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Political scarcity

7. Ideology: The unbearable lightness of the Yellow River Spirit

Ask any serving Chinese civil servant what the Yellow River Spirit is and your question will likely be met with a dumbfounded look. So it should be unsurprising that tens of thousands of aspiring Chinese civil servants were stumped when they were asked in the final question of the 2011 civil service exam to expound on the meaning of the obscure reference. “Yellow River Spirit” sounds indistinguishable from any number of party slogans—“harmonious society,” for example—but in fact means basically nothing. China has begun to select its civil servants in part based on their ability to convincingly defend an ideological cipher, an important skill for members of a political party that no longer knows what it stands for but must still win the hearts and minds of its citizenry. The CCP has for a generation now defined itself through pragmatism, delivering economic growth in exchange for the mandate to govern. But this grand bargain is breaking down, and will become only more fragile over the next decade—drawing increasing attention to the party’s ideological scarcity and confusion over what it stands for.

8. Values: What would Confucius do?

Having completely abandoned communism, the political system has to actively recruit members who can convincingly espouse just about any ideology, or none at all. In a country where all moral life is political, the wishy-washy values and fuzzy principles of China’s politics translate directly into a level of emptiness in the lives of average Chinese people, who increasingly seek new avenues for spiritual sustenance and collective national renewal. Yearning for deeper meaning in life has fueled one of China’s more serious domestic conflicts of the last 20 years—between the government and religious practitioners—which will only intensify as China’s last few tottering octogenarian true believers in utopian Marxism pass away. The growth of the middle class and its post-material yearnings creates unprecedented challenges for the Chinese leadership to provide social stabilizers beyond what material prosperity alone can offer.

9. Freedom: Keep on rockin’ in the firewalled world

Chinese people indisputably lead much freer personal and political lives today than ever before. But individual political freedoms are still in short supply and unequally distributed. While few seriously champion Western-style democracy in China, many more crave the freedom of expression, of the press, of mobility, and of thought common in almost all developed countries. So far, the state has done a spectacular job at stifling demands for the individual freedoms that it associates with social instability. But society is growing stronger, its demands amplified by new media. The party-state’s default impulse to control is increasingly at odds with a middle class that believes more personal freedom should be part of the social fabric. Like previous middle-class formations in other countries, the shift from wealth accumulation to rights advocacy is gradually taking place. The government must adapt and respond credibly or risk losing the loyalty of its most important political constituency.

Whatever China has done it has done in a hurry. A decade’s time at Chinese speed creates as much change as occurs in other countries over one or two generations. Yet speed, whether it be GDP growth or an aging society, will be counterproductive to the coming era of Chinese development. China can rest assured over the next decade that it will have significantly narrowed the economic gap with the developed world, barring some unforeseen collapse of growth. The gaps that it must now narrow, after much neglect, are social and political. Each one of its challenges is formidable in and of itself. But the convergence of all three—economic, social, and political—will require Beijing to harness all the resolve and ingenuity at its disposal.

The new Chinese leadership faces a stark choice: summon its political will and forge forward boldly, risking destabilizing changes along the way, or keep its finger in the dyke and risk losing itself and the Chinese public to festering, pervasive social discontent. The political system has absorbed discontent and de-escalated seemingly intractable conflicts more than once—whether it can do so again, without significant changes, remains a looming unanswered (and unanswerable) question.

In the meantime, as outside observers expect the world’s soon-to-be biggest economy to exert ever more influence globally, and its own population’s expectations rise, Beijing’s mandarins face an unprecedented post-development narrowing of options and acute pressure to usher in considerable changes to its political economy. It is these intense pressures and the difficulty of managing change that will dictate the country’s behavior, ironically making China a very reluctant economic superpower, begrudgingly pulled into the global spotlight.

Ultimately, a balanced and nuanced portrait of today’s China is one of a nation of great aspirations, great achievements, and great limitations. China will need to make fundamental changes to its economic and political ecosystems over the next decade to prevent its limitations from overwhelming its aspirations. But the dramatic transformations that have sprouted every ten years or so since the founding of the modern Chinese republic are reasons to believe that changes will come, if not willfully, then by the indomitable force of necessity.

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