“The Endgame of Communist Rule”: Responses

A week ago, respected China scholar published a provocative essay, “The Coming Chinese Crackup,” in The Wall Street Journal. “The endgame of communist rule in China has begun,” it argued, “and ’s ruthless measures are only bringing the country closer to a breaking point.” Shambaugh based his prediction on “five telling indications of the regime’s vulnerability”: an apparent lack of confidence among the country’s wealthy; intensified political repression, betraying insecurity among the leadership itself; a sense that “even many regime loyalists are just going through the motions”; corruption too pervasive and deep-rooted for Xi’s ongoing crackdown to fully address; and an economy “stuck in a series of systemic traps from which there is no easy exit.”

The essay “stunned” Western China watchers, who appeared mostly skeptical. DPA’s Joanna Chiu gathered a mixed range of Chinese perspectives on Friday, however:

President Xi Jinping is indeed “facing a big crisis as he tries to consolidate power and continue his anti- campaign,” Beijing-based independent commentator told dpa. 

“If he fails, the regime will not be able to handle the consequences.”

, a political scientist at People’s University in Beijing [and an outspoken liberal], disagreed, saying the leadership clarified their aims during the congress and will be able to implement their goals.

[…] Other experts interviewed by dpa argue China’s slowing economy – slated to grow by about 7 per cent this year, compared to 7.4 per cent last year – poses a greater threat to the party’s longevity.

“A lower economic growth rate would cause serious unemployment problem and further political problems,” Chen [Donglin, researcher at the government-affiliated Institute of Contemporary China Studies] said. [Source]

An essay by UC Davis PhD student Li Yuhui noted that the difficulties Shambaugh enumerated are not even the whole story [Chinese]. Translated by CDT’s Anne Henochowicz:

The CCP’s most fundamental problem—and Professor Shambaugh didn’t bring it up—is that the authorities have lost the ability to continuously increase material resources. The surplus labor from the countryside which accumulated during the Mao era is shrinking, while family planning [the one-child policy] is raising the average age. Growth cannot continue to be powered by large-scale coal burning and steelmaking because of the smog they generate. The pollution of the past (of the water and the land) primarily hurt the lower rung of society, but smog hurts the elite and the middle class who are running the plants and the factories. The dissatisfaction of this segment, among whom many are voting with their feet by leaving China, has effectively hollowed out the main group supporting the authorities. Meanwhile, the real estate bubble faces a downturn due to the vast amount of unoccupied housing stock, thus cutting off another revenue stream to all levels of government. When the economy is overwhelmed by problems, then the CCP and the whole autocratic regime will be in real crisis. And this type of crisis is cyclical: though it cannot be forecast, it also cannot be avoided. In a democratic country such a crisis can lead to the alternation of political parties, but in a country with a single-party system, the crisis inevitably leads to a movement to topple the regime. [Chinese]

At Marginal Revolution last weekend, Tyler Cowen suggested that any political upheaval in China would likely take place within the Party, “with external continuity and a maintenance of the brand, albeit in refurbished form”:

  1. There are internal coups, which are more or less invisible to most of the world, and external coups, where a visible overthrow of a government makes the front page and is accompanied by violent conflict in public places and a change in the labeling of the regime. China already has shown its system can accommodate internal coups, for better or worse. You can argue they have such internal coups (on average) every ten to twelve years.

  2. It is entirely reasonable (though very hard to call) to expect another internal coup in China.

  3. Does any coup in China prefer to a) jettison the Communist brand?, or b) refurbish the Communist brand? I say b), by a long mile. The Communists drove the foreigners out of the country, built the modern nation, and delivered close to ten percent growth for almost thirty-five years running. Most of the time the Communist Party has been pretty popular, in spite of all the (justified) cynicism about the corruption. [Source]

At Sinocism, though, Bill Bishop expressed skepticism about the likely effectiveness of even internal opposition to Xi Jinping:

I think his scenario has a <10% probability, and the probability of a “Crack-up” may even be lower now than it was in 2011-2012. Xi’s apparent control of the PLA and security services, the instruments of hard power I discussed last summer, should make it much harder for anyone to mount significant resistance in an organized way against what Xi, and the support from many quarters for what Xi is doing should not be underestimated. [Source]

The RAND Corporation’s Timothy Heath highlighted the lack of alternatives to Party rule as part of a broader argument for its stability at The Diplomat:

The CCP’s liabilities are well known. These include an antiquated political identity, cumbersome ideology, and widespread disenchantment with Marxism among the public (and among more than a few party members). CCP-led government has failed to provide adequate services, ensure rule of law, and has long tolerated corruption, malfeasance, and widening inequality. Many of these vulnerabilities have persisted for years, and some have worsened over time.

