Is China’s One-Party State on the Brink?

“We cannot predict when Chinese communism will collapse,” writes David Shambaugh in an essay in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, “but it is hard not to conclude that we are witnessing its final phase.”

The George Washington University professor is known in the global China-watching community as having close ties to the Communist Party of China. In his essay, titled “The Coming Chinese Crackup,” he mentions attending a conference at the Central Party School in Beijing last December and having other contacts with cadres and officials. He was recently named one of America’s top 20 China watchers by China Foreign Affairs University, which is affiliated with China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Shambaugh’s turnaround—he is well known for writings suggesting China’s one-party state is stable—has caught the attention of the world’s China watchers. Listserves devoted to that country are discussing little else, and he has apparently angered Beijing. Global Times, the nationalist paper controlled by People’s Daily, issued a strident piece rebutting Shambaugh on Monday.

Why does Shambaugh believe we are witnessing the “endgame of Chinese communist rule”? He refers to five “telling indications of the regime’s vulnerability and the party’s systemic weaknesses.” Included in the list are fleeing elites, intensified political repression, lack of cadre enthusiasm, and a quickly deteriorating economy.

And then there is venality. Not long ago, political scientists and others thought China’s Communist Party was sturdy and even believed its obvious maladies actually constituted strengths. For instance, many, especially in the academic community, argued its endemic corruption helped keep the political system together, giving officials a direct financial stake in supporting the continuation of the regime. Shambaugh’s essay, on the other hand, includes corruption as one of the fatal five flaws and highlights a new trend in thinking: It is an organization so crooked it cannot survive for long.

In recent days there has been a flurry of writing about the long-term prospects of the Chinese one-party state. Early last month, Pentagon adviser Michael Pillsbury released his book, The Hundred-Year Marathon, painting a picture of a durable dictatorship, but many of the other recent contributions portray the Chinese regime on its last legs. One appeared in the Journal, Michael Auslin’s “The Twilight of China’s Communist Party,” and another on the National Interest’s website, “Doomsday: Preparing for China’s Collapse,” by Peter Mattis of the Jamestown Foundation.

Some of Shambaugh’s fellow academics are getting in on the act as well. For instance, Chen Dingding of the University of Macau penned “Sorry, America: China Is NOT Going to Collapse,” a broad attack on the George Washington professor’s essay, also for the National Interest’s website.

China has always loomed large in the imagination, but now the country is beginning to look weak, not the “unstoppable juggernaut” that is supposed to dominate the world and own the century.

China’s communist system, even in the so-called reform era, seemed to defy principles of governance and economics observed around the world. Until now, however, the Chinese state has been fueled in large measure by confidence, both inside and outside its borders. Shambaugh’s essay tells us that many who have been watching—and cheering—the country’s ascent now see it at its end. 

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