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The Weak Links in China’s Great ‘Renewal’ Plan

By He Qinglian Created: December 18, 2012 Last Updated: December 18, 2012
Related articles: Opinion » Thinking About China
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Xi Jinping (C) attends a meeting with a panel of foreign experts'at the Great Hall of the People on Dec. 5 in Beijing, China. Xi's concept of national "renewal" is less novel and more problematic than it seems, according to economist He Qinglian. (Ed Jones-Pool/Getty images)

Xi Jinping (C) attends a meeting with a panel of foreign experts'at the Great Hall of the People on Dec. 5 in Beijing, China. Xi's concept of national "renewal" is less novel and more problematic than it seems, according to economist He Qinglian. (Ed Jones-Pool/Getty images)

Since taking office as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Xi Jinping has given three speeches to outline three paths to rebuild the CCP’s political legitimacy. In addition to the “bread path” and the “anti-corruption path,” Xi also pledged a “great renewal of the Chinese nation.” 

Throughout history, the renewal of a nation has depended on two factors: support from the general public and abundant material resources. Today’s China, however, seriously lacks both of these.

Party Versus People

The first weak link in Xi’s renewal plan is that the relationship between the regime and the people is still reversed.

On Nov. 29, Xi visited the “Road Toward Renewal” exhibition in Beijing and made this statement: “We—this generation of communists—must take what has been left to us by our predecessors as a departure for forging ahead into the future.” 

He also pledged to build the Party well, unite all Chinese people to build the country well, and develop the nation well, in a bid to “continue marching boldly toward the goal of great renewal of the Chinese nation.” 

Echoing Xi’s comments, People’s Daily immediately published four commentaries in a row, emphasizing that “only when the country is strong and the Chinese nation is well, can the people be well.” 

This is no different from Mao’s motto, “If water rises in big river, little river will be full,” and Deng’s theory, “If the country is strong, the people will be happy.” 

To say that the people’s happiness depends on the country and the nation being strong is merely empty talk. In order to honestly reflect the present political reality in China, the catch phrase should be changed to, “The happiness of some privileged people depends on the country and the nation being strong.”

Many people, including myself, have been contemplating the relationship between the country and the people. We believe that “only when the people are prosperous and their rights are guaranteed, can the country be strong.” A nation made up of dictators ruling over people who have no rights can never be strong.

During the past dozen years, mass protests all over China have increased from fewer than 100,000 to over 200,000 per year. The reason for the unrest is that people’s basic rights have been taken away by those in power. The Chinese regime admits that there are conflicts between officials and citizens, but says they merely due to personal misbehavior by some officials. The regime won’t face the fact that the CCP has completely lost the people’s trust, and that the political system is the cause of the conflicts. 

Dependence on Foreign Resources

The second weak link in Xi’s reform plan is China’s high dependence on foreign resources. 

Xi failed to talk about the economic basis for renewal. China’s economy has long been dependent on foreign resources. 

Mao adopted a nationalist policy to “close the ports and lock the doors.” In Mao’s era, the Chinese nation was self-sufficient because resources such as oil and steel were domestically available. 

Since the reform and opening up, China has not only relied on exports but also on the import of huge amounts of resources. 

During the Hu-Wen era, China’s production and demand were large enough to impact the world economy. China’s huge demand for oil, minerals, and grain influenced the price of such commodities on the international market and also created fluctuations in the domestic market. 

The following official statistics demonstrate China’s high dependence on foreign resources.

China’s dependence on foreign technology is 50 percent, while for the United States and Japan it is only 5 percent.

China’s dependence on foreign oil and iron is over 56 percent. By 2015, an estimated 65 percent of its oil will be imported. 

In 2011, China imported 90 million tons of coal. It also imported 40 percent of the world’s cooper production. Import of coal, aluminum, manganese, chromate massive isometric, and nickel are also on the rise.

Less than 90 percent of China’s food supplies are domestically produced. The gap between food supply and demand is widening. China imports about 56 percent of its soybean consumption, making it the largest importer of soybeans. China’s rice import is the second largest in the world.

Of China’s exports, 70 percent is controlled by foreign businesses. This means that the channels to the overseas markets are not controlled by China.

The most significant change in U.S.-China economic relations is that China has become a big importer of U.S. agricultural products, raw materials, and other non-manufacturing commodities. In 2011, the percentage of non-manufacturing exports from the United States to China was twice as high as in 2000.

The rapid rise of foreign dependence by China’s economy has concurrently increased the Chinese regime’s fear and instability. Therefore, the regime has been investing all over the world in an attempt to ensure a steady supply of oil and other mineral products. 

But China’s overseas investments have not all been smooth. Some Southeast Asian countries, such as Burma, are rejecting Chinese investment because of territorial disputes and concerns over expanding Chinese military ambitions.

Nobody Kidnapped China’s Economy

Some Chinese media have expressed their worries over China’s high foreign economic dependence by saying, “the high foreign dependency implies that China’s economy is being kidnapped.”

This statement is without merit, but it stirs up nationalist sentiment in China. Can they point out exactly which country has kidnapped the Chinese economy? Is it the Middle East that sells oil to China? Is it Brazil or Australia that sells iron to China? Or is it the United States and Europe that buy Chinese products?

It is the huge demand coming from China that has turned the international commodity market into a “seller’s market.” Many countries have been complaining about the price increases in this “seller’s market.”

As a result of its high foreign dependence, the regime has no choice but to change its backwards, barbaric political system. Only by doing so, can it win other countries’ trust and establish international cooperation.

Unfortunately, Beijing still regards the western democratic system as a “wicked path,” as Hu Jintao put it in his 18th Party Congress speech.

Beijing might not have realized that by screaming, “renewing” and “strengthening,” and by continuously expanding its military power while being highly dependent on the resources and markets of other countries, it is losing the trust of other countries and is thus creating more obstacles to reversing its foreign dependency.

The two weak links constrain Chinese renewal. The people’s mistrust acts as a soft constraint, and the lack of domestic resources is a hard constrain. 

The dependency on foreign resources requires the regime to carefully gauge the degree of nationalism it instills in the people. Too much incitement will ultimately backfire. One example is the recent incident of maps printed on Chinese passports, showing Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea. 

A government that has departed from the people, though seemingly strong, is merely a giant sand sculpture that can easily collapse with a slight shift at its base. 

He Qinglian is a prominent Chinese author and economist. Currently based in the U.S., she authored “China’s Pitfalls,” which concerns corruption in China’s economic reform of the 1990s, and “The Fog of Censorship: Media Control in China,” which addresses the manipulation and restriction of the press. She regularly writes on contemporary Chinese social and economic issues.

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