Personality cults are a traditional fixture of totalitarian communist dictatorships. Generally they become less banal and intrusive on the lives of everyday people as those nations modernize and traverse the onramp to Al Gore's famous Information Superhighway. As it happened in the former USSR and a score of other nations in the last two decades, this modernization process also usually means an end to the communist, one-party regime.

The fact that the two phenomena have gone hand-in-hand in so many places around the world is one of the many worries of the governing elite of the People's Republic of China (PRC). For now, the Middle Kingdom remains kind of a hybrid. China's economic growth and speed of modernization has been nothing less than astounding, but the communist party still has the monopoly on power.

The difference between today's China and that of 30 years ago is that the ideological component of the party's role in society is almost symbolic. China's rulers still maintain the images and monuments of Mao Zedong, but refer to the teachings and sayings of The Great Helmsman as moral and political guidelines for people's everyday lives less and less.

As one would expect, this is largely a generational divide in Chinese society. Making reference to the great Mao's sayings is associated with the old, pre-modern poor PRC, and that being part of the generation of the modern, advanced China generally means ideological agnosticism.

However, China's neighbor North Korea more than makes up for the demise of communist Puritanism in the People's Republic. The god-like status once attributed to Mao Zedong that has long since disappeared in China is alive and well in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). The state-mandated worship of the present dictator, Kim Jong-Il, and his deceased father, Kim Il-Sung, puts any of the accolades to Mao to shame.

Not surprisingly, the Orwellian society of North Korea has insured that the country has one of the most failed--and perhaps completely unsalvageable at this point--economies in the world.

If there was ever a case to be made against a one-man, dictatorial state it is the DPRK. While lacking the murderous brutality of Saddam Hussein's Iraq, the mismanagement of the country's economy has been no less deadly to the people of North Korea. As many as three million are thought to have perished in famines that peaked in the 1990s, and the situation has been abated only by massive shipments of food aid each year.

The drop in production of grain, which occurred largely during the years that Kim Jong-Il took over after the death of his father, Kim Il-Sung, is unprecedented: from 92 million tons in the 1990 to less than 33 million in 2000. This anemic agricultural output is so inadequate that the nation has become a perennial beggar, what relief workers in Third World nations refer to as a "food aid junkie." Without this aid there is no way that the country could survive.

What the DPRK has been able to produce is a bumper crop of outrageous legends about Kim Jong-Il's magical--nearly superhuman--capabilities and achievements. He is said to have a photographic memory, and to have piloted jet fighters, composed operas, and directed globally acclaimed movies. Among his other improbable and statistically impossible claimed achievements is the legend that he scored eleven holes-in-one in the first round of golf he ever played.

The problem North Korea presents for the government of Chinese President Hu Jintao is roughly analogous to the potential economic refugee dilemma the United States faces with Mexico. A complete breakdown of the country means that China, which borders the DPRK in the north would (along with South Korea on the DPRK's other border) be faced with what has been described as "the mother of all relief operations."

China, South Korea and others have provided food aid to the DPRK for years because tolerating panhandling by Pyongyang (and ignoring that Kim at the same time squanders what little resources he has on nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs) is the lesser of all the potential evils. But this unthinkable disaster of the DPRK's collapsing has come closer to reality this month.

Unconfirmed reports that Kim now suffers from pancreatic cancer have struck fear into the hearts of more than one Asian government and have forced Beijing to think about the near-term future of the isolationist state. "If the reports are true then Kim will never live long enough to ensure that he can install Kim Jong Un (his youngest son at age 26) as his successor," said a Beijing-based source, "and who takes over has some significant implications for China." The scenario that is believed to be playing out now is that Kim's multiple provocations of the past few weeks--a second nuclear test, multiple missile launches--are designed to curry favor with the DPRK military in the hope that the generals will still support the younger, 26-year old Kim's ascension to the throne.

Buying into these reports on Kim's health is problematic in that they are leaked from South Korea's intelligence service and "you never know what the agenda for leaking these reports is," said a source based in Beijing. "Traditionally the Japanese have had better information that the South Koreans" on the true situation inside of the DPRK. Japanese intelligence officers are able to collect a fair amount of HUMINT (human-sourced intelligence) from the sizeable colony of pro-North Zainichi Koreans that reside permanently in Japan and travel back and forth to deliver gifts of consumer goods and cash to their relatives.

Recent photos of Kim showing a sizeable loss of weight, a generally gaunt appearance, a limping gait in his walk and the decline of his bouffant hairstyle seem to support the cancer theory. Other analysts dispute it by using the old "who made more visits this year to more collective farms" technique that was one of the few insights into the Soviet leadership's maneuvering in the former USSR.

Yang Moo-jin, a professor at Seoul's University of North Korean Studies, has discounted the cancer rumors on the basis that there has been a spike in the number of what are called "field-guidance" visits by Kim to factories and (of course) collective farms to date this year. From January to June 2009 Kim has reportedly made 77 of these visits while in the first half of 2008 he made only 49 such appearances. An advanced case of cancer, so his theory says, would prohibit Kim from such a busy schedule of personal visits. President Hu and Co. are undoubtedly hoping that Yang's assessment is the correct one.

But, the uncertain DPRK situation and the recent riots in Xinjiang province are only two of an expanding list of problems for Beijing. Not the least of which is the impact of the worldwide economic downturn.

Official government statements are crowing that the PRC is the only nation to experience robust economic growth at 7.9 per cent. The population at large has greeted this "official" news with no small degree of contempt--the Chinese equivalent of people complaining loudly about a "jobless recovery." This is not surprising because anyone familiar with the structure and dynamics of China's economy will tell you that anything less than 9 percent expansion translates into negative growth despite what the government's numbers might say. Moreover, most of the growth seems to have been fueled by massive lending into the local economy by Chinese banks and not due to any major increase in manufacturing output.

There are many Chinese websites that are forums for people to vent their dissent against the party line. The reaction to the economic news had the state security apparatus working overtime last week--breaking into those forums that had bloggers complaining that the government's announcement on the economy amounted to no more than a feeble attempt to put lipstick on a pig. A Chinese colleague in Beijing told me "you cannot believe the deluge of people talking angrily about what a joke this supposed 'economic growth' is on these news sites." The same colleague checked back a few hours later and found all such comments had been deleted.

Beijing can stick its head in the sand all it wants, but it does not detract from the reality that there are palpable levels of discontent in the population. More important is the fact that they may be ignited by ethnic tensions or economic hardship, but at the core there is increasingly hostility all over China towards local and regional government officials and their rising levels of corruption.

The anger is not limited to one part of the country either. Most of the world is aware only of the clashes in Xinjiang province in the capitol city of Urumqi, but more deadly riots between minority Uighurs have also taken place in the last week. Only these occurred 3,000 miles away on the other end of the country in the city of Shaoguan in China's southern Guangdong province.

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.

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