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Incoming crisis for the Chinese Civilization

How History and Demographics can Explain New Challenge and Threats to the Rule of the Chinese Communists Party

by Alberto Perotti and Antonio Carioli

Mounting tensions in the East China Sea between the People’s Republic of China and the rival Republic of China worry the world for the consequences that a global escalation would provoke. It is nothing short of a civilizational struggle, but not in the sense that a westerner would grasp: this is first and foremost an internal matter, or so they like to think.

The rise of the Han led to the creation of a millennia-spanning story, made of conflict with other peoples, complex interactions between dissimilar ideologies and revolutionary events. Huge swaths of territories were cultivated and pillaged, bombed and rebuilt, all while following almost cyclical historical patterns. The societies that have followed one another provide an important tool of investigation. Today, China is a rising power, already shaking to the core the order that the American empire constructed, or allowed, after the fall of the Soviet Union. However, it is also riddled with issues tied to the gargantuan population and an economy starting to struggle.

To start our immersion in the Chinese system of thought we need to consider its origins. China is the most ancient surviving civilization in the world and has a set of distinct characteristics that allowed it to resist for so long. Originally, its ‘core’ used to be the northern plains, known as Zhongyuan, where small clans organized to build a dam and irrigation system based on the turbulent Yellow River. The common need for a stable source of food and the flatness of the terrain allowed, or even encouraged, the creation of a centralized state capable of efficiently arming itself and imposing its social norms on other peoples and lands. This group was known as Huaxia, but has evolved into what we now call Han.
All this could not be said of the southern plains, where the locals were rarely able to organize and centralize due to the terrain and dependence on rice farming, for which it was impossible to build common infrastructure at the time. Thus, despite this region being more economically active, for most of Chinese history the North has been the political center, and was capable of integrating their southern neighbours. A similar phenomenon occurred in large parts of Manchuria, Gansu, Taiwan and the Sichuan basin, which went on to create the modern ‘core’ of China.

This modern core however does not fully fall in the western category of ‘nation’. It is after all the result of a millennia long imperial expansion, which disregarded differences in geography, culture and economic interest. The Chinese state could not fully mend ethnic differences, even within the core. Efficient control, today as in the past, can be secured only through timely and respected decisions from the center, a task that becomes more and more difficult as social tensions and economic slowdown undermine the core’s stability. Chinese states along the centuries did not extend only to these areas: they also tried to control, sometimes through tributary kingdoms, peripheral regions surrounding the core to provide strategic depth to their defence. This is the case for, to name a few, Xinjiang (literally ‘New Frontier’), Yunnan, Taiwan and more recently Tibet. From these very regions came the often nomadic peoples that harassed and looted for centuries the Han core, like the Mongols or Manchu, who were absorbed every time they managed to establish hegemony over the core.
Controlling the periphery does not come only with defensive advantages, however. Today, control over Tibet and Yunnan also means controlling the water supply of Southeast Asia and the Indian Subcontinent. This kind of leverage transformed the periphery from a mere shell to a hedgehog’s armour, and is the reflection of today’s strong core. The sea, however, was always a critical weakness and an area over which the central government posed little control: it preferred the vast interior and its canals as trade routes, since it was mostly self-sufficient, and focused on coast protection rather than sea domination. This led to chronic piracy problems, and ultimately was one of the main weaknesses that caused the Opium Wars, waged between 1839 and 1860, in which Western Powers seeked concessions from Qing China; the Japanese invasions, between 1931 and 1945, in which Japan attempted to assert its civilizational dominance and take control of relevant resources; and the century of humiliation at large, a period of Chinese history dominated by internal struggle among warlords and aforementioned external threats.

Today, as the Chinese Communist Party has made it their mission never to allow such disgraces again, Chinese reluctance to take to the open sea is being challenged, and it is beginning to mobilitate the first true blue-water navy of Chinese history. The current arrangement of the Chinese state is the very manifestation of its 3+1 strategic imperatives, with the last one being more relevant in modern times:

1. Maintain unity in the Han core
2. Maintain control over the periphery
3. Protect the coast from foreign encroachment
4. Secure international trade routes

Another fundamental aspect of Chinese civilization is that due to being mostly self-sufficient it is usually capable of dealing with the outside world on its own terms, except for when it was at war or occupied, and has thus adopted different ideologies and corresponding forms of society cyclically based on what suited them best. These 3 ideologies, Confucianism, Legalism and Buddhism/Taoism, permeate Chinese society and the way of thought in a way not dissimilar from how Christianity molded the Western world. They are contradictory in some respects, but share a common base that could be defined as the base of all Chinese thought, from family interactions to the organization of states.
Each of them has dominated over the others from time to time, and is associated with different phases of Chinese history, but they are all codependent and coexisting in an insurmountable way.

