Jeffrey Wasserstrom: The Great Fall of China

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The country has entered the ‘middle income trap.’ It can only escape by taking the lead in industries that depend on brains—not brawn.

David Shambaugh is certainly prolific. His informative book “China’s Future” follows closely on the heels of “China’s Communist Party” (2008) and “China Goes Global” (2013) and fleshes out arguments first showcased in “The Coming Chinese Crackup,” a much discussed op-ed published in this newspaper a year ago. The George Washington University professor’s basic claim is easy to sum up: Unless the party’s general secretary, Xi Jinping, introduces major political reforms, the economy will tank and the party will crumble. Being too careful a scholar to express certainty about the exact timing of these events, Mr. Shambaugh writes only that they will likely happen in the next decade or so.

He is far from the first to predict the Chinese Communist Party’s demise. A large genre of “collapsist” commentary, to borrow historian Geremie Barmé’s nice term, already exists. In the wake of 1989’s Beijing massacre, Amb. Winston Lord insisted that the party would be out of power in weeks if not days. Twelve years later, Gordon G. Chang’s “The Coming Collapse of China” confidently proclaimed an end of party rule “by 2011.” Mr. Shambaugh’s contention stands out, though, due to his prominence and previous emphasis on how well China’s Communist Party had learned lessons from the “Leninist extinction” of 1989-91.

Mr. Shambaugh’s latest book offers good short takes on key trends—from the growth of consumer spending to rapid urbanization—that have transformed a country of villages into one with cities whose “sheer magnitude” is “hard to grasp.” He contrasts China’s “soft power, which remains quite soft around the world,” with “hard power” that is “growing by the day,” a fact that “was literally on display in massive military parades in Tiananmen Square” in 2009 and 2015. And he examines Mr. Xi’s strange use of the term “rule of law,” in which the legal system becomes “a tool in the hands of the party-state to enforce its writ and rule.”

In his handling of this disturbingly illiberal interpretation of the “rule of law,” we see clear evidence of the author trading in his previously fairly upbeat approach to the party’s prospects for a downbeat one. Mr. Shambaugh claims that this is a rational response to the organization’s self-destructive swerve toward “Hard Authoritarianism,” which came after a decade and a half spent embracing a form of “Soft Authoritarianism.” Former leader Jiang Zemin and then Hu Jintao made encouraging, if sometimes glacially slow, liberalizing moves, but these stopped in 2007. And Mr. Xi has tacked even harder in the Hard Authoritarian direction since taking power in 2012.

China’s Future

China’s Future By David Shambaugh Polity, 203 pages, $19.95

The author likens Mr. Xi to a driver approaching a roundabout. Will he continue on the Hard Authoritarian road? Turn off in a Soft Authoritarian direction, loosening controls in the manner of two earlier periods (the 1980s and 1992 to 2007)? Exit along a “Neo-Totalitarian” route that would take China back to where it was when Mao ruled (1949-76)? Or choose a “Semi-Democratic” path, moving China toward becoming a supersize Singapore, with an electoral system but one that favors a single party and a public sphere that is not quite like those found in either fully authoritarian or fully democratic states? Mr. Shambaugh sees little chance of Mr. Xi steering the country toward democracy.

The Soft Authoritarian and Semi-Democratic routes would best serve the party’s own interest as well as those of the Chinese people, Mr. Shambaugh says, but he does not think that Mr. Xi will realize this. He fears a Neo-Totalitarian turn but does not expect that to happen. Most likely, Mr. Xi will stay the Hard Authoritarian course, imagining that doing so will ensure stability.

The problem, according to Mr. Shambaugh, is that China has exited the development stage during which rapid growth could come from making cheap goods in big factories staffed by large numbers of workers willing to accept low wages. It has entered what modernization theorists call the “middle income trap,” which can only be escaped via greater reliance on inventing new products and taking the lead in industries that depend on brains more than brawn. The experience of other countries, he insists, shows that the systems most effective at dealing with this trap are democratic ones or authoritarian ones with liberalizing leaders more willing than Mr. Xi to let information circulate freely. Upheaval and crisis, not stability, lie ahead for China.

“China’s Future” is necessarily much more speculative than Mr. Shambaugh’s two other recent books, but they complement one another enough to be read as a trilogy of sorts. Once again, Mr. Shambaugh roots his claims in a wide reading of English-language scholarship, the scrutiny of an eclectic collection of Chinese-language documents, and observations drawn from trips to China. Once again, he offers sensible, succinct summaries of specific subjects.

I share many of Mr. Shambaugh’s hopes and fears and agree with much that he says about what’s happened of late. But I don’t buy his notion that the past performance of developing countries provides a clear guide for China’s future. Modernization theorists do not have as successful a track record as he suggests. Even if they did, I would be skeptical about applying their ideas to the current chaotic scene. The course of events keeps disproving assumptions about political trends involving authoritarianism of all varieties. In our tightly interconnected world, what happens in one place can send shock waves through other settings, changing the way populations and leaders think about issues such as stability, growth and the risks of staying a course or trying something new.

Mr. Xi may indeed be like a driver reaching a roundabout, but we need to be mindful of more than just what road he came in on and which routes previous drivers have taken. There are a lot of erratic cars out there on the highway, and whether they keep swerving or move forward smoothly will make a difference.

Mr. Wasserstrom is the author of the just-published “Eight Juxtapositions” and the editor of the forthcoming “Oxford Illustrated History of Modern China.”