China’s Future. By David Shambaugh. Polity; 195 pages; $19.95 and £14.99.
The Economist on March 26, 2016 published a review of a new book on the future of China.A year ago, the author David Shambaugh, an American political scientist,…[had] a provocative opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal: “The Coming Chinese Crackup”. In it he wrote that “the endgame of Chinese communist rule has now begun,” and forecast the regime’s “protracted, messy and violent” demise. Excerpts below:
His new book, “China’s Future”, elaborates this view. Mr Shambaugh has long argued that China is less powerful than many people think and that this makes its future “one of the key global uncertainties over the coming decades”. The concern is partly about an economy that is so central to the global one. But China’s trajectory also raises a bigger question: no country has yet been able to modernise its economy without becoming a democracy.
His bold conclusion is “no”. China today is more repressive than at any time since the early 1990s, says Mr Shambaugh, bringing the country close to falling apart. The political system is “badly broken” and the wealthy elite have lost confidence in it.
From the 1950s onwards China has been beset by political oscillations, with occasional periods of opening up followed by phases of tightened control. Mr Shambaugh also looks at the tensions between state and society in an authoritarian regime. He reminds readers that what made the mass pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989 so threatening to the Communist Party was that they had high-profile supporters within the elite, some of whom were making slighter, but potentially successful attempts to effect real political reform themselves.
Looking forward, the author declares that China now faces a choice: reform or die. Ultimately, he reckons, it will stick to its current course of “hard authoritarianism”, corroding the party’s ability to govern, constraining economic progress and stifling innovation
In the end, Mr Shambaugh cannot decide whether the coming crackup will be led by the party or the people. Early in the book he notes that the major determinant of China’s future lies with its leadership and their choices. The party, in other words, commands its own destiny. But he also lists a catalogue of credible threats from within society, including tensions over pensions, health care and the environment: “At some point, some—or several—of the elements…will ‘snap’,” he reckons. Hong Kong, Tibet and the far western province of Xinjiang are all tinderboxes, with the fuses already burning.
Comment: Mr. Shambaugh’s book is important. If the party attempts to stay in power and keeps the tyrannical system the party could face unrest and possibly revolution. Naturally a great problem is the fact that China is important to the global economy. The country is facing a downturn and it is possible that India could take over China’s role. Meanwhile the West must increase the pressure on China with a forward strategy for change. As the Chinese economy is weakening stronger support for democratization from outside is needed. It should be remembered that it was internal opposition and Western pressurefrom outside that caused the Soviet Union to collapse. Without a strong anticommunist policy led by the United States and Great Britain the Soviet empire could have survived.