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Is China Sinking?

A 25 foot crack recently appeared in the pavement beside what will be, when completed, the tallest building in China.  The culprit? Shanghai is gradually sinking as groundwater under the city is pumped out at an unsustainable pace and the weight of the 128 story structure, more than 2,000 feet high, seems to be stressing the soil underfoot.

Shanghai isn’t alone. Groundwater depletion is causing 50 cities to sink across China, says China’s Ministry of Land and Resources. Rapid population growth as China urbanizes and the heavy demand for water caused by the new industrial economy are responsible for the over-pumping. In some cities like Shanghai, remedial steps have already been taken — though the land continues to subside.

The Shanghai Tower

China’s government has unveiled (what else?) a five-year plan to address the issue, and it seems clear that among the many problems China faces, soil subsidence is not at the top of the list.

But those — like Via Meadia — who think that the growing complexity of Chinese society will sooner or later force major political reform find support for our views as complicated problems like this keep popping up.  One party, authoritarian rule works better in simple societies than in complex ones. The more China develops, the harder it is to reconcile conflicting interests. Wealthy city dwellers want better quality of life; poor people need jobs. Financial regulators have a harder time balancing the government’s desperate need for legitimacy-producing economic growth and the longer term problems of the integrity and sustainability of the banking system. Local officials have more opportunities for corruption — and those affected by this corruption have more ways to protest and bring pressure to bear.

If the Chinese system fails, it will be because the towering skyscraper of modern China is build on porous foundations. The higher that skyscraper rises, the bigger the strain.

Sooner or later, something will give.

One must hope that the change is gradual and smooth, but change will come, and the less China’s rulers do to prepare for that change and smooth its path, the more tumultuous and dangerous the change is likely to be.

(h/t @LizEconomy)

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  • vanderleun

    I think that our old pal Matt had something to say about this awhile ago:

    26 And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand:

    27 And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it.

  • Kris

    “One must hope that the change is gradual and smooth, but change will come, and the less China’s rulers do to prepare for that change and smooth its path, the more tumultuous and dangerous the change is likely to be.”

    Is the word “China’s” necessary?

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    How dare you? Don’t you know that China is about to takeover as the Greatest Nation on Earth, all the smartest people say so. They tell us the US must learn to manage its decline gracefully, with redistribution, green energy subsidies, and bailouts for Unionized companies and industries. The Filthy rich must be made to pay for their greed!
    “I’m just saying”

  • Lorenz Gude

    I think Jacksonian Libertarian has summarized the myth of America’s decline and China’s rise very well. Creation myths bear a certain resemblance to each other and so do myths about decline and dissolution. I am an unapologetic declinest denier and believe our elites are suffering from the unacknowledged collapse of their unacknowledged Marxism. In Australia, where I live, the Marxism is more florid and in the open. As one Australian academic said to me of 9/11 “When I saw the Twin Towers come down I said. ‘YES, America MUST fall.'” It’s The Dialectic, dear friends – just has to happen. So it comes out of the mouths of all the smartest people as superior knowledge when it is just the shadow of an illusion. Of course China is something these people can believe it because it is nominally Marxist and successful. In truth it is a hybrid, perhaps a hodgepodge of Western and Eastern ideas such as Marxism and Confucianism which may or may not prove sustainable. I wish China no ill nor do I want its buildings – literal or metaphorical – ‘to collapse of their own inner contradictions.’ They have a food problem and may end up needing that horrid faux beef to survive. They also still have corruption problems that may bring them down. (We do too.) The future will not follow the smooth curve of myth, but the bumpy one of real events as they unfold. That is what I like about WRM and this blog – it is trying to see the bumps in the road and energetically working out how to get past them. That is the proper role of the academic, not to slyly propagate dog in the manger defeatism.

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