The party’s advantages are less often discussed, but these bear reviewing if one is to evaluate the viability of CCP rule. One of the most overlooked, but important, assets is a lack of any credible alternative. The party’s repressive politics prevent the formation of potential candidates, so the alternative to CCP rule for now is anarchy. For a country still traumatized by its historic experience with national breakdown, this grants the party no small advantage. To truly imperil its authority, the CCP would need to behave in so damaging a manner as to make the certainty of political chaos and economic collapse preferable to the continuation of CCP rule. A party that attempted to return to extreme Mao-era policies such as the catastrophic Great Leap Forward could perhaps meet that threshold. But despite the numerous superficial comparisons in Western media, little about the current administration policy agenda resembles classic Maoism. [Source]

Even some who disagreed with Shambaugh found value in his essay. At The National Interest, for example, the University of Macau’s Chen Dingding addressed each of his “five indicators” before challenging his conclusion:

[…] The party insecurity thesis is an old argument and one can say that the CCP has always been insecure, especially since 1989. So what is so special about the present that signals the Party’s endgame? Indeed, one can argue that the Party’s endgame is soon, no matter what it does. If the Party opens up, then civil society will rise up and overthrow the regime; if the Party continues to be repressive, it will breed insecurity, which will cause its collapse.

[… However] Shambaugh rightly reminds us that China’s political system can be quite unstable despite the appearance of stability on the surface and efforts at reform. China’s political system does need to be more open, more inclusive, and more democratic; and it will someday. The ultimate outcome of Xi’s ongoing reforms remains to be seen. Nonetheless, all existing indicators point to the development of a stronger and more effective system of governance within China. Instead of a quick collapse, a mighty, confident, assertive, and authoritarian China will be around for quite a while. As such, discussion about China should take this reality into account, rather than imagining the victory of the West’s vision for China, however uncomfortable this may be. [Source]

Chen explored possible directions for reform in a separate piece at Global Asia forum, where Zhang Baohui from Hong Kong’s Lingnan University also argued that Shambaugh had exaggerated the Party’s vulnerability:

[…] Shambaugh extols the Jiang Zemin and administrations as the “golden era” of Chinese reforms. Both allegedly pursued inner-party reforms such as collective leadership and loosened state control over society.

This is a false understanding of China’s political development in the pre-Xi eras. The reality was that during these eras China became an incredibly corrupt country with officials abusing power at all levels. Collective leadership only resulted in weak central leaders and dire paralysis on the reform front. Powerful interest groups, such as large state-owned enterprises, hijacked policy-making and thwarted the deepening of market reforms. The ruling party thus suffered a precipitous loss of legitimacy, threatening its ability to maintain the status quo.

This is the proper context in which to see Xi’s unprecedented anti-corruption campaign. His resolute measures, which have surprised nearly everyone, have in fact regained some of the regime’s lost legitimacy. […]

[…] While Shambaugh inflates the regime vulnerability, he is right in suggesting the importance of deeper reforms for China to avert political instabilities. As he rightly claims, many of China’s problems, such as rampant corruption, are rooted in the institutions of the one-party system. Xi’s challenge is whether he can successfully implement deeper reforms to correct the defects of current institutions. His administration has recently proposed “Four Comprehensives” that reflect an ambitious agenda for deeper reforms. These include basing governance on the rule of law. Whether these reforms will succeed in the long haul remains to be seen. Only time will tell if Xi can marshal sufficient political capital to implement systemic reforms in governance and the economy. [Source]

Regarding Shambaugh’s rosy assessment of the Jiang and Hu leaderships, Radio Free Asia’s Liang Jing tied Shambaugh’s account of political purge and stalled reform to an incident at the Two Sessions in Beijing [Chinese] last week. Translated by CDT’s Anne Henochowicz:

Shambaugh judges the Jiang-Hu era in a rather positive light, thanks to [former vice-president] single-handedly engineering political reforms within the Party. Shambaugh believes these reforms fit the trend of the times, and that Zeng has now become a primary target of Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign—that arresting Zeng signifies Xi’s disavowal of the reforms spearheaded by Zeng.

