Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Monday, March 30, 2015

Success as a sign of failure

Political scientist David Shambaugh of George Washington University published a paper recently that argued that the authoritarian system in China was showing signs of falling apart.

As China moves away from communist regime, cracks appear
Mao’s iron rule finds echoes in China’s current leader, President Xi Jinping, who is winding back years of liberalization by cracking down hard on dissent and ordering a wholesale reindoctrination of party officials. At the same time, new cracks are appearing in China’s economic foundation, a coincidence that is rekindling a long-standing debate about the viability of the Communist regime…

David Shambaugh cited the eagerness of wealthy Chinese to leave the country and the risks to Mr. Xi from an anti-corruption campaign that threatens powerful entrenched interests, and also argued that economic reforms will be stillborn without accompanying political change. “The endgame of Chinese communist rule has now begun, I believe, and it has progressed further than many think,” he wrote…

China has responded sharply. The state-run Global Times newspaper called Prof. Shambaugh an “alarmist” whose “vulgar” work relies on “divining” China’s future to “attract the eyeballs of Western public opinion.” But the thesis has revived hopes among those eager to see the undoing of communist China…

On the other side of the debate is the argument that China is not yet at a “breaking point.” For example, the factors that contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union and Eastern European communist regimes – strong popular opposition led by labour unions or prominent dissidents, economic collapse and too-rapid change from the top – exist, but are not seen as sufficiently potent in today’s China.

Tibetan and Muslim minorities are angry at their treatment, but ethnic groups have been heavily and, from the perspective of Beijing, effectively repressed. No counter-communist leader of any stature has emerged inside or outside China. The country’s economy is slowing, but wages are still rising (at a slowing pace) and unemployment remains low…

Chinese students, after 25 years of propaganda following the Tiananmen Square massacre, are little inclined to challenge a system they’ve been taught to love, or at least not to question. And even China’s increasingly restive workers do not appear ready to topple the system.

As the slowing economy creates factory upheavals, the number of monthly strikes and protests has risen… according to Geoffrey Crothall, a spokesman for China Labour Bulletin… But protests are “not really, by any stretch of the imagination, related to regime change,” Mr. Crothall said. “That would be several steps beyond what workers are thinking at the moment.”

Nor does the Chinese middle class appear angry with the status quo. And there seems little appetite for change from the top down in the form of the political reforms attempted by Mikhail Gorbachev, reforms that created a party backlash and preceded the eventual breakup of the Soviet Union…

In any case, Mr. Xi has a robust police state on his side, not to mention Western backing. A destabilized China is not in the world’s interest…

Mr. Xi’s personal popularity also cannot be discounted. “A great majority of people you talk to in local areas …still think the central government is this benign institution that is ultimately going to rescue them,” said Lynette Ong, a China specialist at the University of Toronto. “I don’t think those people really want a regime change.”

The Chinese leader leans on two sources of power – the network of influence built by former president and long-serving strongman Jiang Zemin and the military. Mr. Xi’s anti-graft campaign has tackled high-profile figures in both camps, raising questions over how much backlash he might provoke…

“The only viable alternative to the Chinese communist party would likely be a military coup,” Charles Burton, a former Canadian diplomat in China and associated professor at Brock University. “We could be positively nostalgic for the good old days of [Mr. Xi’s predecessor] Hu Jintao.”

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