Q & A with professor Shambaugh, the author of the controvercial article about China’s ‘crack-up’

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Q. and A.: David Shambaugh on the Risks to Chinese Communist Rule

By CHRIS BUCKLEY MARCH 15, 2015 9:00 PM March 15, 2015 9:00 pm 2 Comments
PhotoChinese paramilitary officers marching on Tiananmen Square before the opening session of the National People’s Congress on March 5.
Chinese paramilitary officers marching on Tiananmen Square before the opening session of the National People’s Congress on March 5.Credit How Hwee Young/European Pressphoto Agency

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.

PhotoDavid Shambaugh
David ShambaughCredit Courtesy of David Shambaugh

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:

Q.

Several years ago you published a book titled “China’s Communist Party: Atrophy and Adaptation,” which highlighted the party’s potential to overcome or contain its problems, such as corruption and eroded authority, through learning and adaptation. Your latest assessment of the party’s long-term prospects of surviving in power seems much bleaker. What prompted you to shift your views?

A.

My book on the Communist Party was completed in 2007 and published in 2008. The publication date is important because, as you note, I emphasized in that analysis that the party was taking a number of “adaptive” steps to legitimize, reinstitutionalize and save itself. The book analyzed in detail the reasons for the adaptation — largely the results of the party’s study of the causes of collapse of the Soviet Union and other Leninist states, but also because the party had persons in the top leadership during the period I studied, notably the president and party leader, Jiang Zemin, and his ally Zeng Qinghong, the vice president, who derived the main lesson from the Soviet post-mortem that the party had to be proactive and dynamic in its leadership.

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.

Q.

What has most surprised you about Xi Jinping since he became Communist Party leader in 2012? At the time, you judged that he was likely to be shackled by the influence of rival leaders and party elders. That doesn’t seem to be the case, so far at least.

A.

In most ways I am actually not surprised by Xi Jinping. I was one of the few observers to write at the time of the 18th Party Congress that we should not expect reform from Xi and were likely to get much more of what we had been witnessing since 2009.

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.

Q.

You say that he’s determined not to follow Gorbachev’s fate, and yet he may end up having the same effect as Gorbachev. Could you explain how? We think of Gorbachev as a liberalizing leader who, for better or worse, opened the way to political relaxation in a way that Mr. Xi appears set against. So where do the two leaders’ fates possibly converge?

A.

My argument on this point in the article is very simple: Xi has deep animosity about what Gorbachev did in the Soviet Union with his reforms and has zero interest in pursuing similar reforms, because he thinks that they would lead to the collapse of the party and state. My argument is that he will likely have the same effect by resisting political reforms and by embracing harsh repression. I believe that repression is seriously stressing an already broken system and could well accelerate its collapse. That is why I compared Xi to Gorbachev. Different tactics, same likely result.

Q.

In your assessment of the party’s faltering political hold on the population and its own apparatchiks, you describe your experience at a mind-numbingly dull conference where party scholars appeared as bored as you were. But surely they were no less robotic under Hu Jintao? Don’t the broader messages spread by the party, especially under Xi, have some holding power over many people — such as the party’s claim to be the means of national unity and rejuvenation that will bring China prosperity and strength?

A.

What I argued at the end of the article is that: “Looking ahead, China-watchers should keep their eyes on the regime’s instruments of control and on those assigned to use those instruments. … We should watch for the day when the regime’s propaganda agents and its internal security apparatus start becoming lax in enforcing the party’s writ — or when they begin to identify with dissidents. …”

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.

Q.

Under Mr. Xi, the party has waged an intense offensive against dissent, independent civic groups and maverick news media, which you note. Why do you expect that will ultimately come back to haunt the party? For the time being, the government appears to have extinguished many sources of potential criticism or opposition with little backlash. Do you expect that to change?

A.

Please see my previous reply about repression stressing the system and the need to carefully watch the enforcer-agents of repression of these sectors. If — and that is if — they begin to get lax in their enforcement, then the party system could all unravel rather quickly. But, for the time being, like you, I see what I describe as the “coercive apparatus” as being quite strong and doing their jobs effectively. It is unfortunate for China, but it is the reality.

Q.

What is likely to happen if the party opts for a path of political liberalization? You say that it’s Mr. Xi’s best hope for escaping a crackup, and he could resume the tentative embrace of greater engagement and openness that you say China saw under Jiang Zemin and even Hu Jintao. But party leaders appear convinced that liberalization would stir social demands and pressures that could seal their demise. So, are they damned if they do liberalize, and equally damned if they don’t?

A.

Again, go back to examine what the party was doing circa 2000-2008. A return to that politically reformist path could conceivably be managed by the party, implementing step-by-step, incremental political opening and change without losing control and falling from power. It is not certain, but given what I know about Chinese political culture and society, I think it is a far better option for the party than the default repression option they are currently exercising. So, I am hopeful this might occur.

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.

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