Earlier this month Chinese revelers welcomed the new lunar year with a few more candles than usual. The country was gripped by a crisis in electric power production that caused California-style blackouts across the central and southern parts of the country. Power plants could not keep up with demand, especially because they didn’t have enough coal on hand to burn.
The immediate causes of China’s power crisis are straightforward. Snow storms disrupted the railroads that carry most coal to power plants. Record low temperatures also boosted demand for electricity and coal. But there was a deeper cause at work. China’s free-market policies—the same ones that led to China’s extraordinary growth in the past decade—have eroded the government’s ability to control its economy. Economic activity, by design, is shifting away from state-owned enterprises and central planning. But Beijing doesn’t have structures in place to control those aspects of the economy it doesn’t own outright. Market reforms are making Beijing less and less relevant to what’s really going on in the economy, threatening to turn China into a “weak state.” And it’s not just China—India, too, is having trouble regulating its industry and economy. The phenomenon is a dark cloud on the Asian century.