Sorry, America: China Is NOT Going to Collapse [Part 2]
The American fantasy that refuses to die…
Unfortunately this assumption, though widely held among scholars, is no longer true. Economic growth is certainly important for most Chinese people, but education, the environment, corruption, and legal justice matter just as much as growth. As long as the Chinese government seriously tackles problems in those areas, support for the CCP will remain high. This explains why the Xi administration has initiated bold reforms in all these areas.
Finally, even if there is political unrest will it necessarily topple the regime? This depends on the balance of power between the government and the dissenters. Where is the political opposition in China today? Does the political opposition enjoy the widespread support of ordinary Chinese people? Is there any leader who might want to play the role of Gorbachev? None of these factors exist in China.
In sum, in order to make the argument that an economic slowdown would lead to regime change, one would have to make the argument that all of the above factors would come into play. Yet, Shambaugh’s argument does not demonstrate this. Indeed, a slowing economy is actually bringing several benefits to China. A slower but stable growth rate would mean less pollution, fewer land-grabbing incidents, less corruption, less energy consumption, and lower socioeconomic expectations, all of which lead to reduced social tensions in China, decreasing the possibility of a regime collapse.
Implicit in Shambaugh’s argument is the claim that China and the CCP will collapse unless they adopt Western-style liberal democracy. But he never attempts to answer a simple question: is Western-style liberal democracy what most ordinary Chinese people want?
As Orville Schell and John Delury point out, wealth and power are the two things that most Chinese people have pursued throughout the last century. Today, with China’s rising power and influence, international respect can be added to this duo.
Do the Chinese also desire liberty, democracy, human rights, and so on? Of course they do. My own research, which will be presented in a forthcoming article based on survey data, shows that even among the most liberal Chinese, the desire for liberty and democracy quickly weakens as long as the Chinese government does a good job of tackling corruption, environmental pollution, and inequality. Democracy is seen as a means, rather than as an end.
Research done by late professor Shi Tianjian also shows that Chinese culture still favors authoritarianism even as people also desire democracy. Through this context, we can understand that Xi Jinping has become so popular among the Chinese masses because of his bold reform measures, which range from soccer-reform to overhauling state-owned enterprises. Even in the area of political reform, Xi is proceeding steadily as consultative democratic mechanisms will soon be implemented at various governmental levels. Thus, it is no exaggeration to say that Xi has been the most creative leader in the last three decades. If anything, the level of support for the CCP is higher now than it was in the last decade. Ignoring this reality seriously misreads Chinese politics today.
Then, why do so many Western analysts not see this reality? What do Shambaugh’s article and similar writings reflect about the mentality of some Western thinkers and analysts?
Perhaps implicit in such arguments is the collective worry or fear that China will continue to become stronger, more prosperous, and more assertive in international affairs. The West has not prepared for a possibility where it is no longer the dominant force in the world. After the Cold War, many Western democracies have adopted the triumphal “End of History” thesis.
However, now that a strong and authoritarian China has emerged, one not compliant with the standard “liberal democracy model” advocated by the West, it is seen as a threat. The “China threat” narrative is understandable, as people tend to fear something they do not understand or that looks different. And China today is a great “other,” but because it is strong, it is more threatening than a weak “other.” A strong China causes cognitive dissonance among many Western analysts because according to their theories, an authoritarian China should be weak. This explains the selective reading by Western scholars of China’s political reality.
Therefore, Shambaugh’s argument is seriously flawed due to its problematic logic. However, this does not mean that there is no merit at all in his piece.