Confucianism emerged as a philosophy in the 6th century BC and was founded by a man named by western Jesuit missionaries as Confucius. This doctrine focuses on bringing about social stability through a strict family structure and the belief that if everyone maintains their social duties in the ways necessary to their social class, society will be perfect. It is based on the belief that humans commit immoral acts only through a lack of strong moral standards. The ultimate goal of Confucianism, as with many other Oriental philosophies, is to lead a peaceful and productive life, which would collectively lead to a strong and fair state. In such a society, the government has the most central of roles, and is to be respected until it holds the Mandate of Heaven; treating the population fairly and preserving prosperity and security are central, and once these conditions are not respected, the government loses its mandate and is to be toppled by the population. Confucianism’s role is not too dissimilar to that of Christianity in the West, as it permeates in all aspects of Chinese society, including politics.
The Confucianism-centered archetype is that of a society turned inward and isolationist, typically after a traumatic event.

An example is the isolationist and Confucianist period that followed the resizing of the tributary kingdom system, the court intrigues and the end of the Ming Treasure Voyages during the Ming dynasty in the 15th century; more notably the Mongol Invasions also followed this dynamic.
The Chinese states that resulted were mostly confined within the Han core and were not interested or capable of achieving their strategic objectives other than maintaining the core stable.
Legalism attained prominence during the Warring States period, between 475 and 221 BC, and it is founded upon the belief, completely in contrast with Confucianism, that humans are inherently selfish and short-sighted, and that social order can be achieved most importantly thanks to strong state control and absolute obedience to authority.

According to Legalism, the individual is to be just a small part of a larger society-mechanism and that its role is to be a faithful and productive member of said society-mechanism. Due to being used by oppressive regimes like Maoist or Qing China to justify their rule it has a bad reputation and is not officially part of any regime’s propaganda, but it has had an undeniable role in all forms the Chinese state has taken since its creation.

At the core of Chinese legalism is the test system of ancient China: talented youngs would study and prepare for tests that would determine their position in society based on their grades, a very meritocratic system used to stabilize an otherwise oppressive government. Adoption of legalism as the dominant system of thought is promoted by the need of a country to prepare for total war and build the largest possible army, and it is not endemic only to China: the Roman Republic was not too dissimilar from this point of view. Currently Xi Jinping and his faction in the CCP is attempting to shift China into a legalist phase.

Buddhism, of which the precise birthdate is unclear, and Taoism, created in the late 4th century BC, are similar philosophies that interacted and up to a point melted in China. They are the founding pillars of the third form that China took in its history. Both of them are considerable religions and have core elements of their thought based on mysticism. For example, both have a cyclical view of life and time, and both place meditation and self-reflection at the center of the growth process of each individual.
This China, as in the form its state and government take, is quite atypical when confronted with Confucianism-based and Legalism-based Chinas.

Buddhist/Taoist China is highly cosmopolitan, heavily involved in international affairs, invests large parts of its finances and identity in the outside world and relies on trade for its economic success. This enables private entrepreneurship as individuals are validated to take on decision-making themselves, and for this reason these philosophies are typically more appreciated in the rich and commerce-focused South. Their mysticism provides an escape from legalism and confucianism, which require the individual to conform and renounce their societal expectations. This form is the one the CCP promoted after the death of Mao, and it perfectly coupled with a certain degree of capitalism, leading to the economic prosperity and growth that we saw in the last decades.

Like Confucianism, Buddhism-Taoism emerges after traumatic events. For example; the Hun invasions and the indirectly related discovery of the Indian and Persian Civilizations, which destroyed the Chinese myth of being the only state-society, led the Han dynasty to drive the Huns out of Mongolia and take control of the trade routes of Central Asia, which later would become the Silk Road.
China is challenged by its demographics, as its population is aging faster than almost every other country in modern history. Despite being the most populated country on Earth, with around 1.4 billion inhabitants according to recent estimates, its population growth is only at 0.59% (159th in the world). Current demographic trends could hinder economic growth, create social problems and threaten the CCP’s long-term plans to make the country a consolidated global superpower. Throughout much of world history, China has consistently made up around a quarter of the world population, more than any other country ever existed.

