Is China’s Collapse Really Inevitable?

A dialogue with some of Canada's leading China watchers . . .

One of the world's foremost China scholars, American David Shambaugh, wrote an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal on March 7 predicting "the endgame of Chinese Communist rule." The hotly debated essay highlighted five key factors Shambaugh felt underpinned the coming Chinese crack up, including:

• Flight from the country by economic elites

• Increased political repression under Xi Jinping

• Disillusion and fatigue among regime loyalists

• Entrenched corruption

• Systemic roadblocks to economic reforms

The Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada asked some of this country's leading China watchers: Do you agree with Shambaugh's assessment of the coming demise of the Chinese Communist Party? And should Canada be worried?

 And we would like to hear from you on this topic—please share your thoughts and ideas in the "Comments" box below.

David Zweig Responds . . .

We know little about the past, less about the present and nothing about the future. So, predicting the collapse of authoritarian regimes, a one-off event, is next to impossible. But David Shambaugh is not arguing that China will collapse overnight, only that it has begun down a slow road to atrophy.

Shambaugh, with whom I shared a PhD advisor, is no newcomer to negativity about China. In 2000, he edited "Is China Unstable?" He has never been a "panda hugger." His recent book, China Goes Global, called China "mercantilist" and "aggrieved and angry," an insecure regime "deeply worried about its longevity," whose "adaptive policies" reverted to "atrophy" in 2008.

Hong Kong business and government elites want China to succeed. And, they have heard this before. Rod MacFarquhar penned an article 25 years ago called, "The Demise of the Chinese Communist Party." Gordon Chang predicted that joining the WTO would ring the death knell of the PRC; yet China benefited enormously from that decision. China survived the "Non-Performing Loans" banking crisis and the Global Financial Crisis. But a slowing economy is worrisome; it leaves college graduates without jobs and, as the Arab Spring shows, unemployed youth is a tinderbox.

Xi Jinping knows the problems Shambaugh cites. On taking power he purged opponents in the military, security forces, and the State industrial and energy sectors, beneficiaries of the previous decade. His anti-corruption campaign is popular, even among my liberal government friends. Outmigration by the rich is no surprise as much wealth in China is the spoils of illegal activity. The bad get going while the going gets good. Increased repression is a lesson from Gorbachev: you can't free up society while displaying the skeletons in the CCP's closet.

But China's future depends on Xi's ability to break the bureaucratic blocks to a vigorous economy. Only once it becomes clear that he has resorted to repression because he has failed to attain many of the 60 reforms outlined in the Third Plenum in 2013 should we engage in such dire predictions.

David Zweig is Director on the Center on China's Transnational Relations, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and a Senior Fellow at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada

Timothy Cheek Responds . . .

Dr. David Shambaugh's editorial declaring the "end game" has begun for China's CCP is less an indication of any new development in China and more a reflection of his own intellectual trajectory. While his original editorial can be read as joining the ranks of the "collapsists"—scholars and pundits who have been predicting the imminent collapse of the CCP since the Tiananmen tragedy in 1989—Shambaugh qualified his views considerably in a follow-up interview with Chris Buckly in the New York Times's blog, "Sinosphere" stressing the "long, protracted, drawn out" nature of this "end game" and reiterating its dangers: extended instability, messy politics, and violence.

His editorial is aimed more at Chinese officials with whom he has been meeting several times a year over the past decade than at policy makers in the U.S. Shambaugh's later qualifications on his Op-Ed separate him from the company of the faithful collapsists such as Minxin Pei or Gordan Chang. Read as a collapsist manifesto, the Op-Ed has failed to gain traction from fellow China specialists, most of whom with greater or lesser grace have contested Shambaugh's five points.

However, read as friendly advice from a foreign specialist who is clearly not beholden to the CCP and who has a considerable track record of policy-relevant, primary-source-based critical scholarship of over 30 years, Shambaugh's high-profile editorial in a major international newspaper takes on a different meaning. It is advice to his colleagues in China to return to the open ways of President Jiang Zemin's and Vice President Zeng Qinghong's administration before 2008 and to resist the Communist neo-fundamentalism of Xi Jinping's administration.

Viewed this way, Shambaugh's five points are less arguments for an inevitable collapse of the CCP and more an itemization of the failings of China's new order under Xi and a reminder that the CCP already has better policies in its repertoire from the early 2000s. Shambaugh is less playing the pundit for us and more taking on the role of the prophet to the CCP—woe betide you if you continue in your sinful ways!

Timothy Cheek is Professor and Louis Cha Chair in Chinese Research at the Institute of Asian Research, The University of British Columbia, in Vancouver

Yuezhi Zhao Responds . . .

As a Communication scholar, I second Timothy Cheek’s contextual reading of David Shambaugh. It is as much another manifestation of the familiar “China demise” trope as a call by an establishment U.S. China scholar for the CCP to return to the “open ways” of Jiang Zemin before 2008 and “to resist the Communist neo-fundamentalism of Xi Jinping’s administration.”

