Late Night Rambling, Midday Edition

Earlier today, I linked to this story from China, with the promise I’d explain why it was more important than it first appears. Here we go.

In trying to get my Real Map of the World prepared, I’ve been re-reading Robert D. Kaplan’s “The Coming Anarchy.” Kaplan describes development in the Third World, and why it often sucks. I’ll give you the short version.

Deforestation and desertification, caused in part by overpopulation, force people off of the hinterlands and into the cities. The cities grow shantytowns, where customs and cultures go to die. Crime, unemployment and disease become rampant, further weakening the culture and the nation. In much of West Africa, the government’s writ doesn’t extend much beyond the capital city, and there only in daylight. This breakdown has been less severe in Muslim North Africa and western Turkey, because Islam acts as a glue to help keep cultural norms going, even under shantytown stresses. But in West Africa, Islamic and Christian traditions are much weaker and less well-ingrained – and tribal customs, with their weak senses of nationhood, generally aren’t up to the task.

China falls somewhere in between the animist traditions of West Africa and the stronger ties of Christianity and Islam. While Chinese culture is, perhaps, the world’s most ancient, the country also has traditionally been held together only weakly by the center. That is, when the Chinese tradition of warlordism has allowed for a central government at all.

While China’s rapid development the last twenty years has been great for industrialization and GDP figures, it’s also caused some severe stresses. Arable land has decreased. Deforestation and pollution have both increased. And despite the One policy, China still doesn’t really have a handle on population growth.

From there, things get worse. As in West Africa, millions and millions of Chinese have left the countryside for the boomtowns along the coast. The communal existence they knew has been replaced with the most brutal kind of dog-eat-dog competition. Crime is on the rise. Tensions have increased between the cosmopolitan city dwellers and their recently-arrived country cousins. The money and benefits have gone to the coastal elites, but the Army and the government remain largely in the hands of the so-called peasants. And while the cities enjoy increasingly Western-level standards of living, the interior stagnates (at best).

That’s a recipe for the breakdown of a modern nation-state. We’ve seen the same causes destroy West Africa, and fracture much of North Africa, Iran, and elsewhere. Just because China is big and well-developed on the coast, doesn’t make it immune.

That’s what’s so smart (and so worrisome) about China’s Red Tourism plan. The idea, as admitted in Beijing’s press release, is to reaffirm and strengthen cultural ties between the wealthy cities and the poor interior. The plan, in short, is to give Chinese the cultural strength to endure the stresses of unequal development. What’s smart is, Beijing recognizes the problem and is trying to do something about it.

What’s scary is, that the problem exists in a nation as large and well-armed (and occasionally meddlesome) as China.

Well, that and mere tourism is unlikely to undo the effects of mass internal migration, environmental stress, and class resentment. To generate the enhanced sense of nationhood China will need to survive its growing pains will take something more than feel-good junkets to Xibaipo.

But a feel-good war against Taiwan might do the trick.