As China prospers and expands its presence on the world stage, this offered an opportunity to reflect on political and social developments at home. While the general commentary is positive, critics highlight the differences in style between China’s approach to development and the text-book model of western perception. While we should be aware of this bias, some of the social and political dislocations are widening enough to threaten stability and even economic development. The kind of inequalities are not so different from those seen in developed economies, but in China the expectation of equality is built in to the political system.
While the objective of refocusing development on the countryside, on inland provinces and sustainability are appropriate, this is not easy. It is made more difficult by the growing dispersion of power, principally through economic wealth in the coastal provinces. This is compounded by the falling away of social infrastructure that used to provide a ground floor for the poor, such as public housing, which has been cleared from Beijing (and other cities) to make way for middle income housing or public infrastructure (eg Olympic housing) and the evaporation of rural education and health care infrastructure. (These articles from The Economist offer food for thought: China, beware and Missing the barefoot doctors.)
Looking to the future, as in all systems, openness offers the way to manage complex and diverse aims. Moving from a system of closed thought and action (China 30 years ago, Europe in the middle ages) to an open system has not yet been achieved on a national scale, but that is where China must head. The difficulty is always liberating thought and action while raising ethical standards. (The saddest example of this challenge is offered by wealthy America which retains capital punishment, incarcerates minors and has curtailed civil liberties in the past 5 years.)
While China will continue to be a wonderful example of stable growth and enlightenment, the tension for volatility and social explosions will be difficult t0 manage. Look to the recent history of industrial action in the UK in the 1970s or the civil rights movement of the US for illustrations of the confrontations that are to be expected.