Does the PLA run China?

Back in January, in the aftermath of revelations about China’s ASAT test, I wrote that the test, which contrasted sharply with cooperative overtures by China at approximately the same time, might have been the product of the PLA’s over-sized role in policy debates in Beijing.

Now, over at China Confidential, Confidential Reporter asks whether “China may actually be a military dictatorship posing as a party-ruled, authoritarian (formerly totalitarian) state.” (Hat tip: China Digital Times)

This is a hugely important question, but one that may not be answerable, due to the opacity of the Chinese state. But if the PLA is truly ruling China, can any of China’s neighbors trust conciliatory words spoken by Premier Wen and the Chinese Foreign Ministry? Are the social changes supposedly at work in China all subject to reversal by a PLA “counterrevolution”? Or, on the contrary, can the PLA, not to mention the party, govern China at all?

On that point, I have strong doubts about the ability of any central authority to govern a nation of more than one billion people, hence the reason for having more confidence in the sustainability of India’s rise — Indian federalism seems to provide a more durable system of governance for a megastate than China’s klepto-constructo-developmental authoritarianism. After all, the law of diminishing marginal returns surely must apply to population: beyond a certain level, every additional million (or hundred million) provides more problems than benefits for a central government.

Presumably, though, if significant authority can be devolved to the state and municipal levels — and if that authority can be held accountable by the people — the threshold after which the law of diminishing marginal returns kicks in can be pushed up. Consider that federalism enables Delhi to share responsibility for the governance of the populous but poor state of Uttar Pradesh with state authorities in Lucknow. So perhaps when considering India’s comparative advantages relative to China it is necessary to mention its federalist political system.

All of which means that the CCP — or the CCP’s PLA masters — cannot be thrilled about reports that China’s population is set to rise.

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