In January, Michael Auslin of the American Enterprise Institute reported on a private dinner in Washington, where some of the US’ most experienced China hands agreed that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) “has entered its endgame.”
China is blanketed in fear due to increased surveillance and increased arrests, thanks to President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) repression and anti-corruption campaign. Because Xi’s reform program threatens vested interest groups such as state-owned enterprises and local party cadres, it is possible that Xi might be deposed in an internecine insurrection.
The West needs to engage with various segments of Chinese society in order to avoid being surprised by regime-threatening political upheaval, according a story in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) on Jan. 29.
In March, George Washington University professor David Shambaugh published an essay, “The Coming Chinese Crackup,” in the WSJ. This two-part article attracted widespread attention because Shambaugh is known for his extensive access to Chinese officials in the government, CCP and military, and for his China-friendly writings.
Shambaugh wrote that Xi’s despotism is bringing Chinese society closer to a breaking point and he cited five phenomena to support his thesis:
China’s wealthy elites are moving their assets overseas. Many are fleeing China or planning to do so.
Xi’s intensified and pervasive political repression is symptomatic of the party leadership’s insecurity.
Party cadres are cynical and merely pretend to follow the official party line.
Corruption permeates the party-state, the military and the whole Chinese society. Xi’s anti-graft purge is selective.
Efforts at economic reform are “sputtering on the launchpad.”
Shambaugh also discussed China’s weakness in a paper in The National Interest last summer, “The Illusion of Chinese Power,” where he examined additional factors that buttress the idea that the party may implode before Xi’s dream of China’s rejuvenation is realized.
China’s economic takeoff has been accompanied by growing income inequality between cities and rural areas and between the coastal provinces and the hinterland. China’s polluted air and contaminated water and soil harm the health of its citizens. Due to official corruption, environmental degradation and confiscation of land with token compensation, there is widespread social unrest. The number of mass protests each year is now 180,000.
So is the CCP’s rule on the brink of collapse? All observers hedge on this question, since forecast of future events is always risky.
However, Jamestown Foundation fellow Peter Mattis offers some thought-provoking ideas in his article, “Doomsday: Preparing for China’s Collapse,” in The National Interest last month. He suggests that even if the CCP collapse does not occur for years, US policymakers should adopt certain measures now so as to be “on the right side of history.”
The first step is to “identity the cohesive and centrifugal forces inside China.”
The second step is to develop dossiers on China’s leaders, including overseas assets which could be frozen and contact information.
Third, monitor the capabilities and loyalty of China’s internal security forces.
Fourth, maintain communication with the Chinese people, e.g., via radio broadcast into China in an emergency.
Mattis’ suggestions could be applied to Taiwan as well. Chinese annexation of Taiwan through betrayal by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government will be detrimental to the US geostrategic interest in ensuring freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and in protecting the airspace and sea lines of communication around Taiwan, which are vital to the survival of Japan and South Korea.
Washington is well advised to keep close watch on KMT decisionmakers and elements of the Democratic Progressive Party who favor surrendering Taiwan. The US should also establish regular contacts with Taiwanese civic groups which are struggling to preserve Taiwan’s freedom.
The notion that the CCP is beginning to implode should give pause to Taiwan’s quislings. Since the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has never ruled Taiwan, the island’s inhabitants were spared the mass starvation of the Great Leap Forward and the persecutions and massacres of the decade-long Cultural Revolution.
The collapse of the CCP is expected to be violent and drawn out. It would be unconscionable to sell off Taiwan just in time to expose the 23 million Taiwanese to the life-threatening dangers of China’s chaotic revolution.
However, the mainstream US policy elites appear to assume that CCP rule will endure for many decades to come. A few years ago this writer attended an alumni weekend colloquium on world affairs at Princeton University. The moderator was a prominent professor who stated in an essay that had just published in Foreign Affairs that China was bound to evolve into a democracy so the US had nothing to fear from a rising China.
I asked the professor what would be the consequences for US interests if his assumption turned out to be wrong.
