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.
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)