China's Internal Crisis

Hand on prison bars over China Flag-map
This column was written by Stephen Glain.
It is a measure of how all-consuming the Bush Administration's quest to transform the Middle East is that this week's visit by Chinese President Hu Jintao will be denied the spotlight it deserves. While Afghanistan smolders, Iraq burns and Iran shuffles into America's cross-hairs, only a handful of constituencies understand or seem to care that Washington's relationship with Beijing is vulnerable to manipulation by the Pentagon.

The Defense Department has met its long-term enemy, and it is China [see Michael T. Klare, "Revving Up the China Threat"]. The Pentagon's latest budget, together with its Quadrennial Defense Report released in February, heralded the Yellow Peril in support of every manner of cold war-era weaponry, from the Virginia class nuclear submarine to the F-22 Raptor fighter jet. Even Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has tried to limit, or even kill, some of these programs. And while thoughtful parties in Beijing may understand that these outdated systems are nothing more than job mills for key legislative districts, it gives hawks in China leverage to push for their own arms buildup.

The Pentagon's vision of China as a dangerous hegemon diminishes the farther one gets from the Beltway Biosphere. In the Middle East and Africa, the Chinese model for economic development – autocracy that mutes political freedoms in exchange for commercial expression – is embraced far more eagerly than Bush's pro-democracy crusade. In Asia, U.S. allies like the Philippines, South Korea and even Australia are aligning themselves closer to Beijing, or at least hedging their bets. Only Japan has remained in lockstep with Washington — boosting its own military budget, adjusting its laws to allow the U.S. forces it hosts greater autonomy and whipping its population generally into a Sinophobic frenzy that sits just fine with hawks in Washington.

But nowhere does the image of China as the Next Big Threat jar with reality more than in China itself, where economic, social and environmental upheaval has turned the country into a caldron. For now at least, the Chinese regime is a greater threat to its own population, unmoored and angry, than it is to the United States or even its neighbors.

Popular unrest is now a common feature of China's political landscape, with more than 74,000 reported cases of unrest in 2005, according to an official count. The same economy that has grown by nearly 10 percent a year for the past 25 years has also become a perilous source of discontent.

Take the December riots in the southern Chinese city of Dongshan, when riot police fired on villagers as they protested the seizure of their land to make room for a power plant. Some 20 people were killed, according to witnesses, in the first such lethal show of force since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. The clash in Dongshan was only the latest in a running nationwide feud between local authorities and angry Chinese uprooted or marginalized by the country's unbridled economic expansion. Just last week, violent protest erupted in Bo Mei, a village in southern Guangdong province, when authorities tried to destroy unauthorized water dikes. Some two dozen people were wounded in clashes with riot police.