David Shambaugh's China collapse theory

By Heiko Khoo
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail China.org.cn, March 13, 2015
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Longtime China specialist David Shambaugh  [Photo/ China Daily]

Last week the Wall Street Journal published an article predicting the collapse of China. There's nothing new about that. What stands out is the author, David Shambaugh. He is one of the world's leading sinologists and, until recently, he regarded China as stable.

His 2008 book "China's Communist Party, Atrophy and Adaption" is the best Western study of the contemporary party. The book compares Chinese and Western research on the causes for the collapse of the Soviet Union. Whereas Western scholarship focused on specific political actors and events, Chinese research concentrated on fundamental and systemic problems rooted in Soviet history, particularly the distortion of Leninism during the Stalin era. The CPC's assessment of this question enhanced its adaptive and governing capacities.

Shambaugh openly mocked scholars like Gordon Chang who spent his career predicting China's collapse. Now Shambaugh suffers from the same sense of impending doom and is keen to make up for lost time. So, as he wades into this murky battleground, he loudly proclaims the omens of millenarian change. The "endgame of Chinese communist rule has now begun," the system is close to "breaking point" and we are "witnessing the final phase."

Shambaugh cites five reasons for his theory of collapse:

The first is increasing discontent among the economic elite. He cites surveys that show that most of China's super rich would like to emigrate. Actually this has been the case for years. Many of them emigrate for personal reasons but others do so because they worry about the security of their wealth. China's Communist Party is not controlled by a private economic elite; its purpose is to serve the mass of workers and peasants. In the USA private economic interests dominate politics and society – something Shambaugh evidently sees as right and proper.

The second reason that Shambaugh cites is defence of socialist ideology and the state against Western constitutionalism. He describes the idea that the United States is working to "subvert Communist Party rule" as a conspiracy theory. But recent events in Hong Kong illustrate that such conspiracy theories can actually have a solid foundation. Most Western politicians and media outlets supported calls for a "democratic revolution" and leaders of the Hong Kong movement were backed by front organisations of the U.S. state. The idea that the Chinese people are kept in ignorance is risible. Since the 1980s Chinese citizens have had access to a vast and diverse range of ideas and publications. In the last 10 years global travel and the Internet have generated a flourishing intellectual and cultural life.

In third place on Shambaugh's list is formalism in official circles. The problem here is that the only evidence he offers is anecdotal and subjective. He says he attended an academic conference that he found boring and, apparently, the bookshop of the Central Party School holds too many copies of Lenin's selected works. Xi Jinping's promotion of the "mass line" to ensure the party serves the people and shares in their hardship is dismissed out of hand. But let us remember that Shambaugh thinks that the party should not be serving the masses but rather the private economic elite.

Fourth on the list is the campaign against corruption. Shambaugh accepts that the campaign initiated by Xi Jinping "is more sustained and severe than any previous one" but he claims that corruption in China is endemic to the system. So in order to stamp out corruption China needs to adopt Western democracy, a privately dominated economy, private media and create a legal system that serves private interests. The scale of corporate corruption in U.S. politics, banking and business is naturally beyond the remit of Shambaugh's article.

It is quite clear that the anti-corruption campaign in China boosts the popularity of the CPC and of Xi Jinping. It is also clear that the mass of Chinese people stand fully behind this campaign. Shambaugh's begrudging acceptance that the campaign is substantial can be ascertained by remembering his first love – concern for the fate of super rich economic elites.

Finally, Shambaugh claims China's economy is stuck in "systemic" traps. Naturally, this fits into his overall complaints that state owned industry is to be blamed for holding China back – from "systemic" change to capitalism!

Some years ago Shambaugh bemoaned the fact that modern sinology tends to be more and more about less and less rather than addressing grand problems and questions. But his latest attempt to generalize and universalize has produced a rather poor result. He looks at China's politics without considering society as a whole. However, the mass of urban and rural workers and peasants need to be part of any objective assessment of China's political life. Shambaugh's work excludes the masses from anything more than a bit-part role.

Communist Party rule is based on its capacity to conquer and sustain support from the masses. This necessarily entails using public property in the form of state-owned enterprises to serve the needs of the people and recognizing that fighting corruption also involves stamping on the feet of corrupt tigers in elite circles.

China's economic planning is based on state investment in infrastructure. This has focused on urbanization, to bring general improvements to new urban inhabitants. Real and palpable progress in the living standards and life expectations of hundreds of millions of people must take priority over the interests of private economic elites. The battle against corruption is central to the campaign to ensure that cadres and party members serve the people.

The writer is a columnist with China.org.cn. For more information please visit: http://china.org.cn/opinion/heikokhoo.htm

Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors, not necessarily those of China.org.cn.

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