Does Xi Jinping really want to arrest Zeng Qinghong? Something unusual happened last week during the Two Sessions that cast aside all doubt. Speaking to a journalist, Zeng’s former secretary, Shi Zhihong, delivered a prepared statement that far exceeded anyone’s expectations. This statement, under the guise of criticizing foreign media, actually criticized the article on the Central Discipline and Inspection Commission’s website which used the story of “Prince Qing” to show that Zeng Qinghong is a big tiger. What is unusual is that Shi Zhihong spoke on behalf of Zeng Qinghong, refusing to surrender to Xi Jinping.

When you connect this incident to Shambaugh’s article, it isn’t hard to see that Shambaugh not only knows Zeng is in a bad situation, but also that he sympathizes with Zeng. […] [Chinese]

Also at Global Asia forum, the University of Nevada’s Pu Xiaoyu suggested that Shambaugh’s argument was useful, if not persuasive:

While Shambaugh’s prediction might not be convincing, he does put his finger on some of China’s most serious problems. In contrast to the Global Times, I suggest that Beijing should wisely view Shambaugh’s analysis not as yet another American conspiracy against the nation, but as “good and bitter medicine” for China’s future.

[…] China has intensified repression against various liberal forces, and the targets include the media, the Internet, non-governmental organizations, intellectuals, and even university textbooks. This kind of repression is counter-productive. To build sustainable growth, China must transform itself into an innovative and knowledge-based society. China is also trying to project a positive image on the world stage. Repressions will only jeopardize the country’s goals.

[…] In a one-party system, leaders might naturally fear any reforms that might weaken their monopoly on power, and some leaders even see the relationship between social groups and the political party as a zero-sum game. However, from a comparative perspective, social dynamism would reflect the enduring strength of a nation, and social groups are not necessarily the enemy of the ruling party. While the Soviet collapse is largely viewed as a nightmare by Chinese leaders, Beijing should learn the correct historical lesson. According to Yan Xuetong, dean of Tsinghua University’s Institute of International Studies, “the Soviet collapse was not the result of openness; it was the result of long-term closed-ness.” According to Shambaugh, tightening control with ruthless measures will lead precisely to the outcome that Xi and the CCP are trying to avoid. The message is clear: only meaningful reform and openness can save the CCP. A good medicine tastes bitter. [Source]

The vehement Global Times response to which Pu refers has been selectively translated by Epoch Times’ Matthew Robertson:

“Whether Shambaugh has recently joined the opportunists or this is a true reflection of his changed views on China in his declining years, this will all be proven to have been his ‘faulty stroke’ in his scholarly research. His research on China lacks depth and consistency, and in the end he cannot escape the interference of Western values or political patterns on his research. He’s become as vulgar as Gordon Chang—relying on ‘divining’ China’s future to attract the eyeballs of Western public opinion.”

[…] Later, readers are reminded that “Shambaugh’s alarmist talk does remind Chinese society of one thing: even America’s ‘moderate’ scholars all long for something to happen to China!”

The piece says that Shambaugh’s analysis has “let slip” the “true thoughts” of “quite a few” Westerners. It continues: “The West has never thought that China might have a ‘peaceful democratic transition’; their goal is simply for ‘China to collapse’—and they never consider the well-being of the Chinese people.” [Source]

Former U.S. ambassador to China Jon Huntsman expressed hope for peaceful reform in a letter to The Wall Street Journal on Friday:

David Shambaugh welcomes indications of the coming endgame of authoritarian rule in China in his essay “The Coming Chinese Crackup” (Review, March 7). This eventuality should be embraced, but the process needs to mature in the right stages to permit the development of a sustainable economic and legal foundation on which civil society can flourish.

