Mike Chinoy, an author, reporter, and former CNN Bureau Chief in Beijing, China visited the Perth USAsia Centre on 21 June. Mike is known for his award-winning coverage of the Tiananmen Square events in 1989. He also served as Bureau Chief in London and later Hong Kong. Today he is still based in Hong Kong and is a Senior Fellow at the U.S.-China Institute at the University of Southern California (USC).
Contrary to the dominant narrative
Discussions at the roundtable centred on contrarian views about the rise of China. The common narrative about China is that it will continue its economic growth trend and likewise its growing strategic power. The rise of China has implications for the international order and questions hang over whether or not it will be a responsible major power. Less well understood is China’s weaknesses. Its rise might not be inexorable like what is commonly assumed.
The limits on China’s rise
China is weaker than it looks. It faces profound problems which can constrain its future economic growth. It has an aging population and a demographic imbalance resulting from the decades-long effects of its one-child policy. It also faces a host of environmental challenges. The water supply in northern China is at risk of running out. Environmental degradation from a rapidly urbanising society and its manufacturing sector is becoming a source of public discontent.
China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which exists to improve the Indo-Pacific region’s connectivity with China and constitutes development assistance for other countries, also has roots in the economic problems China is facing. Its economy having slowed down, BRI’s purpose could also double as a method to keep China’s state-owned enterprises producing.
China also has to solve broader problems with its economy. To continue its high-speed economic growth, it needs to achieve an enormous increase in productivity. Its current level of productivity is not sufficient to maintain current standards of economic development.
Social and political challenges
After the events of Tiananmen Square in 1989, the “grand bargain” between the Chinese Communist Party and the people of China was based on limited personal freedoms in exchange for unchallenged Communist Party political control. There are signs that this social contract is fraying. Expansion of the surveillance state is one.
On a higher level, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s has consolidated his political power through discarding the architecture that Deng Xiaoping put in place to distribute power more widely and prevent China from being dominated by a single political leader. There is no clear succession plan and no obvious successor should Xi Jinping die or choose to retire. The ingredients are there for a crisis over uncertainty of leadership.
A combination of these factors could lay the foundation for the next events reminiscent of Tiananmen Square.
The situation in Hong Kong
The Roundtable quickly shifted to discussions about the situation unfolding in Hong Kong. A proposal for an Extradition Law, which would remove a “firewall” between the separate legal systems of Hong Kong and China, prompted the largest protests in the city’s history. The situation intensified when protesters were attacked by police, resulting in even larger subsequent protests.
While there is a deep distrust of institutions associated with mainland China, the ire of Hong Kong’s citizens is directed towards the special administrative region’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam rather than the Chinese government in Beijing.
While the protests in Hong Kong are not likely to become another “Tiananmen Square” moment and China’s challenges to its economic rise will not prompt its collapse, this Roundtable was a fascinating discussion based on Mike Chinoy’s extensive experience covering China.
Professor Gordon Flake, Erin Watson-Lynn, Mike Chinoy and Professor Stephen Smith.