Perhaps the next most important point to be made, and it has not been heard enough in this discussion, is that no one knows where China (or the world) is heading, say twenty, or even ten years down the road. Mao oversaw rapprochement with the U.S. in order to counter the Soviet Union, and this can be said to have brought capitalism to his country, which was clearly not his aim. Deng embraced capitalism, and that can be said to have led to a near existential crisis for the Party around the issue of democratization. The U.S. embraced China also in order to balance the Soviet Union, as well as, a bit later, to seek markets. This ended up in the creation of what now appears ever more like a peer rival, after a brief period of monopolarity in the world. Unintended, even undesirable consequences are the name of the game in matters of state and in international affairs, and however assertive and determined Xi Jinping may appear to us now, in the early phases of his rule, it is a safe bet that his drive to realize a Chinese dream will produce many things he could never have dreamed of—or desired. It is also for the least plausible that Xi’s remarkable apparent confidence is a kind of compensation for deep anxiety at the top in China: a recognition that the country is walking a tightrope.
I defer to others on the specifics of China’s known challenges, but a few points seem fairly obvious. The early, and one might say easy, phase of China’s takeoff is over. That period consisted in large measure of stopping doing stupid things and inflicting damage on oneself. Moving forward now from here becomes exponentially more difficult. This means finding a way to sustain relatively high growth rates, when almost everything points to a natural, secular slowdown. It means coping with environmental challenges on a scale never seen before. It means dealing with the emergence of a middle class, and everything that political science suggests about the difficulties that this poses for authoritarian regimes. It means finding a way through the middle income trap. It means restraining corruption that in this view is, if anything, even worse, meaning more systemic, than commonly recognized. It means coping with the accelerating balancing of nervous neighbors. It means somehow coping with issues of ethnic and regional tensions and stark inequality. It means drastic and mostly unfavorable changes in demography. And it means doing all of these things, and facing any number of other serious challenges that space doesn’t allow one to detail here, without the benefit of a coherent or appealing ideology other than nationalism and, one says tentatively, budding personality cult-style leadership.
We don’t know how this is going to turn out. For every success one can point to involving China, it is easy to point to at least one stark and serious problem, or potential failing. I don’t share Shambaugh’s confidence in predicting the demise of the Chinese Communist Party, but it does not strike this reader as a reckless prediction. It should not surprise us, and neither should its opposite, China’s continued relative success. Such is the degree of uncertainty we must all live with.More arguments in ChinaFile. Earlier,
Arthur Kroeber explained why Shambaugh is wrong.
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