Source: Sinosphere, NYT (3/15/15)
Q. and A.: David Shambaugh on the Risks to Chinese Communist Rule
By CHRIS BUCKLEY
David Shambaugh, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, is one of the United States’ most prominent experts on contemporary China. He has also been prominent in China. His books have been translated and published there, and his views cited in the state media. He was profiled by the overseas edition of People’s Daily, and in January researchers at the China Foreign Affairs University, which comes under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, named him the second-most influential China expert in the United States, behind David M. Lampton at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
Hence the intense debate ignited by Prof. Shambaugh’s recent essay in The Wall Street Journal, where he argued that the “endgame of Chinese communist rule has now begun” and the Communist Party’s possible “demise is likely to be protracted, messy and violent.” Some experts have endorsed his view that China’s outward order and prosperity mask profound risks for the ruling party. Others have argued that the party is more robust, politically and economically, than Prof. Shambaugh asserts. In an interview, he answered some questions raised by his essay:
So, the book was mainly about the “adaptation” the party was undertaking. But remember the other word in the subtitle: “atrophy.” The reason that is important is that I argued then, and argue now, that atrophy of late-stage, single-party Leninist, and other authoritarian, states is a normal, natural and ever-present condition. The question is: What do Leninist parties do to cope with the atrophy and stave off inevitable decline? Essentially, they can be reactive and defensive — ruling by repression, in effect — or they can be proactive and dynamic, ruling through opening and trying to guide and manage change. From roughly 2000 through 2008, under Zeng Qinghong’s aegis, the party chose the latter. But in the middle of 2009, after Zeng had retired, it abruptly shifted, in my view.
One can date it very precisely — Sept. 17, 2009 — the day after the Fourth Plenum of the party’s 17th Central Committee closed. That plenum meeting, which was on “party building,” put out a very progressive “decision” basically codifying everything Zeng and the party had been undertaking the previous eight years. I was living in Beijing that year, and when I read it I thought, “Great!”
But it was not to be. The party had, in fact, already grown very nervous during the previous spring and summer with riots in Tibet and Xinjiang. So, my guess is that the Plenum document was a kind of summary of previous years’ reforms, but had to be released because it had been in preparation for nearly a year and it was difficult to publicly announce that the party was going to reverse course, turn towards harsh repression and abandon the proactive political reforms. But that is what happened.
I have my theories about why they reversed course, essentially having to do with the coming together of strong bureaucracies that have a vested interest in control — propaganda, internal security, the People’s Liberation Army and People’s Armed Police, state-owned enterprises — what I call the “Iron Quadrangle” — being able to persuade the party general secretary, Hu Jintao, who no longer had to deal with Zeng Qinghong, that the party was losing control if it did not crack down and get better control over a variety of spheres. There were other factors as well, but in Chinese politics bureaucratic explanations are usually important. There is also big money in repression. Those bureaucracies’ budgets all ballooned as a result.
So, there has been a shift in my views of China and of the Chinese Communist Party’s strategy and tactics of rule — simply because China and the party changed! No China watcher can remain wed to arguments that have lost their empirical basis. I have, in fact, been speaking publicly, teaching and publishing along these lines for the past five years. I am the first one who would applaud a return to Zeng Qinghong-like political reform. The party has choices. Repression may be its “default mode,” but it is not its only option. Opening and proactively managing political change is an alternative.
True, if they tried that — again — there is no guarantee that they could keep control of the process and, as in the Soviet Union, the reforms could cascade out of control, and they would fall from power anyway. So, they have a kind of Hobson’s choice or Catch-22. They can repress and bring about their own demise or they can open up and still possibly bring about their own demise.
But it is not quite so simple. That is, even if they lightened up on the repression, the other elements affecting the party, economy and society are already hemorrhaging to the point that they may not be able to reverse or halt the slide. This is where the exodus of the elite and the systemic traps in the economy come in. I would add other factors that are contributing to public discontent with the regime: high levels of social inequality, inadequate provision of public goods, pervasive pollution and stagnating wages along with a slowing economy. For these reasons, this is why I see the “endgame” of the Communist Party as being underway. That said, my views about the protracted process of atrophy and decline of the party are more nuanced than the catchy headline used by The Wall Street Journal.
I think that judgment has been proven largely correct. The one area where Xi has surprised me, though, is the rapidity with which he has consolidated his own personal power as China’s leader. I expected, like most China watchers at the time, a two-to-three-year protracted process of power consolidation, which clearly has not occurred. But, as I argued in the Wall Street Journal piece, we should not mistake Xi’s personal consolidation of power either with the overall strength of the party or even his own grip on power. I see both as very fragile.
That is future tense — the potential for the regime’s enforcing agents to become lax in their enforcement. I was not arguing that it has already occurred for the propaganda authorities, media, Internet and social media monitors and the Public and State Security apparatchiks. Thus far, these enforcers are showing no such signs of lax enforcement or civil disobedience.
What you seem to refer to are my observations of “intellectuals” in the system and whether their “robotic” behavior — your term but I agree with it — is more pronounced than under Hu Jintao. Yes, I think it is and that there has been a qualitative shift in the more routinized direction since Xi came to power and launched his Mass Line campaign in the summer of 2013.
I participate in several such conferences per year — five in 2014, including three sponsored by Central Committee party organs — and have been doing so for a number of years, so I am in a pretty good position to monitor change over time in the behavior of party “intellectuals” and cadres. I lived there from 2009 to 2010 as well. With the exception of the “national rejuvenation” narrative, I do not find that Xi’s slogans and “broader messages,” as you put it, are resonating with the population. Everyone I talk with in China is not at all “inspired” by the unrelenting tsunami of slogans pouring out of the propaganda system, many attributed to Xi himself.
The national rejuvenation narrative seems to have had greater traction. But I would remind you that virtually every leader of China since the Qing dynasty — Li Hongzhang, Sun Yat-sen, Chiang Kai-shek, Mao, Deng and every leader up to Xi – has asserted this meme. So, Xi is hardly unique. To be strong again, and thereby respected in the world, has long been the primary craving of Chinese.
People also seem very put off by the mounting personality cult around Xi and his breaking of the collective and consensual decision-making norm that the Chinese leadership has worked so hard to build and maintain since the days of Mao.
But, actually, I’m very doubtful it will, because of the way that Xi Jinping, Liu Yunshan — the party leader responsible for ideology and propaganda work — and other senior leaders think about political reform. Still, I would note that Chinese politics since Mao has undergone a series of opening-closing cycles (known in Chinese as fang and shou). Normally the open phases last about five to six years and the closing cycles two to three years. We are currently in year seven of “closing.” An optimist would say that we are well overdue for an opening period! I would like to be optimistic, but my analytical judgment, unfortunately, tells me otherwise.