More Shambaugh and American democracy through the lens of environmental crisis

Foreign Policy has an excellent reader discussing that Shambaugh piece about China’s future.

From Ho-fung Hung at Johns Hopkins, this is a key point:

Finally, there is no evidence that the biggest and most important political constituency in China — the rising urban bourgeoisie — has much interest in changing the system. In my conversations with members of this class, I hear many complaints, but more generally a satisfaction with the material progress China has made in the last two decades. Except for a tiny group of brave dissidents, this group in general displays little interest in political reform and none in democracy. One reason may be that they find uninspiring the record of democratic governance in other big Asian countries, such as India. More important is probably the fear that in a representative system, the interests of the urban bourgeoisie (at most 25 percent of the population) would lose out to those of the rural masses.

The party may well be somewhat insecure, but the only force that might plausibly unseat it is more insecure still.

It’s also interesting to consider what kind of model American-style democracy provides. Undoubtedly, China faces some enormous challenges, most worryingly the environmental catastrophe in which we live but also a bevy of others, economic and social. To tackle these problems, the government is going to have summon massive willpower, spend substantial political capital, and force reforms through the often-sclerotic systems. It won’t be easy and it will make a lot of people unhappy.

When faced with, for example, the air, water, and soil pollution that threaten to make parts of China nigh unlivable unless something colossal and immediate is done to stop it, if you’re the Chinese leadership which model looks best to you? A system like America’s that seems to spend most of its willpower and political capital squabbling about the president’s religion? A system that is so deeply ideologically divided that it cannot pass even the simplest of legislation? A system that makes international news when its legislators usurp the president’s authority to send pedantic and poorly written letters to the leaders of other countries? A system the primary purpose of which might seem to be election campaigning rather than governing? A system that even at its best is a messy and slow and given to factionalism?

Or, if you’re the Chinese leadership, does embracing such a system seem like lunacy, especially given the scale of your country’s challenges?

I also think that Shambaugh is wrong — or at least not emphatic enough — about the primary cause of the flight of money, people, and brains out of China.

My students never stop talking about the pollution. In fact, it’s often difficult to get them to say anything positive about Beijing, so much does the pollution cloud their feelings about life here. Nearly without exception, they want to leave China someday soon, and nearly without exception, the biggest reason is not economic or educational but environmental. If that’s what’s on their minds, it’s on their parents’ minds, too. It’s heavy on the mind of the urban bourgeoisie.

Unless the government can find a way to make China livable again, those cracks that Shambaugh points to will continue to widen. The Chinese leadership knows that, and it simply doesn’t see political liberalization as a good way to seal them back up. It may be right.


The Chinese crack-up? A few perspectives.

I just caught wind yesterday of this article by one of the world’s top Chinese politics scholars, David Shambaugh.

The whole thing is worth a close read, but the thrust of his argument:

Despite appearances, China’s political system is badly broken, and nobody knows it better than the Communist Party itself. China’s strongman leader, Xi Jinping, is hoping that a crackdown on dissent and corruption will shore up the party’s rule. 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.

The endgame of Chinese communist rule has now begun, I believe, and it has progressed further than many think. We don’t know what the pathway from now until the end will look like, of course. It will probably be highly unstable and unsettled. But until the system begins to unravel in some obvious way, those inside of it will play along—thus contributing to the facade of stability.

Communist rule in China is unlikely to end quietly. A single event is unlikely to trigger a peaceful implosion of the regime. Its demise is likely to be protracted, messy and violent. I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that Mr. Xi will be deposed in a power struggle or coup d’état. With his aggressive anticorruption campaign—a focus of this week’s National People’s Congress—he is overplaying a weak hand and deeply aggravating key party, state, military and commercial constituencies.

I’ve thought about and discussed round and round some of the trends around which Shambaugh builds his argument. I’m not plugged into to the political scene here at all enough to offer a good opinion, but I will say that many those trends — especially among the educated middle class — definitely are a real phenomenon. Where they lead, I cannot really guess, but it doesn’t seem to be anywhere good for China, except maybe in the long term.

That, in fact, may be the plan. The main counterarguments to Shambaugh seem to follow two lines. The first is simply that China remains firmly in the tightening grip of the Communist Party, strengthened by the stronger-than-anticipated leadership of Mr. xi, who has no plans of seeing Party control erode even as his party can no longer count on a thrumming economy to hide the noise of political dissent.

The second, laid out in a letter to the WSJ responding to Shambaugh, is that Mr. Xi and the Party leadership really are playing the long game.

Jon Huntsman Jr. (Yes, that one) and Daniel J. Arbess:

China’s leaders correctly concluded the Eastern European experience with simultaneous political and economic reform didn’t work. China chose something resembling Singapore’s reform path, sustaining centralized control to drive economic reform first, while building a foundation for political reforms. The pace of progress has been slow and important voices calling for change have been muted, but the reforms have vastly improved the average Chinese standard of living, buying time for the foundation for democracy to develop.

China’s economic reforms have reached their most critical stage, where a strong force will be required to break the entrenched interests of the corrupt state-enterprise sector and privatize it. If these efforts succeed, China’s economy will have completed its decades-long evolution from the farm to the factory to prosperous consumers fully participating in the global consumer economy. Real political reforms would likely then be unstoppable.

Noted China scholar Thomas Metzger also adds in another letter that’s worth a read his few cents about the relationship between Chinese culture and the current state of Chinese political life.

Finally, there’s the state-endorsed counterargument laid out in the China Daily:

For example, the anti-corruption campaign launched by President Xi Jinping has raised hope for many Chinese that the thorny issue is being tackled. The campaign has been popular both at home and abroad, including winning support from senior Obama administration officials and many China scholars in Washington. In the past days, US scholars, both on the right and left, have questioned Shambaugh’s logic.

I believe Xi and many Chinese know that fighting the war on corruption is really hard. Yet Shambaugh seems to suggest that doing nothing is probably a better way forward.

If Shambaugh is to be regarded a serious scholar, he has certainly not shown it in his latest article.

I’ve got no idea who’s right, but I sure hope it’s Huntsman and Arbess. I also tend to be more bullish than not about the Party’s ability to survive and prosper given it’s nimbleness over the last 20 years.

One way or the other, it’s important to remember that what’s good for China is good for the rest of us, too.