Is a Chinese endgame coming?

I rarely recommend material from the Wall Street Journal, because I regard its op-ed section as a haunt of far-right conspiracist thinking. But if you’re interested in China, don’t miss last weekend’s essay by David Shambaugh, a professor of international affairs at George Washington University.

The triumph of liberal democracy in the last few decades has been so complete (whatever underlying weaknesses there might be) that we tend to treat all reasonably developed economies as if they were on a par as far as governance is concerned: all as more or less democratic, more or less subject to the rule of law. Of course we recognise that there are places that don’t fit that bill, but they mostly seem comfortably “other”, not major trading partners or significant international actors.

China, as is too easily forgotten, is the big exception, and Shambaugh brings that home very effectively. His argument is that the current ruler, Xi Jinping, has wound back the modest reforms of his predecessors and reimposed tight political control, and that this is a symptom of weakness, not strength:

He is determined to avoid becoming the Mikhail Gorbachev of China, presiding over the party’s collapse. But instead of being the antithesis of Mr. Gorbachev, Mr. Xi may well wind up having the same effect. His despotism is severely stressing China’s system and society—and bringing it closer to a breaking point.

Shambaugh concedes that “Predicting the demise of authoritarian regimes is a risky business,” and certainly no-one is going to bet the house on a short-term implosion of the Chinese Communist Party. But the indicators of vulnerability that he lists are telling, perhaps most of all the lack of ideological confidence among the rulers. In his words, there is a “theater of false pretense that has permeated the Chinese body politic for the past few years.” In the longer term, these things matter; they point to a political system that is unsustainable.

Superficially this a good news story: a democratic China, or even an authoritarian but broadly constitutional China, would represent a huge gain for human freedom. But the process of getting to that point could be very messy – in a way that should concern the whole world, but especially a country like Australia whose economy and regional security bear the marks of a strong Chinese influence.

This is a story that most of us turn our eyes away from, with occasional exceptions such as Fairfax’s John Garnaut. (See, for example, this piece of his from last September, which previews some of Shambaugh’s themes.) But in the next decade or so that misdirection will become increasingly difficult to sustain, as I’ve pointed out a number of times myself.

Read the whole thing; it’s good value.


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