In her new book, China: Fragile Superpower: How China’s Internal Politics Could Derail Its Peaceful Rise, Susan Shirk counters the prevailing image of the Communist Party of China as a strong-armed, authoritarian regime to show a leadership that is plagued by deep-seated insecurities and fear of its own people. Shirk, who has worked as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Asian Affairs in the Clinton Administration and is now the director of the University of California’s Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation, attempts to get into the minds of China’s leaders in order to explain their policy decisions on a range of topics, from U.S. relations to Taiwan and Japan.
CDT recently asked Susan Shirk a few questions about her book and the insecurities of the CCP:
China Digital Times: Your book is intended to put the reader in the shoes of China’s leaders to understand how and why they make certain decisions. How did you come to understand how the Chinese leadership thinks?
Susan Shirk: To get anywhere diplomatically you have to put yourself in the shoes of the person sitting across from you at the table. I traveled with Jiang Zemin and Zhu Rongji when they visited the U.S. and joined many meetings with them. I have met Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao as well. In their informal comments as well as their formal statements they make no secret of their worries about China’s political stability. But the leaders do try to hide differences of opinion over foreign and domestic policy which undoubtedly exist.
CDT: You say the Chinese leadership “fears its own citizens” and that fear is the biggest influence on their decision-making process. So what are they afraid of?
SS: China’s leaders fear being overthrown by a large scale protest movement. Ever since 1989, when demonstrators in Tiananmen and 130 other cities in China rose up against Communist Party rule and in the same year, the Berlin Wall fell and communist governments in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe began to disintegrate, China’s leaders have worried that their own days are numbered. Their worst nightmare is a national movement of various discontented groups in cities and countryside fused together by the powerful emotion of nationalism; such movements defeated the Qing Dynasty and the Republican government.
CDT: In your own judgment, are these fears justified? Do the Chinese people really pose a threat to the regime?
SS: China’s leaders are probably more insecure than they need to be because they don’t have very accurate information about what the public actually thinks about them. The CCP has proved itself surprisingly resilient and is effectively co-opting college students and private businesspeople. But on the other hand, there are plenty of examples of authoritarian regimes that were toppled almost overnight thanks to cell phones and the Internet. Look at the so-called “color revolutions” in George, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan.
CDT: You acknowledge that the Chinese people are much better off now than thirty years ago – people have more individual freedom, the economy is growing rapidly, etc. Yet the government is becoming more and more insecure. Shouldn’t the government be getting more secure as people’s lives improve, the economy grows, and China plays a more important role on the international stage?
SS: Chinese leaders definitely feel more confident internationally, but still feel insecure at home. From where they sit, Chinese society looks like it is teeming with unrest. All around them, the leaders see new social forces unleashed by economic reforms and opening to the world that could threaten Communist Party rule. They are particularly worried about widening income gaps and new class resentments. Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao are trying to head off these threats by a kind of “compassionate communism” that signals the CCP’s concern for society’s have-nots.
CDT: How does the government’s “siege mentality,” as you call it, affect their treatment of the media and Internet?
SS: For economic reasons, the Communist Party gave up its monopoly over information, allowed newspapers, magazines, and television to compete on a commercial basis, and allowed the Internet to grow in China. But Party leaders have shown themselves willing to do whatever it takes to control the content of the media and the Internet because they believe that a genuinely free media would enable a political opposition to emerge. This control has become even tighter under Hu Jintao. Yet information moves too quickly over the Internet for the CCP to block out news completely. As a result, people know much more than they used to about what is happening abroad and in other parts of China.
CDT: You call nationalism the government’s new ideology. Yet the government also fears the fervent nationalism of the young people, especially on issues relating to Taiwan, Japan and the U.S. How does the leadership find a balance between encouraging nationalism on one hand while trying to keep it under control on the other?
SS: Jiang Zemin pumped up nationalism during the 1990s as a way to bolster popular support for the CCP once people had ceased to believe in communism. Nationalism also surged spontaneously in reaction to the revival of China’s power after a century and a half of weakness. But especially since the anti-Japanese protests in 25 cities in April 2005, Hu Jintao is tentatively trying to calm down nationalist passions because they could turn against the CCP or pressure the leaders into risky actions against Japan or Taiwan. This is a very delicate business for a Chinese politician. I’m still waiting to see if Hu revises the school textbooks which give such a biased portrayal of Japan.
* A review of China: Fragile Superpower from AsiaMedia.
* An essay on the book from the Wall Street Journal.
* A guest blog post by Susan Shirk on the Time China Blog.
* Listen to an interview with Susan Shirk on KPBS