This is mainly due to early development in the great plains of Northern China, where the need for a centralized immigration system boosted mobility across different centers, creating some private commerce and some early forms of urbanization. This process greatly accelerated under the golden age of the Han dynasty (202 BC -220 AD), a period of unprecedented population increase coupled with greater wealth for the population. A tax census dated 2 AD estimated around 57.6 millions permanent inhabitants of the Empire, already the most populated region at that time. As science and technology also advanced, food supply was guaranteed to a larger fraction of society, thus decreasing malnutrition and violence linked to competition for resources, with the overall effect of diminishing death rates.
In 220 AD, the toppling of the Han dynasty brought an end to this golden age, and a turbulent phase of warring states followed.

This pattern consistently repeated in time: periods of great prosperity and cultural splendor driven by an overall increase in wealth among the population (usually Taoist-Buddhist periods) then abruptly alternated with periods of mounting tensions (often coupled with predominance of legalism), ages of isolation (Confucian states), or even periods of failed statehood and military anarchy. Until the late-Middle Ages, however, the population growth was moderate. According to the demographic transition model, a famous demographics theory establishing a link between changing vital statistics and social and economic development and built on 4 stages of transition, Han China belongs to stage 1, associated with pre-industrial societies: even if technological advancement allows for an increase in food production, population growth is soon matched by increasing death rates, it then slows and can even decrease when conflicts arise. In stage 2, that of a developing nation, death rates drop quickly due to higher yields in agriculture, improvements in sanitation, technological discoveries and greater water supply, thus favoring higher standards of living and lower chances of death especially among the young. The population in 1700, according to widely accepted estimates, was roughly 150 million, about what it had been under the late Ming a century before, then doubled over the next century, and reached a height of 450 million on the eve of the mid-19th century. While going through brief periods of immense devastation – for instance, the period from 1850 to 1873 saw, as a result of the Taiping Rebellion, a drop by over 30 million people, not to mention the Civil war period after the fall of the last Imperial dynasty, up until the end in 1949 – China’s population continued to grow steadily.

After the Communist takeover, the central government policy has drastically changed over the decades, shaping the country’s demographics to how we see it today. Under the leadership of Mao (1949-1976) the overall population almost doubled, surpassing 900 million, as the country was still a young, recovering, and agrarian society, while also undergoing the largest famine in human history associated with the Great Leap Forward, a disastrous attempt to industrialize the country responsible for deaths ranging between 15 and 55 million. Having inherited a country beset with institutional disorder and disenchantment with Communism, Mao’s successor Deng Xiaoping introduced a series of reforms to modernize the economy and revert the previous policies. While Mao’s belief was that population growth empowered the country, under Deng the self-explanatory one-child policy was enacted.
The fertility rate in China fell from 2.8 births per woman in 1979 (already a sharp reduction from more than five births per woman in the early 1970s) to 1.5 by the mid 1990s. Although some scholars claim that this decline is not too dissimilar from that observed in other places that had no reproductive policies , fertility restrictions also had other unintended consequences. Most notably, it led to a shortfall of female population: as of 2020, fifteen to twenty-year old Chinese had a gender of imbalance of 116.1 males to every 100 females, (on average, while considering the same age range, it’s around 1.03-1.07 in most of the industrialized world), and men outnumber women by approximately 34 million.
This deficit results from a combination of the one-child policy, the strong son preference rooted in Chinese patriarchal society, and easy access to sex-selective abortion. Furthermore, around the 1980s, some provinces enacted a “1.5 child rule”, which allowed parents from many regions to have a second child only if the first was a daughter.

Over the next 20 years, a predicted excess of 10–20% of young men will emerge in large parts of China, with some experts worrying that the wifeless men left behind may be marginalized, as being single is barely socially acceptable in the Chinese cultural context, triggering an increase in crime rates and social unrest. After 2000 the policy was steadily relaxed. In 2016 the national policy changed to a two-child policy, and in 2018 it changed to a three-child policy. Although China saw a short-lived boost in fertility rate in 2016 after the reform, the number of births then continued to decline in the following years, failing to address China’s ageing problem. China has quickly gone through stages 3 and 4 of the demographic transition because of its unique rapid social and economic development. While birth rates have fallen due to various fertility factors such as access to contraception, and increases in wages, immense technological progress in various sectors of the Chinese economy, most importantly health care, has caused life expectancy to grow from 44.6 to 77.47 years during this period, and is expected to reach about 80 years by 2050.

