Endgame for China's leaders? Who knows

Here's my latest column from The Edge Review, on a fascinating debate taking place among China-watchers on the future of the Communist regime.  Read the piece, and tell me your thoughts in the comments section below.

©The Edge Review

Is the Communist regime in China on a glide path to an inevitable implosion? Or is the regime today now stronger than ever, as President Xi Jinping consolidates his power at home and extends China’s influence abroad?

These questions are at the heart of a fascinating debate fizzing among longtime China-watchers – scholars, journalists, diplomats and others who specialise in trying to read the Middle Kingdom's tea leaves.

It’s a fierce debate, passionately and persuasively argued from both sides. It also has far-reaching implications beyond the realm of foreign-policy journals and newspaper op-ed pages – particularly here in Southeast Asia, which is increasingly dependent on China as a trade and investment source but also fearful of Beijing’s territorial assertiveness.

The current debate was sparked by a March 6 essay in The Wall Street Journal by longtime China scholar David Shambaugh, a professor at George Washington University. “The endgame of Chinese Communist rule has now begun,” Shambaugh wrote boldly.

“We don’t know what the pathway from now until the end will look like,” he wrote. “It will probably be highly unstable and unsettled ... Its demise is likely to be protracted, messy and violent. I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that Mr Xi will be deposed in a power struggle or coup d’état.”

Shambaugh offered several key indicators that he says presage the coming collapse. China’s wealthy elite are voting with their feet, fleeing abroad with their money. The economy is now facing a series of systemic traps. And Xi’s current crackdown on political freedoms is a telltale sign of regime weakness and fear.

Others before have predicted the Communist regime’s collapse. But what makes this essay so eye-popping – and why it has become so widely discussed – is that Shambaugh for years has been seen as the most pro-China of the China-watching community. China’s own Foreign Affairs University recently named Shambaugh one of the most influential American China experts.

Everyone who thinks about or writes about China is now responding to Shambaugh’s essay. “Sorry, America, China Is NOT Going to Collapse,” shrilled the headline on one retort in The National Interest magazine.

As a counterweight to Shambaugh, some have been circulating another essay, written last December for the Asia Society by Arthur R. Kroeber, another longtime China hand who is managing director of GaveKal Dragonomics, an economics research firm.

Headlined “Here’s Xi’s China; Get Used To It”, Kroeber's piece made the opposite points to Shambaugh, that the Chinese system seems as stable as ever and Xi boasts a stronger record than any other world leader of the last two years.

As his data points, Kroeber pointed out that Xi’s anti-corruption campaign has proven broader than expected; even with an economic slowdown, China has managed growth rates three times that of any other wealthy nation; and Xi has enjoyed a series of recent diplomatic triumphs, such as establishing the new Asian Infrastructure Development Bank.

“Here’s the truth: the Chinese state is not fragile,” Kroeber said. “The regime is strong, increasingly self-confident, and without organized opposition. Its economic management is competent and pragmatic. Its responsiveness to social pressures on issues such as the environment is imperfect, but well-informed by research and public opinion surveys.”

So which view is right?

We simply don’t know. No one knows what is going to happen in China in the future, any more than analysts before 1989 predicted the fall of the Berlin Wall or the collapse of Communism in Russia two years later. Neither of those earth- changing events was presaged. Even the CIA was caught unawares.

I was in Jakarta watching students ineffectively protesting against the Suharto regime in 1997 when most predicted the old general would die in the presidential palace with his boots on – until he announced his resignation in May the following year. More recently, no one saw the Arab Spring coming.

Sometimes it takes a spark – police shooting dead four unarmed students at a Jakarta university campus, or a Tunisian street vendor setting himself on fire.

In China, the political manoeuvrings are even more opaque, because Communist Party insiders talk little publicly about their inner workings and reveal even less.

Are there fissures within the ruling Politburo over Xi’s corruption campaign? We have no clue.

No regime can be considered stable if it has to repress its own people’s civil rights, and control access to information, in order to stay in power. But they can persist for a very long time.

So Shambaugh may be right. But we won’t know until it happens. And we have no idea what will be the spark.

©The Edge Review

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