In its tone it reflects frustration and disappointment at yet another coming “loss of China.” In a sense Shambaugh is perhaps more “aggrieved and angry” than China is. Such an alarmist analysis, published by The Wall Street Journal on the eve of China’s National People’s Congress meeting, may have played into the ongoing domestic Chinese discursive contestations over the future of China. However, it is also likely to fall on deaf ears.

Xi Jinping’s current policies—especially his aggressive anti-corruption campaign and his selective implementation of neo-Maoist ideological doctrines such as the mass line—are aimed at correcting the bureaucratic capitalistic and neoliberal ideological excesses of the Jiang Zeming era. Precisely for this reason his policies have not only been very unpopular among China’s deeply entrenched iron-triangle alliance of “business-bureaucratic-intellectual” members (who have been the architects and beneficiaries of the Jiang era), they have also provoked a considerable backlash from within the alliance. Indeed, Shambaugh’s article reflects the perspective of these resistant, threatened and insecure elites.

The very fact that Xi Jinping, who came to power in the aftermath of the downfall of Bo Xilai, ended up adopting some of Bo’s measures in Chongqing is indicative that if it wishes to stay in power at all, the CCP does not have many options.

 It remains to be seen whether Xi’s highly risky turn marks the beginning of the CCP’s demise, or as Xi himself wishes, the beginning of its renewal—or something in between.  

Yuezhi Zhao is Professor and Canada Research Chair in Political Economy of Global Communication at Simon Fraser University and a Senior Fellow at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada

Yves Tiberghien Responds . . .

David Shambaugh’s provocative essay comes at a critical time in China’s post-1979 trajectory. Does the Xi period mark a turn in the grand narrative of the Deng era, with its gradual economic opening and limited political overtures within a collective leadership model (within the CCP’s confines)?  Is the Chinese compromise of relative economic liberalism under a Leninist political model sustainable, at a time when trade-offs are getting more painful? And does the surprising strong hand exhibited by Xi Jinping since late 2012 exacerbate the Chinese risks, or offer a correction with a chance of success?

Early signs across many fields do not warrant as bleak a picture as Shambaugh puts it. And while his scholarly record is remarkable and intentions good, his conclusions may be influenced by a focus on intellectual and liberal networks that are bearing the brunt of the political counter-movement. Overall, the last two years have exhibited considerable activism on many fronts, including, paradoxically, both a hopeful dose of economic and environmental realism AND political repression.

Consider this:

  • While Shambaugh is correct to point out that 60% of the wealthy elite in China is considering emigration, the U.S.-based Pew Survey also indicates very high optimism toward the future of China’s economy and China’s role in the world. About 60-to-80% of Chinese citizens are optimistic and approve of Xi’s economic and political reforms. Xi’s popularity is similarly high. This stands in contrast with all the countries that have experienced colour revolutions (take Egypt for example). The Chinese blogosphere is also awash with realistic assessments of the outcomes of democratic revolutions in Ukraine, Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, etc.
  • Zheng Qinghong’s reputation is mixed in Chinese public opinion, both in China and abroad. It is not that of a hero of democracy and great political progress, as hinted in the article.
  • Most of the wealthy elites eager to leave China are beneficiaries of the early wave of reforms in the coastal era. They benefitted from great early advantages and rent. They know that these advantages are coming to an end as the government seeks to spread the wealth to other regions and groups. They oppose the property taxes that many political economists see as inevitable.
  • Last year, for the first time, more Chinese students trained abroad returned to China to pick up jobs in the booming economy than left China to study abroad. Every year, a higher percentage of such foreign students return to China. Pride in Chinese success (and nationalism) is also rising fast among the young Chinese generations, even those trained abroad.
  • Contrary to Shambaugh’s assertion, Third Plenum reforms are moving forward and winning plaudits from the World Bank and many international economists. This is hard work and is bound to face opposition. But the diagnostic is the correct one and there seems to be determination to correct unsustainable features in the Chinese model. 
  • In 2014 alone, Xi made a major contribution to global governance through the agreement with the U.S. on climate change and proactive leadership in trade and development, winning support at home and abroad. Witness the endorsement of the UK, France, Germany, Italy (and soon Australia and Korea) for the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

In the big picture, Xi hails from a reformist family and his close circle insists that he is deeply committed both to successful liberal economic reforms and, eventually, some political opening.  Yet, SEQUENCING matters. The Chinese economic model has lived on the legacy of Zhu Rongji’s reforms in the late 1990s. Yet, that momentum has ended and the economic system has entered a period of decay and risk that the Hu period did little to correct. It is to Xi’s credit that he is taking this problem in earnest. So far, signs indicate that Xi and his team are taking significant corrective action to try to steer the China ship away from the middle-income trap, decrease unsustainably high inequality, and take the environmental crisis very seriously. This is hard work.

Xi has made the evaluation that grappling with these mortal threats required him to accumulate power and struggle with powerful vested interests. On the positive side, the analysis may be correct. The downside, of course, is that any accumulation of power is risky and there must be a credible commitment to institutionalize governance and decentralize power once Xi has run through the gauntlet of urgent corrective actions to the economic, social, and environmental model. 

Yves Tiberghien is the Director of the Institute of Asian Research at UBC, and a Senior Fellow at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.

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