David Shambaugh, professor of international affairs and director of the China Policy Program at George Washington University, is one of a group of several dozen academics and think tank scholars, who, together with officials serving in the U.S. Department of Defense, CIA, State Department, and National Security Council, make U.S. policy toward Asia, and particularly toward China.
For this reason alone, we should be reading and interpreting with alarm Shambaugh's essay in the March 6 Wall Street Journal entitled The Coming Chinese Crackup.
In this essay, Shambaugh presents a veritable "end of days" thesis, presaging—if not predicting ("predicting the demise of authoritarian regimes is risky business")—a collapse of political authority and administrative control in China and hinting at subsequent domestic and international turmoil.
"The endgame of Chinese communist rule has now begun, I believe," he declares, "and it has progressed further than many think…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."
What has Shambaugh announcing doom? It is Xi Jinping's seemingly ever deepening and broadening anticorruption campaign in which, avers Shambaugh, "he is overplaying a weak hand and deeply aggravating key party, state, military and commercial constituencies."
Let me say here. Anyone who visits for long intervals or lives in China, and, especially, who reads Chinese publications and listens to Chinese broadcasts—as I do, did for 20 years, and do daily—knows that a sense of dramatic, almost revolutionary, change now permeates the air.
There can be no doubt that Xi's anticorruption campaign is shaking the very foundations of many institutions, breaking many "rice bowls," and not just threatening but actually attacking deeply vested interests in all the institutions mentioned by Shambaugh.
I nevertheless absolutely reject his conclusion which I find astonishingly ill-informed. The pervasive sense of dramatic change is, I have found, combined in almost all Chinese minds with satisfaction and confidence that the change is urgently needed–indeed long overdue—and in the right direction.
For this reason alone, the most likely outcome of which is a much stronger, more legitimate, and more effective CPC and government at all levels.
Shambaugh presents five "telling indications of the regime's vulnerability and the party's systematic weaknesses." They are all easy to dismiss.
First, he says, "China's economic elites have one foot out the door, and …are ready to flee." But hasn't this "hedging" behavior been characteristic for generations of rich Chinese families wherever they have had an opportunity, and particularly when that opportunity was the U.S.?
Shambaugh cites "birth tourism" in Southern California where pregnant Chinese women stay a few months, give birth, and return to China with a U.S. passport-carrying child. Why is this an indication of doubt about prospects in China rather than a specular risk free investment that will yield free American education, subsidized or free health care for elderly parents, and the rest of the virtually unmatchable benefits of American residence for any family?
Second is that "since taking office in 2012, Mr. Xi has greatly intensified the political repression that has blanketed China since 2009." Shambaugh lists as targets of the repression "the press, social media, film, arts and literature, religious groups, the Internet, intellectuals, Tibetans and Uygurs, dissidents, lawyers, NGOs, university students and textbooks." He condemns, in particular, the Central Committee's Document No. 9 that enjoins party members to do battle with "universal values" that challenge the system. Shambaugh is arguing that all of this is "a symptom of the party leadership's anxiety and insecurity."
I would reply that there is much less "repression" (and for actually repressive actions, much public support) in what Xi and the party apparatus is doing and much more of traditional, Confucian-style moral and philosophical exhortations, including renewed reverence for Confucianism (which contains many "repressive" elements) itself.
The paramount priority for virtually all Chinese is social and political stability. This sensibility is particularly acute now as Chinese society is being stressed by a "new normal" of slower-growth economy. At the same time, Xi is pressing forward with structural systematic reforms with a determination unseen in at least twenty years. In this sense, it is rational and responsible statecraft and leadership, firmly in China's political tradition, to enforce a certain focus on messages and themes that positively advance the reform agenda.
The third point is that party members are seemingly uninspired by much in Xi's positive agenda, like his "Chinese Dream" concept or his exhortation to follow the "mass line." I have spoken with a number of CPC cadres who have, with unfeigned sincerity, expressed profound appreciation and understanding toward this agenda. I believe their sincere support to be prevalent within the party. They see Xi's agenda and approach as a critically needed return to principles for the party.
Fourth, writes Shambaugh, "the corruption that riddles the party-state and the military also pervades Chinese society as a whole." He asserts that corruption is "stubbornly rooted in the single-party system, patron-client networks, an economy utterly lacking in transparency, a state-controlled media and the absence of the rule of law."
This statement reveals an astonishing naiveté about how things work in China. Yes, corruption is part of daily life, in the sense that no one seems to work only for their salary if they have an opportunity to negotiate something more on the side. But the economy and society have developed and hundreds of millions of people prospered within this system. Indeed, it is almost impossible to imagine—given Chinese culture and tradition—a different system. And, to judge by examples in Taiwan, elsewhere in Asia and, indeed, in the United States, it is highly doubtful that the accoutrements of a democratic pluralism that he cites would make any material difference.
Shambaugh's fifth indicator is China's economy which "is stuck in a series of systematic traps from which there is no easy exit."
I have a prediction: For the remaining eight years of the leadership of Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, and the rest of the CPC Politburo Standing Committee, China will successfully "exit" or at least avoid the "systematic traps" it is economic development path, and will emerge stronger, more prosperous, and more globally engaged and competitive.
This success will have much to owe to the resolute, focused approach being taken by Xi to break down the greatest barrier to development, which is a CPC debilitated by internal corruption and a loss of ideological purpose and vision.