Dam if you do, dam if you don’t

China’s remarkable transformation over the past three decades is obviously an event of major geopolitical proportions, with far-reaching ramifications in both economic and security affairs. It has also led some observers to conclude that the PRC is destined to eclipse the (decadent) United States and its various feckless allies in part because its leaders are ...

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

China's remarkable transformation over the past three decades is obviously an event of major geopolitical proportions, with far-reaching ramifications in both economic and security affairs. It has also led some observers to conclude that the PRC is destined to eclipse the (decadent) United States and its various feckless allies in part because its leaders are more farsighted and disciplined and able to set a course and stick to it despite occasional vicissitudes. This view implies that our own unruly political system needs more executive power and less democracy. (I'll confess to occasional grumpy thoughts along those lines, mostly when I'm bicycling to work and pondering how China can build whole cities or an Olympic Village in a year or two, while the state of Massachusetts and the city of Boston can't manage to renovate a single bridge in less than three.)

But I digress. Anyone who is convinced that China is on a relentless march to world domination ought to read today's New York Times article on China's authoritarian response to its water shortage. The basic story is that China is engaged in a historically unprecedented effort to redistribute water resources, which involves massive dam and canal construction and has all the signs of a major ecological, social, and maybe even political disaster. Then go read Chapter 12 ("China, Lurching Giant") in Jared Diamond's Collapse, which details the ecological consequences of China's rapid development in greater detail. And then follow that up with a book I've plugged before: James Scott's Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. Scott argues that authoritarian regimes inspired by "modernist ideologies" tend to produce major socioeconomic disasters, largely because they can impose grand schemes but lack adequate feedback mechanisms and institutions of accountability to correct errors or deal with unintended consequences. By the time they realize the full consequences of their actions, it is too late to prevent enormous harm.

None of this is to suggest that we are about to see a replay of the Great Leap Forward (Mao Zedong's disastrous attempt at forced-march development, in which at least 20 million people starved) or that China won't continue to rise. But I suspect there's a day of reckoning ahead, when the ecological and social consequences of this unprecedented transformation are fully felt and the political consequences will be profound.

China’s remarkable transformation over the past three decades is obviously an event of major geopolitical proportions, with far-reaching ramifications in both economic and security affairs. It has also led some observers to conclude that the PRC is destined to eclipse the (decadent) United States and its various feckless allies in part because its leaders are more farsighted and disciplined and able to set a course and stick to it despite occasional vicissitudes. This view implies that our own unruly political system needs more executive power and less democracy. (I’ll confess to occasional grumpy thoughts along those lines, mostly when I’m bicycling to work and pondering how China can build whole cities or an Olympic Village in a year or two, while the state of Massachusetts and the city of Boston can’t manage to renovate a single bridge in less than three.)

But I digress. Anyone who is convinced that China is on a relentless march to world domination ought to read today’s New York Times article on China’s authoritarian response to its water shortage. The basic story is that China is engaged in a historically unprecedented effort to redistribute water resources, which involves massive dam and canal construction and has all the signs of a major ecological, social, and maybe even political disaster. Then go read Chapter 12 ("China, Lurching Giant") in Jared Diamond’s Collapse, which details the ecological consequences of China’s rapid development in greater detail. And then follow that up with a book I’ve plugged before: James Scott’s Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. Scott argues that authoritarian regimes inspired by "modernist ideologies" tend to produce major socioeconomic disasters, largely because they can impose grand schemes but lack adequate feedback mechanisms and institutions of accountability to correct errors or deal with unintended consequences. By the time they realize the full consequences of their actions, it is too late to prevent enormous harm.

None of this is to suggest that we are about to see a replay of the Great Leap Forward (Mao Zedong’s disastrous attempt at forced-march development, in which at least 20 million people starved) or that China won’t continue to rise. But I suspect there’s a day of reckoning ahead, when the ecological and social consequences of this unprecedented transformation are fully felt and the political consequences will be profound.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

More from Foreign Policy

A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.
A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.

Lessons for the Next War

Twelve experts weigh in on how to prevent, deter, and—if necessary—fight the next conflict.

An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It’s High Time to Prepare for Russia’s Collapse

Not planning for the possibility of disintegration betrays a dangerous lack of imagination.

An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.
An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.

Turkey Is Sending Cold War-Era Cluster Bombs to Ukraine

The artillery-fired cluster munitions could be lethal to Russian troops—and Ukrainian civilians.

A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol  January 8, 2009 in Washington.
A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol January 8, 2009 in Washington.

Congrats, You’re a Member of Congress. Now Listen Up.

Some brief foreign-policy advice for the newest members of the U.S. legislature.