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Shambaugh and the coming Chinese crack-up

Shambaugh and the coming Chinese crack-up
Published 24 Mar 2015 

David Shambaugh's opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal proclaiming that the 'endgame of Chinese communist rule has now begun' has mostly stirred scepticism and criticism from the community of China watchers. Some have questioned the author's personal motivations; others have criticised his arguments or dismissed his conclusions. Judging from the insulting personal attacks on Shambaugh from two major English-language Chinese media outlets, his essay also touched a raw nerve in China.

Shambaugh is not an obscure commentator on China's politics, but a sound, respected expert and a perspicacious analyst of China's domestic and international developments. His book China's Communist Party: Atrophy and Adaptation, completed in 2007, did a groundbreaking job in showing how the Party was evolving and adapting to 'legitimize, reinstitutionalize and save itself'. Shambaugh's recent op-ed is not about a 'volte face' or 'flip-flopping'. Rather, it reflects a growing concern about China's overall direction because of the challenges the world's second-biggest economy is facing, and the way the Party appears to be responding to them.

Roderick MacFarquhar, another highly respected scholar, raised similar concerns in an interview with the New York Times' Sinosphere blog last January. MacFarquhar mentioned the erosion of ideology and the anti-corruption campaign as being major risks for the Chinese regime. There is, he said, a 'danger for the party collapsing as it did in Russia, or danger of a leadership coalition against Xi Jinping'.

It takes a certain audacity to toy with the idea of a coming Chinese crack-up, knowing perfectly well that collapsist or doom-laden prophecies can easily be brushed away as being sensationalist or even irrational.  But when it comes from seasoned China watchers such as Shambaugh and MacFarquhar, one would be wise to listen carefully. [fold]

China observers too often assume that China's rise is going to be linear, and that its ascendency is irrevocable. Shaking the foundations of this conventional wisdom is not a bad thing. To the contrary, it gives us an opportunity to think out of the box and to take a closer look at the weaknesses and vulnerabilities the Asian giant is facing. Which, incidentally, is just what the Chinese authorities are doing. The 2015 version of the Chinese Communist Party bears little resemblance to the 1949, 1966, 1978, 1989 or even 2007 versions. Over the years, Chinese elites have constantly taken their country's pulse, observing the environment and drawing conclusions for new directions to be followed.

The nature and essence of the Party dictate its first and most crucial objective: to stay in power. With this objective comes a profound sense of insecurity and vulnerability.

It is now well known that huge amounts of Chinese time, brainpower and resources have been devoted to the study of the Soviet collapse and to thinking about options for China's one-party state to avoid the same fate as its Soviet counterpart. For years after the Tiananmen massacre, the 'social contract' between the ruling party and the Chinese population has consisted of the delivery of economic growth in exchange for unquestioning acceptance of the Party's authority. As China's experiences what Secretary General Xi Jinping calls the 'new normal' (ie. slower growth and a faltering economy), there are growing questions about the Party's ability to retain its legitimacy in the eyes of Chinese citizens. Examples of rifts within the Party (the Bo Xilai case and the current anti-corruption campaign are only the most recent) add to the general feeling of an emerging political crisis.

China does face daunting challenges. A corrupted state capitalism, dreadful pollution and environmental damage, high income inequalities and growing social disparities, and rising social discontent are among the issues with which the Party must struggle.

Is the Party able to acknowledge these problems for what they are, and not through ideological lenses? And most importantly, how will the ruling elite respond? Will they choose the path of reforms, and if so, will the regime be able to live with a growing contradiction between the need for good governance and the intrinsic limitations of a Leninist system? Will they revert to all-out repression and control? The Arab Spring showed us that growing tensions between the socio-economic situation and its political (mis-)management can produce unexpected outcomes. Despite its resilience so far, China may not be immune from such shocks.

Even if Chinese and Westerners both acknowledge that weaknesses and vulnerabilities exist, their remedies will probably not coincide. Whenever Westerners talk about 'political vulnerabilities' or 'regime crackup', the Chinese will hear 'colour revolutions' and 'hostile forces' trying to bring a 'regime change' in Beijing. Where Westerners see salvation only in democracy, the Chinese leadership will answer that legitimacy doesn't grow out of a ballot box.

Despite Western hopes that China will eventually join the club of liberal democracies, there is growing evidence that the West will have to live with a China that constantly reinvents itself in ways that we do not necessarily like, and with consequences that few among us would like to even think about. For this reason, pondering the improbable, as Shambaugh did, remains an essential contribution to the China debate.

Photo by Flickr user Malthri.

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