The Blog

Hu's Paradise

China and North Korea's growing list of worries.

6:00 PM, Jul 31, 2009 • By REUBEN F. JOHNSON
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In a case of pure outrage over corrupt, local party bosses some 50,000 people recently rioted in the city of Shishou in Hubei province. The protests began over what appeared to be a murder covered up by the police, who declared the death of a 24-year old hotel chef a suicide. Thе chef, named Tu Yuangao, was found dead outside the Yonglong hotel where he worked, with all forensic evidence pointing to him having been thrown off a hotel balcony only after he had already been killed.

The local population knew from the beginning that the hotel was a centre of drug trafficking activity--with the mayor, senior police and other local officials all having some degree of ownership in the establishment. The story on the streets was that Tu was killed for threatening to expose the hotel owners' illegal activities over a pay dispute. When the police attempted to remove his body from the morgue for cremation (and destroy the evidence of how he really died in the process) around 50,000 people massed and overturned some six police vehicles in order to block the road to the crematorium. The resulting riots ended up with the hotel--rather than Tu's body--being set on fire and some 200 people injured.

Beijing's answer is to massive protests is--if local authorities and the national Peoples's Armed Police (PAP) cannot cope with them--is to send in the People's Liberation Army (PLA). The PLA is increasingly called on to do just that, even though there was a major expansion in the numbers of the PAP at the end of the 1990s by transferring 14 PLA divisions into their ranks. This internal military force now numbers some 1.5 million and yet it still is proving to be inadequate to deal with rising internal unrest in China.

"The growing extent to which the government is increasingly relying on the military for these internal, crowd-control missions makes you wonder how effectively the PLA would respond to any significant or long-term external threat to the nation," said one American colleague who is based in Beijing.

These headaches, plus rapidly deteriorating environmental conditions around the nation, are only the tip of the iceberg. The other concern is a looming demographic time bomb.

According to Chinese demographers there are now 100 million people aged 60 and older, or less than 10 per cent of the population. This number will more than triple to 334 million by 2050. Today, fewer than 30 per cent of those living in the cities have an adequate pension, virtually no one in the countryside does, and thanks to the "one-child only" policy there will not be enough adult children around to take care of elderly parents. This future health-care crisis makes the current U.S. dilemma seem like a picnic by comparison and could China's by-now famous economic boom into a downward tailspin.

How President Hu and his successors will keep the Worker's Paradise hanging together is a tricky proposition. There are today no ideological underpinnings to fall back on when economic times become difficult. The genie is out of the bottle and trying to revert back is a non-starter. "You cannot have a modernizing, growing economy under a totalitarian state," a Beijing-based colleague reminded me, which is the lesson of the DPRK. "What remains to be seen now is if you can sustain this type of a growing economy in China with this current authoritarian state."

Reuben F. Johnson is a frequent contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD Online.