The Ten Grave Problems Facing China

In April 1956, Mao Zedong gave a speech to the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party titled ‘On the Ten Great Relationships’ 论十大关系. It was a decisive period for New China. The initial surge of nationalisation that saw the country’s industry and agriculture come under state control was building into a tidal wave of radical socialism that would dominate the country for the next two decades. In the build up to this next stage of dirigisme Mao thought it essential to articulate the problems facing the fledgling People’s Republic. He listed ten issues that underlined social, economic, regional and national policy; he was in reality outlining the challenges that faced the Communist Party’s experiment in transforming China.

A popular observation about political uncertainty in Chinese holds that ‘when evil prognosticators appear in all quarters it is a sign of the end of days’ 末世征兆,妖孽四起. Elsewhere we have noted the dire warnings issued by left-leaning critics of China’s Communist Party such as the Children of Yan’an and the latter-day red fundamentalists of the Utopia group. In recent days, an editor with the journal Study Times 学习时报 has published a lengthy article in which he outlines ‘The Ten Grave Problems Facing China’.

During the once-in-a-decade ‘transition year’ of 2012-2013 which will see a change of party-state leadership, Communist Party propagandists have set the tone and require media outlets to celebrate clamorously the ‘ten golden years’ of rule under President/Party General Secretary Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao (for an example of these hosannas, see People’s Daily, ‘The Reasons for China’s “Glorious Decade” ’, in our China Story Yearbook 2012: Red Rising, Red Eclipse, ‘From Victory to Victory’). It is a time of extreme tension and high stakes, one in which China faces major political decisions that may well determine its direction not only for the next few years, but, as many feel, for long into the future. At this juncture a more lowly Party member than the late Chairman has offered his version of the problems facing the restive and fractured nation.

‘The Ten Grave Problems’ 十大问题 forms the second section of a three-part feuilleton or ‘pamphlet’ (in its earlier rabble-rousing sense) by Deng Yuwen 邓聿文 titled ‘The Political Legacy of Hu-Wen’ 胡温的政治遗产. It appeared online in Caijing 财经 magazine in late August-early September. Although the author echoes the formal Party line and extols the peerless achievements of the Hu-Wen decade, Deng goes on to deliver an accusatory accounting of China’s underlying social, economic, regional, political and ideological problems. He frames them as monumentally important issues that have grown in scale and gravity as a result of a stability obsessed government that, under the cover of consensual politics, has allowed pressing concerns to fester. They are issues of critical importance not only for China’s ruling party, but by extension for the world as a whole. An indictment of political lassitude, ‘The Ten Grave Problems’ is also framed as an agenda that demands the immediate attention of the party-state’s incoming leaders.

‘The Ten Grave Problems’ is merely one of the more public eructations of the one-party system of China. In earlier leadership transitions and crises thinkers, or to use an older expression ‘strategists’ 纵横家, have always played a crucial role. Ke Qingshi, Chen Boda, Yao Wenyuan and Zhang Chunqiao were prominent in the 1960s; thereafter, Hu Qiaomu and Deng Liqun (among others) rose to influence in the late 1970s and early 80s under Deng Xiaoping. Then, in the late 1980s, there were contending thinkers like He Xin, Wang Juntao and Chen Ziming. During the present power transition, one that began as early as 2007, individuals and groups have been vying to provide intellectual and strategic advice to the contenders for power. In the guise of ‘worrying about China’ 忧患意识 (a subject which Gloria Davies has addressed at length and with great eloquence) these intellectual activists struggle to formulate a future for the Party, or rather party-state, while forging careers that realise the prized goal of having the last word first and, to use another traditional formulation, ‘managing worldy affairs’ 经世.

The contestation for influence among Chinese thinkers has been exacerbated by a sense of crisis that many say is similar to that of the late 1980s, a time when ‘crisis consciousness’ was rife. Writing for Reuters, Chris Buckley reports that the putative future Party General Secretary and President of China, Xi Jinping, is taking note, and even attempting to quell the disquiet before a Chinese version of the trahison de clercs sets off an unpredictable chain of events. (Agitators on the left and the right call for drastic action to be taken against endemic corruption; others warn that any concerted effort in this regard would not only encounter serious opposition, it may well presage, or indeed incite, top-down socio-political instability.)

‘The Ten Grave Problems’ section of Deng’s essay is perhaps the most damning list of political failures of the Hu-Wen era that has appeared in a mainland publication. Despite being ‘harmonised’ nearly instantly from the Chinese Internet by assiduous net police, the text of ‘The Ten Grave Problems’ continues to circulate widely and spark discussion (and, in some circles, Schadenfreude). It is available in summary at Chinese Elections and Governance, while the original is posted by Political China.

