This October will mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. This is an anniversary many Western observers doubted the PRC would ever reach – or, at least not in its present form with unchallenged authoritarian one-party rule.
It was the hope of American policymakers that by engaging with China and encouraging China to participate in the international system, the country would not just open up economically but would also liberalize and, eventually, democratize. There was also a belief among some scholars that economic growth and prosperity was not sustainable under China’s current political system and that China would ultimately be forced to change or face collapse.
China’s collapse, while often predicted, did not come to fruition. The Chinese Communist Party retained control and now arguably one of its strongest individual leaders has come to power – Xi Jinping.
After seven decades, are the arguments for China’s pending downfall any more credible? After all, China has frequently defied expectations. However, the situation today is increasingly precarious, despite the CCP’s past resilience and ability to retain control while simultaneously growing the country’s economy and global influence.
China is in a period of uncertainty. It is in the process of trying to redefine itself and its role in the world now that it is has reached a certain level of development. China is no longer the “sick man of Asia” or a poor developing country courting the help of the Western international system. At the same time, however, the country also has to come to terms with a slowing rate of growth as well as other serious domestic issues like pollution, economic disparity, and an aging population. And to complicate matters further, all these problems need to be tackled by the Communist Party leadership even while they maintain a firm grip over the internet, society, and public perception in order to fortify their own rule.
China’s “super-rich” are increasingly pessimistic about China’s economic future. Experts caution that the Chinese leadership is extending itself too far, seeing echoes of Soviet mismanagement in China’s ambitious projects like the Belt and Road. Premier Li Keqiang cautioned members of the National People’s Congress that “there are greater expected and unexpected risks and challenges, and we have to make full preparations for a hard struggle.” President Xi Jinping himself even warned officials “to strengthen their ability in preventing and defusing major risks to ensure sustained and healthy economic development and social stability.”
At the same time, the international environment has changed. The clearest example of this is, of course, the current U.S.-China trade war. The hope that China would liberalize as it grew disappeared as soon as China began to assert itself as a new global power. In light of this, American policymakers are no longer pursuing their decades long policy of engagement toward China. Now they are demanding accountability and reciprocity.
American policymakers, media, and scholars have increasingly been positioning China as not simply a challenge or competitor, but as the greatest threat to the United States — a clear enemy. The White House’s National Security Strategy outlined China as one of the main challengers to American power. This year’s Conservative Political Action Conference focused heavily on China, with China-centric panels called “China, the global menace,” “21st century terminator,” and even “The Gathering Storm,” which is a reference to Winston Churchill’s book about the lead up to World War II.
In December 2018, the U.S. Senate held a committee hearing titled “China’s Non-Traditional Espionage Against the United States” and in February, Admiral Philip S. Davidson told the Senate that China “represents the greatest long-term strategic threat to a Free and Open Indo-Pacific and to the United States.”
Now U.S. policymakers and academics are considering the merits of disengagement with China, a clear reversal of previous policy. Some, it seems, are hoping to bring about China’s decline, or at least that of the ruling Communist Party. In March, the “Committee on the Present Danger: China” (CPDC) was launched in Washington, DC by former military officials, business leaders, academics, and former White House officials, including Steve Bannon. One of the “guiding principles” listed on their website is that “there is no hope of coexistence with China as long as the Communist Party governs the country.”
Perhaps this sentiment is out of fear of America’s own decline or a deeply entrenched distrust for what was once commonly called “Red China.” Or maybe there is a need for a sense of vindication – that a communist, authoritarian rule like that in China truly can’t last forever. Whatever the motivation, U.S. policy and discourse is pushing back against China.
As has happened so often in the past, however, this goal is dangerously short-sighted. A number of American China watchers famously predicted China’s collapse and were proved wrong, including Gordan Chang’s The Coming Collapse of China in 2001 and David Shambaugh’s Wall Street Journal essay “The Coming Chinese Crackup” in 2015. But what were to happen if current conditions finally did lead to China’s collapse?
China is not the Soviet Union. And Xi Jinping is most certainly not Gorbachev. In fact, the Chinese Communist Party has made every effort to learn from the Soviet Union’s downfall what to avoid. Instead of promoting “openness,” China is cracking down on society more than ever before. While Gorbachev called for democratic elections, Xi is working to solidify his personal power, eliminating term limits. Even if Xi and the Communist Party were to fall out of power, who would replace them? There is no Chinese equivalent to Boris Yeltsin and his supporters.
China’s collapse and the fall of the Chinese Communist Party would have to happen differently. And, I fear, it might have more in common with China’s own history than with that of the Soviet Union. I was living in China when the previous regime fell. It was most definitely not a peaceful transition from Nationalist to Communist rule. I witnessed the turmoil and chaos of the Chinese Civil War firsthand. The joy and hope the Chinese felt after World War II ended and we were finally freed from years of Japanese occupation were quickly shattered as the domestic conflict escalated.
With the collapse of the Republic of China came hyperinflation and starvation. Families were displaced and scrambled to find some semblance of shelter or security. There was blood, violence, and death. Americans talk about the scar of their own civil war – brothers killing brothers. China’s was much more recent. I distinctly remember the uncertainty and fear that permeated everything. Most Chinese didn’t care about Nationalist or Communist. They were just trying to make it through. And yet, these normal civilians were forced to face untold hardships as the war raged on around them.
If China once again devolved into economic chaos or violence, the ramifications would only be worse. China currently holds more than one-sixth of the world’s population. And, due to globalization, China’s economy is intertwined with that of the rest of the world more than ever before. China’s collapse, or even decline, would ripple across the Asia-Pacific and the world.
Today’s leaders, in both the United States and China, do not truly understand what’s at stake. I do. I will never forget the hardships of the Sino-Japanese War and the civil war that followed. American policymakers and scholars are not wrong to wonder what an ever-stronger China would mean or to demand that China adjust its policies and practices that are harmful to the United States. At the same time, however, it is just as important to ask what would happen if China collapsed and what that would mean not just for the United States, but for the world. I hope the U.S. and China will learn from the past and strive for a peaceful future.
Dr. Chi Wang is President of the U.S.-China Policy Foundation and previously served as the head of the Chinese section at the Library of Congress.