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China’s Unknown Political Future (September 2015): Pessimistic to Optimistic Outlooks on China’s Future

By Xiaofei Li

Pessimistic to Optimistic Outlooks on China’s Future

The five books discussed below represent the varied sentiments toward China’s prospects, along a spectrum from the pessimistic to the optimistic: China and the Challenge of the Future: Changing Political Patterns by Carol Lee Hamrin; The Coming Collapse of China by Gordon G. Chang; China’s Democratic Future: How It Will Happen and Where It Will Lead by Bruce Gilley; China’s Uncertain Future by Jean-Luc Domenach; and China: Fragile Superpower, edited by Susan L. Shirk.

The most pessimistic description is in China and the Challenge of the Future: Changing Political Patterns by Carol Lee Hamrin, who writes with the sense of the unavoidability of some sort of systemic turmoil.  This jeremiad reminds the reader that policy makers were themselves “crossing the river by groping the stones under feet.”  This reality exposes the institutional basis for reform as feeble.  Consequently, each reform effort has created unexpected fallout, which has often forced fundamental policy changes.  The author also examines the enormous challenges that resulted from the reform policies, as this fine research assesses Chinese development from an institutional perspective.  Although its assessments are initially convincing, they have proven incorrect as the world is witnessing the accomplishments of Chinese reforms.

Equally pessimistic is Gordon G. Chang’s The Coming Collapse of China.  In this book, Chang points out that China is a paper dragon.  Under the cover of modernization, symptoms of decay are everywhere.  Chang reckons that after China joins the World Trade Organization, it will open itself up to foreign competition, which will in turn shake the very foundation of the society.  Economic failure, as Chang claims, will be followed by government collapse.  However, Chang is unclear what will take its place when the titan finally falls.  Overall, Chang presents an alarming picture of China’s present and future.  Yet Chang’s sweeping analyses and social forecasts are challenged by China’s recent accomplishments.  Chang writes with rhetorical and sarcastic admonitions but needs more substance to support his bold claims.  Chang’s prophetic description of the CCP’s downfall after a failed attempt to conquer Taiwan reads bizarrely, especially within the current unprecedented warm atmosphere between China and Taiwan.

At the other end of the spectrum from these dark views of China is Bruce Gilley’s China’s Democratic Future: How It Will Happen and Where It Will Lead, which is an overly confident political futurology.  In this volume, Gilley foresees an elite-led transformation in the coming years that will remove the CCP from power and replace it with a more broadly democratic regime.  Gilley, an esteemed journalist and author, is assured that China will convert to democracy by 2020, and, Gilley argues, democracy would serve China well.

Gilley analyzes the Chinese economy and overstates its problems.  Gilley writes, “People die from fake booze.  A black market in human organs thrives.  Long-term private investment is stifled….  Public assets are private, plundered and left to rot.”  Gilley continues, “There are high suicide and crime rates, each year 60,000 persons flee to the United States, more into Asia and 150,000 babies are abandoned.”  Gilley then examines how China is moving toward democracy.  Gilley believes that some sort of economic crisis such as laid-off worker protests or a big corruption scandal would trigger coordinated and nationwide protests.  In this case, what would most likely happen, Gilley suggests, is that reformers at the top would come to the front and establish an interim leadership with the pledge of national elections and a new constitution.  Thereafter, Chinese leaders would, for a while, pacify the nationalists, angry peasants, and other dissident groups by writing a liberal constitution, creating a new federal system with provincial autonomy, establishing the National People’s Congress as a leading authority, overhauling the judicial structure and security services, and resolving the Tibet and Taiwan issues peacefully.  Somehow, “democracy will produce democrats who uphold the ideal of tolerance, a belief in pluralism, a suspicion of authority and a deep-seated pragmatism,” Gilley reasons.  The rest of the book proceeds further with the author’s speculations.

Although Hamrin’s and Chang’s gloomy views are not persuasive, neither is Gilley’s assumption that democratization is likely.  As the case of Singapore demonstrates, economic growth does not necessarily lead to democracy.  Moreover, in China’s circumstance, nationalism could divert people’s disapproval of the CCP.  Furthermore, China’s economic growth increases domestic support for its authoritarian leaders.  In short, Bruce Gilley’s depiction of China’s transition to democracy looks more like wishful thinking than scholarly analysis.  It presents an unlikely scenario, rather than an inevitable future.  Gilley’s optimism might be inaccurate, but he contributes to the field in a profound way.

Aside from the above two extremes of overly confident and disproportionately negative, Domenach and Shirk in their respective works advance two moderate views—less confident, insecure, and fragile.  Based on his experience as a scholar and diplomat stationed in China, Domenach, in China’s Uncertain Future, reads China’s present progress as a series of easy achievements portending a more difficult period of development.  Domenach’s subtle analyses show that Chinese elite are under tremendous pressure to make difficult decisions: to restructure an economy based on technology and consumption, to transform a political system based on law and participation, to contemplate their national identity in the world community, and to define a constructive approach to the international problems.  By elucidating the anxieties of elite groups and their attempts to alleviate them, Domenach reveals a China that is much less confident and secure than many would expect.  In an informed, accessible, engaging manner, China’s Uncertain Future offers solid scholarship from a leading European specialist’s perspective.

In a similarly moderate tone, Susan L. Shirk in China: Fragile Superpower finds the same deep insecurity in China’s leaders.  They are, according to Shirk, in a disturbing predicament: the more prosperity the country has achieved, the more insecure and vulnerable its leaders feel.  Readers discern, from Shirk’s description, a fragile communist regime desperate to survive in a society completely disordered by astonishing economic progress and integration to the outside world.  “China may be an emerging superpower,” she writes, “but it is a fragile one.”  “The leaders see new social forces unleashed by economic reforms that could subvert the regime,” Shirk claims.  As an implementer of track I and II diplomacy to China, Shirk brings numerous firsthand experiences and valuable observations of Chinese politics.