Many of the issues raised below are touched on in our recently published China Story Yearbook 2012: Red Rising Red Eclipse, available on this site.

The following is a partial translation of Deng’s feuilleton by Eric Mu of Danwei.—Geremie. R. Barmé


Ten Grave Problems

The first section of this essay reviews the achievements of the Hu-Wen administration over the past decade from a historical point of view. Generally speaking, China has made considerable progress during this time. However, as mentioned above, behind the successes, problems have proliferated. To be frank, the problems that were engendered and spawned during the last decade may well outweigh the achievements. For the Communist Party, the biggest and most urgent issue to be addressed is that, in the course of leading people towards a well-off and affluent society, the Party has come to confront a crisis over the legitimacy of its rule that has resulted from: its failure to address the widening income gap; worsening corruption; inability to effectively achieve social integration; and, failure to meet public demands for increased democracy.

In addition, the Hu-Wen administration has failed to make progress—indeed, it may well have gone backwards, in at least some areas listed below that concerns China’s modernization:

No progress has been made in restructuring China’s economy. There has been a failure to build a domestic demand-driven economy, and a failure to implement effective policies to reform wealth distribution and prevent the income gap from widening. Despite a few rounds of new regulations governing the real estate market, the results remain uncertain. A social security system has been established but remains rudimentary. There has been a failure to make the residency permit system independent from public services, this in turn prevents migrant workers from being integrated into the cities despite rapid urbanization.

The problems related to an aging population have been exacerbated and there is a big lag between population policies and social reality. Environmental pollution has increased and shows no signs of improving. An ‘ecological civilisation’ has failed to emerge. The education system is becoming more and more bureaucratized and its guiding philosophy is in dire need of fundamental rethinking. Some significant results have been achieved as regards scientific research, but few are truly original or in the fields of basic science. Morality is collapsing; the core values of society are becoming more and more elusive. Social stratification is becoming more rigid and institutionalized. Conflicts between the government and people are becoming more and more radical. The government’s capacity to provide public services and management remains low. There has been a failure to nurture and enlarge a middle class, etc.

Below are some of the most significant problems, with explication:

Grave Problem 1

No breakthroughs in economic restructuring and constructing a consumer-driven economy
Though China’s economy is now the second largest in the world, it is both distorted in structure and of low quality. Vulnerable to fluctuations of the external economic environment, the current development model is an obstacle to long-term prosperity. China has to shift from the current model that overly stresses investment and exports and high resource consumption to a high-tech, consumer-driven economy as well as solve the inner rebalancing problem of the economy 经济内部的再平衡问题. However, restrained by vested interest groups including regional governments, little has been done in this regard. In particular, following the global financial crisis priority shifted from reform and restructuring to merely maintaining growth.

Grave Problem 2

Failure to nurture and grow a middle class
The history of modern states indicates that the middle class is the cornerstone of social stability and prosperity. But certain conditions need to be created to help a middle class grow: the middle class should be the mainstay of class structure, and the government needs to work to ensure the growth of the middle class through adjusting policies concerning income, housing and social security. In the last decade, benefiting from the economic boom, the sheer number of middle class people increased. However, the growth rate lags far behind general economic growth rates, as a result of the lack of any mechanism to nurture the middle class. As regards income distribution, reform has stagnated, resulting in an ever-increasing gap between rich and poor. The road leading towards the middle class is becoming even bumpier for low-income households. High housing prices have eroded people’s spending power, putting middle-class the living standards beyond their reach. Bearish stock markets have sucked in people’s savings yet denied them the chance of getting returns on investment. These are just some areas where the government should have done better.

Grave Problem 3

The rural-urban gap has increased
The residence permit system used to be the main tool used to rein in urban migration, in particular, the migration of farmers. In the past decade, despite increasing migration, the residence permit system remains tied to public services, and influences local government tax incomes and regional economic growth, therefore there is little incentive for reform. Some small cities have loosened their controls, but barriers remain high, and migrant workers still have great difficulties adapting to cities and obtaining new urban identities. The delay of residence permit reform has also radicalised conflicts between the countryside and cities, exacerbated government land sales and worsened the situation of landless farmers. Farmers’ interests are trampled on, and the traditional urban resident-farmer two-element structure has evolved into triangular structure of urban, rural workers and farmers.

Grave Problem 4

Population policy lags behind reality
The population is aging at an accelerated rate. Giving birth is a basic human right, but in the last decade the state continues its rigid one-child policy, which not only contributes to the aging of the population and a depletion of the demographic dividend, but also affects the country’s economic growth, retirement benefits, causing grievances to many families that have lost their only children, exacerbating the imbalanced sex ratio at birth, as well as other social problems. Birth-regulation policies trample on countless people’s rights on a daily basis.

