Why Do People Keep Predicting China's Collapse?

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The temptation to make predictions about China is probably irresistible, because it is arguably the most important contemporary case in international relations. Thus, a few Western observers have risked their professional reputations by acting as prophets. Perhaps the most (in)famous is Gordon Chang, who published The Coming Collapse of China in 2001. “The end of the modern Chinese state is near,” he asserted. “The People’s Republic has five years, perhaps ten, before it falls,”

China didn’t collapse, as we all know. “So, yes, my prediction was wrong,” he admitted in an article (“The Coming Collapse of China: 2012 Edition”). But he remained convinced about the imminence of a Chinese apocalypse and offered a new timeline: “Instead of 2011, the mighty Communist Party of China will fall in 2012. Bet on it.”

Gordon Chang may be dismissed as an opportunist who tries to make a fortune — political and/or economic — out of sensational rhetoric about China. But not so with David Shambaugh, a well-respected China scholar at George Washington University who heretofore has been rather cautious in his assessment of China. In a March 6 Wall Street Journal article, he portrayed the Chinese party-state as struggling for its last breath. “The endgame of Chinese communist rule has now begun, I believe, and it has progressed further than many think,” he wrote. “We cannot predict when Chinese communism will collapse, but it is hard not to conclude that we are witnessing its final phase.”

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Shambaugh’s article was nothing less than a supersize bombshell in the China field, especially in light of the fact that the Chinese Communist Party under Xi Jinping’s leadership seems to be revitalizing itself through a series of important measures. And these measures — particularly the anti-corruption campaign and the drive for the rule of law — appear to have significantly bolstered popular support for the new leadership. Shambaugh actually published a book in 2008 that offers a rather favorable assessment of the party-state’s abilities to adapt to new challenges in the first decade of the 21st century.

It is unclear what caused Shambaugh’s sudden about-face. Some speculate that he was merely trying to get a foreign policy position in the post-Barack Obama administration. Others contend that he is the Chinese version of a “mugged” liberal converted to a conservative, that Shambaugh is deeply upset by Chinese leaders’ intransigence on fundamental reforms.

Whatever the motives behind Shambaugh’s nirvana, there is no denying that China is facing myriad daunting challenges. China is sick — but so is every other country in the world, though each country is sick with different symptoms, for different reasons, and of different degrees. Take the United State as an example. The world’s oldest democracy may also strike one as terminally ill: appalling inequality, dilapidated infrastructure, declining public education, astronomical deficits, rising political apathy, and a government that can hardly get anything done. In his bestseller Political Order and Political Decay, Francis Fukuyama described the American body politic as being repatrimonialized, ruled by courts and political parties, and gridlocked by too many veto points. Across the Atlantic, many European democracies are facing similar problems, particularly financial insolvency. Yet nobody has declared the coming collapse of American democracy or European democracy. Why?

Because many Western analysts (dating back at least to Seymour Martin Lipset) subscribe to the view that as long as political institutions are viewed as legitimate, a crisis in effectiveness (e.g., economic performance) does not pose fatal threat to a regime. Thus even in the darkest days of the Great Depression, according to this view, America’s democratic institutions remained unchallenged. By contrast, if a regime is already deficient in political legitimacy, a crisis of effectiveness (such as an economic slowdown, rising inequality, or rampant corruption) would only exacerbate the legitimacy crisis. China is widely believed to be a prominent case that fits into this line argument.

China might be facing a performance crisis, but whether it is also facing a legitimacy crisis is debatable. Beauty is in the eyes of beholder; so is legitimacy. If the Chinese party-state could survive the riotous years of the Cultural Revolution and the existential crisis of 1989, why couldn’t it manage to survival another crisis? In fact, a more important question for Western observers is why the Chinese Communist Party has managed to stay in power for so long and to produce an indisputably impressive record of economic development.

In 2003, Andrew Nathan from Columbia University put forward a theory of authoritarian resilience to explain why the Chinese Communist Party didn’t follow in the steps of the former Soviet Union. In a January 2015 article, he argued that instead of showing signs of an embattled regime, Beijing is actually on a path of authoritarian resurgence, supporting similar regimes and seeking to roll back democratic changes both at home and abroad. One of his central messages is that authoritarian resurgence reflects democratic decline. “Because the appeal of authoritarianism grows when the prestige of democracy declines,” he wrote, “the most important answer to China’s challenge is for the democracies to do a better job of managing themselves than they are doing today.”

“All societies, authoritarian and democratic, are subject to decay over time,” wrote Francis Fukuyama. “The real issue is their ability to adapt and eventually fix themselves.” The Chinese party-state is certainly undergoing policy decay — just like most Western democracies — but it is too early to call the Chinese patient terminally ill.

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