We’ve now entered a new, unprecedented stage in the history of demographics, due to society having fallen below the replacement fertility rate. From the 1.6 live births per woman in 2017, it fell to 1.3 in 2020, with some arguing the real figures are even lower. Its rapid fertility decline is not unique. Overall, the entire East Asian region is facing the issue, as national economies have rushed into industrialization over a single generation, creating massive economic growth, while also going through 3 different stages of demographic transition in a brief period of time. As the generation responsible for this growth gets older, however, the picture gets darker. The proportion of Chinese people over the retirement age is estimated to reach 39% of the total population by 2050, increasing its dependency ratio of the elderly on the working people to 69.7%, almost doubling the current one.

Even if the Chinese government provides part of the financial support needed by the elderly through social welfare, through pensions and public welfare homes, there are still many elderly people in China who have nobody that takes care of them. In 2015, there were, on average, 27 beds per 1,000 elderly homes in China, far fewer than those in the United States or Germany. It is important to highlight that this crisis will likely affect almost every industrialized country, particularly in Europe and in the industrialized portion of East Asia (South Korea, Japan), two regions affected by a sharp decline in the fertility rate, high life expectancy and not enough net migration. Italy, for instance, has recorded a net loss of 384,000 people in its last census, and it could lose up to 12 million by 2050 if such demographic trend is not somehow inverted; under current fertility rates, Italy would need to raise its retirement age to 77 or admit 2.2 million immigrants annually to maintain its workers to retiree ratio. However, it should be pointed out that, as Ryan Hass, a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Institution commented, “China is at risk of growing old before it grows rich, becoming a graying society with degrading economic fundamentals that impede growth”. He went on to say, “The working-age population is already shrinking; by 2050, China will go from having eight workers per retiree now to two workers per retiree. Moreover, it has already squeezed out most of the large productivity gains that come with a population becoming more educated and urban and adopting technologies to make manufacturing more efficient”.

As China is also engaged in fierce competition against the United States, it is important to point out that the average Chinese is already older than the average American, mainly due to America’s population growth relying on immigration, which is around 750 times higher than China’s.
This inevitably sparks the question: how will China keep up with America’s ease to find financial resources for the military when it will have to finance hundreds of millions of pensioners and an inefficient public sector drowning in debt?

Another relevant subject is that of ethnic minorities. Over 90% of the population is ethnically Han, while the rest (around 100 million people) belong to other ethnic groups, mainly inhabiting peripheral regions. During the past decades ethnic minorities have experienced higher growth rates than the majority Han population, thanks to exemptions from the one-child policy. In Beijing and Shanghai, for instance, fertility rate is at around 0.71 and 0.74, respectively, whereas in Xinjiang it’s 1.53, one of the highest in the country. Since 2012, Han Chinese in southern Xinjiang have been allowed to have two children. This, along with incentives and restrictions against higher Muslim Uyghur fertility, was seen as attempt to counter the threat of Uyghur separatism.

As the demographic crisis triggers several problems affecting social and economic development, the power of the Communist Party is, for the first time since its takeover of the country, seriously threatened. The implicit social contract according to which the general population has tolerated decades of authoritarianism, crackdown on civil liberties and brutal socio-economic policies in exchange for greater wealth and access to the modern way of life could now cease to appeal as economic growth begins to slow down, not to mention the possible implications of a young, disproportionately-male population that is not guaranteed the same advances in personal well-being as their parents were, only a couple of decades earlier.

In light of the Confucian idea of the “mandate of Heaven”, which provides a moral justification to the people rebelling against a weak and corrupt authority if they feel that it is not fulfilling the civic duty it’s being supported fo., and thus fearful of their authority gradually losing legitimacy, the CCP has engaged in a strict consolidation of their rule, expanding the government’s authority in every sphere of society, in what is now being defined by foreign experts as “contemporary Orwellian dystopia”, and is really just a return to legalism with modern technology. The recent escalation with Taiwan provides the CCP a feasible tool to steer social discomfort towards a shared common goal, that is the inevitable rise of the Chinese nation to win back an idealized past splendor.

From this perspective, the unification with Taiwan, a homogenous Han-inhabited democracy roughly 160 km off the Chinese coast, thriving example of a possible alternative to Communist power in China and the last open wound reminiscent of the Civil war, has now risen to become the one force that keeps the country from turning against the ruling power. As China is time-pressured to achieve this goal, it is pivotal to take the recent escalations between the two sides very seriously: a military invasion of Taiwan could trigger a devastating, full-scale international conflict, putting an end to eight decades of world peace.


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