Grave Problem 5

The bureaucratization and profit-incentivisation of educational and scientific research institutions shows no indication of being ameliorated and it continues to stifle creativity.
Education and scientific research is the foundation of a country. In the past decade, even though major progress has been made, quantity instead of quality is given priority. Few great scientists have emerged and original results are scarce. All these impair the realization of the goal of constructing an innovative country. The bureaucratization of the educational system has became more entrenched. The guiding philosophy of education is tilted more and more towards profit-generation, as universities and scientific research institutes alike are evaluated on the basis of the number of published papers, which has taken a toll on people’s spirit and capacity of innovation.

Grave Problem 6

Environmental pollution continues to worsen
There has been no improvement in environmental protection. ‘Coarse economic development’ is often marked by the high environmental cost that one pays for economic growth. Over the past decade, large numbers of energy-intensive, highly polluting projects have been launched, leading to further damage of our shared homeland and further diminishing the quality of life. Welfare and life itself is threatened by pollution. In addition, conflicts and confrontations are becoming more frequent and more intense, putting the concept of creating an ‘ecological civilisation’ sorely to the test.

Grave Problem 7

The government has failed to establish a stable energy supply system
China’s current development model can only be sustained by large amounts of energy. China’s per capita energy reserve is very low and its energy supply relies heavily on imports. As a result, if China can’t maintain stable and diversified energy sources, it will be at mercy of other countries and its long-term plans will be compromised. Over the past decade, though China has been actively seeking to expand its overseas markets and develop new energy technologies, it has failed to build either a stable energy supply network or the necessary military prowess to safeguard such a network, while the development of new energy technologies remains rudimentary.

Grave Problem 8

Moral lapses and the collapse of ideology. The government has failed to build an effective and convincing value system that can be accepted by the majority of its people
If a society is unable to prevent moral standards from degenerating, and if its members are unrestrained by any moral principle and have no sense of shame and see nothing but profit as their goal in life, it will soon descend to the level of the jungle. In the past decade, while the economy has developed rapidly, the state of morality has declined. In a time when old moral standards have collapsed, and the ideology developed during the revolutionary era has become bankrupt, a modern moral system suitable for a new market economy and commercial civilisation has failed to fill in the gap. As a result, there are no guiding principles for the society. The damage done to the people’s spirit and the effects of the crisis of faith are gradual and subtle. This trend has hardly been reversed in the past decade.

Grave Problem 9

‘Firefighting’ and ‘stability-maintenance’ style diplomacy lacks vision, strategic thinking and specific measures
The state has failed to take advantage of the opportunities that have come with the shift in the international order. China has landing itself in a passive position. In the past decade, even though China has gained in power when it comes to deciding international affairs and putting forth a set of principles and targets as regards the world order, the state has failed to transform this potential into deeds. The reason is that China’s diplomacy has only principles and goals, and lacks strategic planning and an agenda-setting capacity, or indeed the will power to carry them out. In terms of diplomatic principles, the state is unable to adjust its diplomacy according to changes in the international situation and China’s own strength. Instead it limits itself to the philosophy of [Deng Xiaoping] of ‘hiding our capacities and biding our time’. As a result of this China’s diplomacy has failed to reflect its increased clout, which is demonstrated by the use of ‘firefighting’ and ‘stability-maintenance’ style diplomacy in handling international affairs. This has worsened China’s international situation and undermined the confidence of the Chinese people.

Grave Problem 10

Insufficient efforts in pushing political reform and promoting democracy
There is a long way to go before the ideal of returning power to the people. This is the biggest and the most challenging problem. From the experience of modernisation in other countries it is evident that the problem can’t be solved once for all. It should be done methodically and with caution. However, the state should at least make some gesture to show that the Party is sincere in its efforts to give people some hope, instead of dithering when faced with difficulties. In the past decade, despite the Hu-Wen administration’s emphasis on democracy, freedom, rule of the law and political reform, little progress has been made regarding democratisation. In fact, the solution to all these problems lies with the reform of the political system, and how profound political reform will be. So, the government should be courageous and take a bold step to realise China’s political reform and democracy.

One era is coming to an end, and another is beginning. For a variety of reasons, Hu and Wen have failed to make positive progress in the above-mentioned areas. How their successors will proceed in dealing with these problems will determine China’s peaceful rise and the speed of its rise, and even whether its rise can continue.

For this reason we should feel a sense of crisis.


Related Material

In Chinese: at Political China.
In English: at Chinese Elections and Governance.

Deng Yuwen on Weibo
Deng’s own post of his three-part essay has been deleted. Although his name is not blocked, the titles of his essays are.

Comments on Weibo

Mao Zedong, ‘On the Ten Great Relationships’