His disingenuous reply was: “I didn’t mention a time frame in my essay. Why, democratization of China could take 80 or even 100 years.”
In his sobering new book, The Hundred Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower, sinologist Michael Pillsbury says that China has a plan to become the world’s sole dominant power by 2049, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the PRC.
In proposing policy measures to counter China’s ambitions, Pillsbury seems to assume that the CCP will keep its power until mid-century and beyond. The CCP leadership is most certainly operating on the same presumption.
Does this mean the US-China contest for supremacy will be a long-term affair, like the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta which dragged on for 56 years? Or the Cold War with the Soviet Union which lasted nearly half a century?
On this topic US Navy Lieutenant Robert Bebber has put forth a discerning thesis that China’s surge is “a temporary situation of perhaps 20 to 30 years,” in his recent Orbis article, “Countersurge: A Better Understanding of China’s Rise and U.S. Policy Goals in East Asia.”
According to Bebber, China’s population is rapidly aging due to the one child policy. Median age in 2050 will be 49 in China, versus 40 in the US. Over the next 20 years the ratio of workers to retirees will drop from 5:1 to 2:1. In 2010, China’s fertility rate was 1.4 compared with 2.06 in the US. China’s population will fall below 1.3 billion by 2050 and below 1 billion by 2060. An aging population with shrinking workforce means slower economic growth and less capacity for military expansion.
Bebber cites a 2013 Congressional Research Service report which projects China’s economic growth rate to be 7 percent per year from 2013 to 2020 and averaging 3.7 percent from 2021 to 2030. He concludes that demographic and economic factors will create a ceiling on China’s power and eventually cause its decline.
While Bebber’s analysis makes the future of the US-China marathon less gloomy, it does not relieve the US of its burden to meet China’s challenges over the next quarter century. China could also launch a major war against the US and its allies near the peak of its power. A victory would enable China to plunder the resources of other nations and ensure its dominance of the world.
China’s challenges to the US are multi-faceted. China is offering its model of governance–managed capitalism combined with CCP autocracy as a more efficient alternative to free market economy and democracy. China artificially sets a low value on its currency to promote exports, thus creating a large US deficit with China year after year.
This beggar-thy-neighbor policy has resulted in steady transfer of US wealth to China, and US indebtedness to China keeps growing. China is aided in this effort by US multinational corporations and Wall Street firms, which are lured by the vast Chinese market and China’s cheap labor.
China wants to diminish the US dollar as the world’s reserve currency and US leadership of the global financial order. Xi’s grand strategy of a Silk Road belt and a maritime Silk Road and the establishment of the Asia Infrastructure and Investment Bank are all initiatives toward this goal.
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been modernizing at a rapid pace. China’s defense spending has increased by double-digit percentages annually since the early 1990s. The PLA has mastered the C4ISR (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) system of joint force fighting.
Its modernization is not limited to the development of anti-access, area denial weapons and strategy against US forces, but also capacities in cyber war and space war. The PLA is developing various anti-satellite weapons and missile defense. In cyber warfare, the wartime objectives include paralyzing an adversary’s information and communications systems, destruction of financial data and infrastructure such as power grids and water supplies.
The trajectory of China’s rise will depend to a large extent on the response of the democratic and other neighboring states. As Pillsbury has pointed out, if the US fails to realize that there is a marathon and refuses to answer China’s challenges, then China will win, by default.
The people of Taiwan need to weigh the consequences of their falling under China’s rule. During World War II, Taiwan was ravaged by US B-29 bombers. Once fallen, China will turn Taiwan into a military base to project its power into the Pacific and Indian oceans. In case of a Sino-US conflict, Taiwan will be bombed again, this time by much more destructive weapons.
The US needs to face up to the rising threat to its very existence. It needs to mobilize its resolve and resources and build a grand alliance of free nations around the globe to dissuade China from its pursuit of world conquest. Democracy and human rights are universal values which must be protected.
Li Thian-hok is a freelance commentator based in Pennsylvania.
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