Ever since the publication of David Shambaugh’s controversial essay “The Coming Chinese Crackup” on March 6, 2015, China scholars have been debating the demise of communist rule in China. Shambaugh made two basic points in the essay: the endgame of communist rule in China has begun and Xi Jinping’s ruthless measures have accelerated the demise of the CCP’s rule in China. His critics hardly challenged his first point but mostly disagreed with him on his second point.
By world communist standards, the CCP has indeed entered its endgame. After 70 years, for instance, communist rule in the Soviet Union ended on December 26, 1991. In six months, the Chinese Communist Party will have ruled the People’s Republic of China for 66 years. With rampant corruption at all levels of the party and the government — where a typist has taken bribes in the amount of four million yuan and a vice chairman of the Central Military Commission took cash bribes weighing more than one ton — the CCP seems unlikely to outlive its Soviet counterpart by a large margin.
Nevertheless, by Chinese dynastic standards, the CCP’s rule is not in its endgame. Instead, it might very well be in its beginning. The last dynasty, the Qing, lasted for 267 years; by that standard, CCP rule is still in its infancy. In 1710, 66 years into the Qing Dynasty’s rule in China, the country was at its peak as a prosperous and powerful nation under the wise leadership of Emperor Kangxi. The dynasty would last another 200 years.
As a ruling dynasty, the CCP has had a mixed record so far. While it is true that the CCP under Mao Zedong unified most of the country, Mao’s policies did not make China more prosperous and stronger. Tens of millions perished in the aftermath of the Great Leap Forward, and the entire population suffered during the decade-long power struggles of the Cultural Revolution. Deng Xiaoping heralded a new era of economic prosperity, but his GDP-oriented policies have severely strained China’s environmental capacities. China witnessed the best performance in terms of economic growth in the decade from 2002 to 2012 under the leadership of Hu Jintao. Yet corruption and environmental degradation worsened in the same period, in spite of Hu’s signature slogan of a “scientific outlook on development.”
In the past two and a half years, Xi Jinping’s leadership has been long on anti-corruption campaigns but short on anti-pollution efforts. One hundred officials at the rank of vice minister and above have been investigated for corruption, but there is no sign that the central leadership is taking environmental issues more seriously. A series of new leading small groups have been created to manage national security, internet issues, reforms, and military modernization, but no central leading small group on environmental protection has been set up.
Given these mixed results, Xi Jinping could very likely be the last ruler in China as a communist. Yet he could also start another new era of prosperity and strength as a new emperor of the CCP Dynasty. Whether the People’s Republic of China will end up like the Soviet Union or follow the footsteps of Manchus on its way to international prominence will depend on what this new leadership will do (or will not do) in the next seven years.