did you know China has manned (and womaned) space operation for the 5th time? Did you know China has single handedly relieved millions of people out of poverty without having to be a colony of the West? Did you know minorities get affirmative action attending colleges? Did you know CIA hacked China's top university and then China hacked the military and stole some plans? 

Will China be democratic one day? Certainly. But will some simi-rich half-witted country enter democracy and fail horribly? Absolutely.


CobaltDolphin
CobaltDolphin

The auther seemingly loves to see CCP falling. I want the same thing if there is no consequence. Can the auther tell me what it would look like afterwards, like Iraq, Syria, Libia, Egypt or Sudan or France, Germany, Sweden,  US or Korea?

CobaltDolphin
CobaltDolphin

It is not a communist party anymore, silly! You would be fooled if you still think it is a communist party.

JoanneD
JoanneD

@Alejandro79  I might agree with you AFTER Americans return the land to Indians, Scotland is granted independence, and the West stays out of other countries' internal affairs for good. 

lambda
lambda

@Alejandro79 You are so naive... To save what? Tibet's slavery? Let the aristocrat rein the Tibetans again? Or Do you think that Tibetan culture is slavery? Don't be cynical...

nghk
nghk

@jefforsythe9 100 million?  I think you are wrong by a factor of 10.  The correct number should be 1 billion.  If you are going to exaggerate, you should go all the way.

CobaltDolphin
CobaltDolphin

@jefforsythe9 Ever been to China, sir? Got an idea how life in China is? Buy a ticket to China before making such groundless claims. 

839841531
839841531

@jefforsythe9 What you said  is the most ridiculous thing. If you have avidence, then show me. Or shut you mouth up.

839841531
839841531

@BrightNote Interesting, I really don't remember which country print money to save it economy. And our country have to "steal" $270,000,000,000 in wealth from the Chinese people to keep our economy healthy.


lambda
lambda

@CobaltDolphin Yes.. "Communist" just a word... prove that ,once upon a time ,they struggle to realize it, but not today...  

howardxue.zte
howardxue.zte

@CobaltDolphin  The Chinese are good at "the art of war" - make the US believe China is still a Communist country and thus make biased or wrong decisions.  :-)

lambda
lambda

 @jefforsythe9 Absurd comment... Have you ever been in china? How many people arrested illegally in Mccarthyism? I suggest you should have to study history before comment..

natanaelandii
natanaelandii

@yhanzzz88 wah koe koyo mamahku takone nek aku meh lungo. Hahahaha. Palingan jam 9 wis balik..