[…] President Xi Jinping ’s headline reforms are predictably targeting corruption as the next step toward the “rule of law.” Further political reforms giving rise to civil society should be promoted during this next stage of the economic transition, but don’t expect too much before the 19th Party Congress in 2017. If Beijing avoids economic paralysis and achieves growth in consumption, the stage may well be set for more orderly political reforms before Mr. Xi leaves office. [Source]

Another state media response to Shambaugh came from China Daily USA’s Chen Weihua:

In the 1990s, some American scholars and journalists indulged themselves in forecasting a China collapse into several republics, like the Soviet Union. Some based their arguments on the growing regionalism in the country, others bet on the passing away of Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping.

To their disappointment, China has not disintegrated into six or seven republics. Instead it has become the world’s second-largest economy and it is well on its way to being No 1.

Yet the rise of China has not discouraged some in the United States from continuing to fantasize about the breakup of China.

[…] Shambaugh’s deep flaw is that he looked at China with a bias, completely ignoring the positive aspects. [Source]

Chen, like Global Times, conflated Shambaugh’s prediction of the end of Party rule with that of the collapse of China itself:

Though Shambaugh did write that “Communist rule in China is unlikely to end quietly. Its demise is likely to be protracted, messy and violent,” this is some way short of predicting the country’s total collapse or disintegration.

An adaptation of Chen’s op-ed appeared in a ChinaFile Conversation on Shambaugh’s essay, to which French also contributed. Other participants include the University of Denver’s Suishang Zhao; GaveKal Dragonomics’ Arthur Kroeber, who offered a more or less opposite argument to Shambaugh’s in December; Johns Hopkins University’s Ho-fung Hung; The Jamestown Foundation and National Cheng-chi University’s Peter Mattis; and Mellon Foundation Humanities Fellow Ryan Mitchell.

Arthur Kroeber: […] Predictions of Chinese political collapse have a long and futile history. Their persistent failure stems from a basic conceptual fault. Instead of facing the Chinese system on its own terms and understanding why it works—which could create insights into why it might stop working—critics judge the system against what they would like it to be, and find it wanting. This embeds an assumption of fragility that makes every societal problem look like an existential crisis. As a long-term resident of China, I would love the government to become more open, pluralistic and tolerant of creativity. The fact that it refuses to do so is disappointing to me and many others, but offers no grounds for a judgment of its weakness. […]

Ho-fung Hung: […] Only time can tell. But besides the endgame of C.C.P. rule, we should also ponder at another possible scenario that can come out from the current elite rift and economic landing: the rise of a hysteric and suffocating dictatorial regime which effectively maintains its draconian control over a society gradually losing its dynamism. Perhaps we can call this hypothetical regime a North Korea lite.

Howard French: […] Before getting down to details, perhaps the first thing to be said is that it is impossible to appreciate Shambaugh’s perspective without understanding where he “comes from.” Few among the first wave of critics have credited him for his scholarship, other than to note that he is prominent or respected within the academy. Few have explored the actual nature of his work over the years, or the findings he has made in previous writings, such as China’s Communist Party: Atrophy and Adaptation, a careful study of how the Party responded to the shock of the demise of the Soviet Union and began reinventing itself. Shambaugh gives enormous credit to the C.C.P. for these efforts, but it is clear by the time he published his subsequent book, China Goes Global: The Partial Power, that the scholar had come to the view that in many ways we have overestimated China’s strengths and underestimated its weaknesses. This is all worth spelling out because even if Shambaugh’s “crackup” theory surprised you, it has clearly not come out of thin air; rather, it is the latest wrinkle in the evolving views of an earnest scholar.

[…] We don’t know how this is going to turn out. For every success one can point to involving China, it is easy to point to at least one stark and serious problem, or potential failing. I don’t share Shambaugh’s confidence in predicting the demise of the Chinese Communist Party, but it does not strike this reader as a reckless prediction. It should not surprise us, and neither should its opposite, China’s continued relative success. Such is the degree of uncertainty we must all live with. [Source]