Cruise the aisles of almost any retail shop and it’s easy to be both fascinated and a little repelled by all the stuff made in China. Like it or not, most of us have long gotten used to it. The prices are hard to beat, and there often isn’t much of a choice, anyway.
It’s pretty clear what the U.S. market has meant to China over the past three decades: a living (if not actual prosperity) for tens of millions; perhaps a chance to travel or be educated in the West if you’re among the fortunate; a global scramble for natural resources and increasing clout for its government — all accompanied by rapid urbanization, social tensions and out-of-control pollution.
But look again — this time like the Chinese leadership does — and you can see that “Made in China” tag is beginning to suggest something different, as well: the end of an era. While Chinese-made goods are not going to disappear from a Walmart near you, the country’s leaders understand that it’s no longer enough to simply crank the economy up another notch and spit out even more cheap consumer goods for the world market.
That central fact is tied to virtually everything China is doing today, from its approach to internal economic policy and the personal freedom of its citizens to the rough-and-tumble of Communist Party politics.
How does that work? And what exactly does that load in your shopping cart have to do with it?
Meet Xi Jinping, the president and Communist Party chief, who came to power vowing to bring to life the “Chinese Dream” — a catchy, if squishy, concept, defined as a “moderately prosperous society” at the start of the next decade and a “modern socialist country” further down the road. Under the continued leadership of the Communist Party, of course.
Xi is energetic and considerably more charismatic than either of his predecessors, each of whom held the job for a decade. But he is by no means a closet democrat, or even a reformer. Despite modest hopes in the West, he probably never was.
Xi faced several big headaches when he became party chief in late 2012 and president the following March. He is the first leader not designated ahead of time by elder statesman Deng Xiaoping, who launched China’s reforms in the 1980s, and he had to deal with a challenge to his leadership. (His rival, Bo Xilai, was found guilty of bribery a year and a half ago and is spending the rest of his life in jail.)
Plus, the economy was slowing from its torrid pace. Deng’s approach was to keep the peace (and the party’s claim to power) by continually making the economic pie bigger. This year’s target, announced March 5 is still 7 percent growth — huge by Western standards, but lower than last year’s, which already was the slowest in 24 years.
The weak global economy hasn’t helped, but regardless, the old engine is starting to run out of steam. Xi and other officials know that they need to build a new model, and fast. It will have to keep the country growing, but at a slower, more sustainable rate, to keep Chinese citizens invested in the system — and the party’s stewardship of it. It will have to take on powerful (and often inefficient) state-run industries. It will have to be careful about further degrading the air, water and land. And it must focus on making things that Chinese also want to buy, not only cheap consumer goods, but higher-end items attractive to the country’s newly wealthy. China needs to develop a domestic market, as well as foreign markets.
All this will be tremendously disruptive, especially for a political system that has evolved very little even as the economy charged ahead. China is a difficult place to govern in the best of circumstances, so even if he were democratically inclined, Xi probably wouldn’t be showing it about now.
Instead, he’s trying to get Chinese to close ranks behind the party, and him, for the bumpy ride ahead. We see a tough anti-corruption campaign to cleanse the party, which often seems to be aimed at his political rivals. The latest target is Zhou Yongkang, a former Politburo member. There is more room for nationalism, including projecting territorial claims and military power into the waters east and south of China, rattling Japan and a number of other countries.
The “Great Firewall,” which restricts Internet access to sensitive sites and topics, is getting higher and thicker. Room for political discourse is narrowing; the latest targets are China’s universities. It’s enough to make some analysts worry that China is actually starting to close itself off from the world, with potentially disastrous consequences.
Maybe not. But Xi does seem to want to have it both ways: Take advantage of the world’s know-how, markets and resources if they are useful and consistent with party orthodoxy. Seal the country off from the rest.
It usually isn’t quite that simple. You can easily miscalculate here … have an accident there … or a global crisis at an inopportune moment.
Xi is leading China in interesting times.