By: Andrew Mertha, Opinion Contributor
When I arrived in Washington, D.C., as a China specialist from the Ivory Tower (in my case, Ithaca, New York), I experienced a profound culture shock when it came to how China was discussed among academics, policy wonks and political leaders inside the Beltway. China was overwhelmingly described as inexorably rising, on the fast track to supplant the United States as a global superpower. The sustained growth of China’s economy, the People’s Liberation Army’s successful maneuvers in the South China Sea, the 5G high-tech revolution and Beijing’s unprecedented outward-oriented foreign investment created an image of an unstoppable global juggernaut, which was, many articulated, ready to “eat our lunch.” The empirical facts surrounding these developments, if not quite these conclusions, are unassailable. But they tell only a part of the story, while leaving an at least equally crucial dimension unstated, unexplored and woefully under-analyzed.
I lived in China for seven years, beginning in 1988. I have spent the lion’s share of my time outside of the capital, Beijing, mostly in the provinces, researching and interacting with local governments and non-elites in Chinese society. The picture that has formed over this period is that of a country barely able to hold itself together, as I would joke to friends and colleagues, pieced together with duct tape and dental floss.
Although the system is hardwired for long-term planning, it seemed like state and society was perpetually convulsed with the imperatives of getting to the next Communist Party Congress without the wheels coming off. An impossibly complex and overwrought political system in which the Chinese Communist Party snaked its way throughout the government, military and society was continually fighting tendencies in the localities to undermine national-level dictates.
The reality – hiding in plain sight – is as profound as it is counter-intuitive: China is one of the most decentralized governments in the world, in which much of the decision making that results in political and policy outcomes is constantly shaped – or subverted – at the local levels.