Notwithstanding President Xi Jinping’s growing power at home and influence abroad, some top American academics are signalling China’s imminent collapse.
The quorus is led by Dr David Shambaugh, Professor of International Affairs, Director of the China Policy Program at George Washington University and Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington D.C., in The Coming Chinese Crackup, The Saturday Essay, Wall Street Journal, 6 March, 2015.
Similar sentiments were expressed by Michael Auslin, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, Washington, D.C. and a columnist for WSJ.com in The Twilight of China’s Communist Party, Wall Street Journal, 29 January, 2015.
Like arguments were advanced by Peter Mattis, Fellow with the Jamestown Foundation, Washington D.C., and Visiting Scholar at National Cheng-chi University’s Institute of International Relations in Taipei, in Doomsday: Preparing for China's Collapse The National Interest, 2 March, 2015.
Their prognosis has recently been rebutted by Kevin Rudd, former Prime Minister of Australia, in an April 2015 report US-China 21- The Future of US-China Relations under Xi Jinping for the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School.
Rudd dismisses Shambaugh's contention of an imminent China collapse as not sufficiently evidenced. Instead he alludes to the inevitable rise of China as an unprecedented historic development where a non-Western, non-liberal global power is seen to be challenging a West-dominated global order led by the United States as the world's extant democratic superpower. To manage this historic conundrum, Rudd advances the concept of "Constructive Realism for a Common Purpose".
China collapse predictions are not new, but the prognosis by some of the world’s most respected experts on China carries traction. In Hong Kong, for example, some politicians quietly hope for China’s regime change rather than accept the government’s current reform proposals for universal suffrage.
It is therefore opportune to examine the collapse theorists’ contentions. They are largely as follows.
First, the elite seem to be voting with their feet. 64% of rich Chinese are emigrating or intending to emigrate, according to a 2014 Hurun Research report. More are sending their children to study abroad and buying overseas properties at record levels.
Second, Xi is clamping down on dissent and “universal values”—including constitutional democracy, civil society, free press and neoliberal economics. This manifests insecurity.
Third, lip service is being paid to Xi’s mantra of following “the mass line” (serving people first) and of building the “China Dream”.
Fourth, Xi’s anti-corruption campaign is unlikely to succeed as corruption is stubbornly rooted in single-party patron-client networks, a non-transparent economy, a state-controlled media and absence of rule of law. Moreover, the campaign is mainly targeting former President Jiang Zemin’s network and seems to spare the unpopular princeling camp, of which Xi is the chief patron.
Fifth, the Party’s much-needed Third Plenum reforms are spluttering as powerful vested interests continue to block implementation.
Warnings of regime collapse and national demise were in fact clearly sounded by both Xi and his predecessor Hu Jintao, along with former Premier Wen Jiabao, if the Party fails to rid itself of widespread corruption and abuse of power. See a BBC report on remarks by former President Hu Jintao in a Party Congress in November 2012, before he was succeeded by President Xi in 2013.
Shortly before Xi was installed, soon-to-be anti-corruption supremo Wang Qishan was known to have circulated Alexi de Tocqueville’s Ancien Regime and the French Revolution among top colleagues on the Politburo Standing Committee. Click here So a sense of existential crisis already permeated even before Xi took over.
The crisis mood turned critical following disclosure of criminal evidence surrounding the saga of Bo Xilai, a blue-blooded princeling. This involved not only corruption and power abuse on a wide scale but also a rumoured “palace plot” in collusion with Zhou Yongkang, then powerful public security czar and influential Politburo Standing Committee member. This is implicating many vested interests across the country and must have deeply shaken the entire Party leadership, regardless of any faction. The fear is that if not resolutely treated, the cancer of corruption would threaten the Party’s very survival, bringing down everybody. Click here
That is why the anti-corruption campaign has been so vigorous and wide-ranging, catching many “tigers” as well as “flies”. This is also why Xi had to be given sweeping powers across the board. Zhou is now formally being tried, breaking an unspoken rule that criminal charges are never laid against a former Politburo Standing Committee member.
It is understandable that there is a pervasive sense of fear and unease among many party officials who have feathered their nests in the corrupt system for decades. Some are quietly moving their assets abroad or trying to seek overseas bolt-holes for themselves or their children.
Xi’s anti-corruption drive, however, enjoys robust public support. There is no broad-based clamour for regime change. Indeed, according to PEW Research Centre’s 2014 Global Attitudes data, China (and Malaysia) citizens were the world’s most satisfied with their countries' directions. China's rating of 87% answering positively was up two percentage points compared with the year before. Click here.
At the Fourth Plenum in November last year, the Party put the Rule of Law (or Rule by Law) at the forefront. There are moves to gradually improve judicial independence by establishing circuit high courts and by elevating the powers of judicial appointments and judiciary funding from local to provincial or regional levels. Allegiance to China's Constitution is to be upheld. That means that China’s One Party model cannot be questioned under China's laws. But that doesn't mean that Party leaders are above the law, as the current anti-corruption campaign tries to show. Click here
Xi’s call to follow “the mass line” may sound confusingly Maoist. In fact, it underscores the realization that years of unbridled economic growth has created an extremely unequal and unstable society. It is now necessary to get back to revolutionary basics – power legitimacy comes from looking after the masses’ basic livelihood and well-being. Click here
Premier Li Keqiang’s work report at the March 2015 National People’s Congress registered some tangible progress, despite slower economic growth. 2014 saw 13.22 million new urban jobs created, more than the year before. Newly created businesses increased by 45.9% or 12.93 million units. Energy intensity dropped by 4.8%, the largest in several years. Contribution by consumption and services to GDP increased slightly from 50% to 51.2% and from 46.1% to 48.2% respectively. China's economic model is beginning to shift towards more moderate but more sustainable growth. Click here
Ever mindful of former USSR’s collapse, a degree of political repression is likely to stay while the Party treads into “deep waters” of reform. To China’s top leaders, Singapore’s model of gradual and orderly development often comes to mind. Click here
Xi displays remarkable confidence in steering China towards greater heights by launching a One Belt, One Road – New Silk Road grand strategy. This aims to link China by maritime and rail infrastructure to the rest of Asia, the Indian Ocean, East Africa, the Red Sea, continental Europe and Central Asia. The creation of a related China-led but inclusive Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank has attracted support from many countries in four continents, including key US allies. Nothing less than China’s historical renaissance in the realization of the “China Dream” is at stake.
Amid uncertainties of China’s trajectory, it is only natural that some may choose to take out an insurance policy of settling their offspring or assets abroad, as in the case of Hong Kong before 1997. But all the evidence seems to show that instead of imminent regime collapse, under President Xi, China may well witness around the corner a new Asian Century with China at its very centre.
The above is the original version of my Op-ed article Warnings of China's imminent collapse are - once again - greatly exaggerated published in the South China Morning Post of 18 May, 2015.