■ Without political reform, writes the China scholar David Shambaugh in his new book “China’s Future,” the economic overhauls that China is embarked upon will stall and the overall economy will stagnate – although not collapse. What are the prospects for such liberalization?
Mr. Shambaugh offers a bleak assessment of China under President Xi Jinping: an atmosphere of repression worse than at any time since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, the elite ready to flee en masse, society waiting to ignite. He says that Mr. Xi’s grab for power has alienated senior officials, and the president has taken a big risk with a sweeping military purge; a coup is unlikely but “not entirely out of the realm of the conceivable.”
Mr. Shambaugh, Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at The George Washington University answered written questions put by the Wall Street Journal’s Andrew Browne. Edited excerpts:
In a Wall Street Journal article a year ago, you wrote that “The endgame of Chinese communist rule has now begun.” How far have we progressed since then?
When I used the term “endgame” in that article, I was referring to a protracted process of decline of the party’s rule. This process in other Leninist party-states took years if not decades before these systems – the USSR and Eastern Europe — were so sapped of strength that they quickly crumbled when put under extreme stress. But the main thing to remember is that atrophy of these Leninist-type regimes, and we must view the Chinese system as such, is both inevitable and a drawn-out process.
In the Wall Street Journal article a year ago I identified five indicators that showed that the atrophy of the party had actually intensified and become more acute —which is why I said “the endgame has begun.” A year later I believe every one of these indicators is still true, indeed even more so.
I do not want China to collapse nor do I see this as imminent. I simply see the CCP, like all Leninist systems, in a lengthy and protracted process of decline that will take years and perhaps decades before it somehow ends. I also think it imperative for analysts of China to view the CCP through comparative and historical lenses, because such systems and parties all pass through very similar and predictable phases. China may be distinct, but it is not unique.
In “China’s Future,” you argue that China’s current political trajectory – “hard authoritarianism” — eventually dooms the economy and the Communist Party. If that’s the case, why is President Xi Jinping so blind to the risks?
I do not believe that China’s economy is doomed at all; rather, I am simply arguing that its ability to implement the needed structural and qualitative reforms will not be possible without substantial political liberalization. Without it, the impact of reforms will be quite limited. This is particularly true with respect to innovation—which I argue in the book is the key for China’s economic future. As I see it, the current political path of “hard authoritarianism” simply leads to partial and incomplete reform and relative economic stagnation. Another way of putting it is that quantitative growth may continue, but qualitative growth will be limited.
My guess is that Xi simply rejects this argument about—and linkage between—political reform and economic reform. I believe he is genuinely and deeply concerned about the weaknesses of the Communist Party—on this he and I agree—but he believes that rigid control is the solution, whereas I believe that a return to soft authoritarianism or evolution to semi-democracy is a much better pathway forward for China and the CCP as well.
To move in this direction—which I would note China was on between 1982-1989 and 1998-2008—requires that Xi and the CCP have a positive-sum view of party-society relations rather than a zero-sum view.
How has Mr. Xi been able to concentrate power so effectively? Is he a political opportunist, or the front-man for broader forces in the party who felt they needed a strong figure to cure deep-rooted problems in the party?
Xi’s rapid and complete concentration of personal political power has been extraordinary to witness. I am not the only China watcher to be surprised by this process. I thought the Chinese system had moved beyond one-man-rule and personality cults. When he came back to power in 1978, Deng Xiaoping very consciously initiated a 35-year process of collective and consensual leadership that would, once and for all, put an end to the personal despotism and personality cult of the Maoist era. Xi has obviously reversed this carefully crafted norm, and I do not think it is good for China. This is not the 1960s.
Does Mr. Xi keep amassing power, until he becomes a modern-day Mao, or start handing it back once his job to purify the party is done?
I do not see Xi voluntarily relinquishing the power he has amassed. That is very difficult to undo once done. Nor do I think he would want to do so. Xi is strengthening his grip on power in a number of ways, but that is undermining his support in certain sectors.
He is certainly very popular with the broad masses in China, to the extent that we can tell. Both public opinion polls and anecdotal evidence supports this conclusion. Xi’s anti-corruption campaign is particularly popular.
Interestingly, however, Xi is not that popular with the elites of the country—both the political elites and the commercial elites (and one wonders about military elites). Xi’s signature anti-corruption campaign has directly impacted these elites. This has produced a real climate of fear and intimidation throughout the party, government, military, and corporations in China. While this would suggest Xi’s consolidation of power on the surface, underneath there is much grumbling and discontent within the elite. Xi is also very unpopular with intellectuals, due to his harsh crackdown on civil society, universities, and the media.
Powerful forces are pulling Taiwan and Hong Kong away from the mainland’s embrace. Where does this all end?
In the book I consider the Hong Kong and Taiwan cases together with Xinjiang and Tibet—which I collectively describe as China’s “volatile periphery.” Each of the four cases has its own origins and intrinsic dynamics—but individually and collectively they pose serious challenges to the ruling regime in Beijing. In three of the four cases — Taiwan being the current exception — we recently see Beijing using more sticks than carrots, more coercion than cooptation. This is only breeding deeper resentment and potential resistance.
At the heart of all four cases, though, lies the issue of separate identities. In the cases of Hong Kong and Taiwan, there is also desire for genuine democracy. Only a more liberal, tolerant, inclusive approach—a genuine “one country, two systems” approach—by Beijing will offer the possibility of long-term stability and territorial cohesion.
How do you assess President Obama’s legacy in terms of U.S.-China relations? What direction would relations take under a Clinton presidency? And Trump?
I believe that President Obama’s broad Asia policy has been quite successful. Respect for America and its position in the region has rarely been stronger. But with regard to U.S.-China relations, I would say that the relationship has deteriorated on his watch and has clearly become increasingly strained.
The next American administration—whether Clinton, Sanders, Trump, Cruz, or another—will inherit this major power dynamic. The question is whether such strategic competition can be peacefully managed? All four of these potential presidents argue for a much tougher policy towards China. Indeed, Obama’s China policy can be legitimately criticized as having been weak and too accommodating.
However, U.S.-China relations are not a zero-sum game, although it could devolve into one if mismanaged by both sides. The stakes are high and mutual mistrust runs deep. The relationship does have the potential to hemorrhage and deteriorate into a fuller adversarial posture if not managed intelligently. At the same time that this competitive dynamic plays out on the regional stage, Washington also needs to work effectively together with Beijing in the global arena.
Even within Asia, both powers seek regional stability—the problem is that both see the other as contributing to instability and undermining each side’s national interests. The CCP also seems to see the United States as a direct threat to its existence, as is clear by its internal documents and campaigns against “Western hostile forces.” It is difficult for Washington to deal pragmatically with a regime that views it in this negative light.
Doesn’t the current economic slowdown make it even less likely that Mr. Xi will ease off politically?
Probably, but I do not think that economics is the motivating factor for the political repression in today’s China. The way I see it, the situation today is not unlike 1989-91, following the Tiananmen massacre and prior to Deng Xiaoping’s famous January-February 1992 “Southern Tour.” Politics was very repressive at the time and the economy suffered as a result. This is one major reason Deng went to the south, criticized “leftism” — a codeword for hard authoritarian rule — and kick-started economic reform again.
This was Deng’s final political act—and it worked. The regime progressively loosened up in the mid-late 1990s and the economy boomed! That is what is needed today: political liberalization, sweeping economic reform, social openness and inclusion. But it starts with politics and requires a leader and leadership that trust that openness will bring benefits and not threaten the party’s power – indeed, it will strengthen it.
–Edited from an interview with Andrew Browne
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