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.
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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.
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.