Perhaps No One Lost China

As Dr. Kori Schake points out in her thoughtful lead essay, for more than four decades, many U.S. policy and business elites held the view that economic integration would have a tractor beam-like effect on China, gradually and inexorably pulling the Communist Party of China (CCP) into the orbit of the liberal international order.

This was, in Schake’s words, “a flabby argument,” and today it seems no right-thinking person holds such a view anymore.[1] Indeed, we’re in something of a “Who Lost China? 2.0” moment, with a growing chorus declaring the above policy was obviously, inevitably, and clearly doomed to failure from the get-go. In January, the U.S. Trade Representative made the remarkable statement that the United States “erred in supporting China’s entry into the WTO.” The Economist recently opined that there was “strong evidence that the West’s 25-year bet on China has failed.”[2] And in the pages of Foreign Affairs, Kurt Campbell and Ely Ratner concluded, “Diplomatic and commercial engagement have not brought political and economic openness” to China. This is the final collapse of what James Mann in his 2006 book The China Fantasy called the “Soothing Scenario” about China’s development path.

Yet we should be wary of overcorrecting toward a more deterministic narrative, for this newfound (and near-universal) buyer’s remorse misses an important point: China’s trajectory wasn’t fixed, and the current autocratic slide under Xi Jinping was the product of specific and contingent events, not ineluctable historical laws or an innate preference to live under despotism. It wasn’t just wide-eyed corporate executives and missionary diplomats who foresaw a reformist path forward for China; so too did countless Chinese officials, intellectuals, and activists many of whom have recently been cowed (or jailed) into silence. The home-grown calls for China to integrate into the global trading order in the lead-up to the WTO entry were real, as was the advocacy for a more liberal “Marxist humanism” in the 1980s by intellectuals like Wang Ruoshui, the calls for the rule of law by academics like Jiang Ping, and the calls to separate Party from government by Zhao Ziyang in the lead-up to the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989.

China’s recent political backsliding wasn’t the result of us “getting China wrong,” but rather because the CCP made a decisive course change sometime in the mid-2000s. It started slowly, almost imperceptibly, with few taking much notice at the time. But a series of events empowered more conservative forces within the Party establishment to bend China’s development arc back toward political control and state dominance. The 2008 Olympics bolstered a sense of triumphant nationalism. The Global Financial Crisis was a gut-punch to economic reformers within the intelligentsia and government bureaucracy. The internet and the mobile phone, which just a few years earlier held out so much promise as a universal acid against authoritarianism, were transformed by the Party into new tools to surveil and manipulate. The “Color Revolutions” and the release of Charter 08, followed later by the revelations of Edward Snowden and the announcement of the U.S. “pivot” to Asia, provoked a fear of the age-old bogeymen, “hostile forces” bent on containment and “peaceful evolution” (i.e. the overthrow of the CCP). The perceived failures of “collective leadership” under Hu Jintao became the justification for greater centralization of power in the next leader. The rise of the “neo-Maoists” showed the Party leadership that there was a greater wellspring of “red sympathy” than previously imagined, and a danger of being outflanked to the left. And finally, the events surrounding the rise and fall of the charismatic and ambitious Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai provided proof of intra-Party machinations and splits.

None of this was inevitable. As further evidence that contingency matters, imagine an alternative universe in which the current premier, Li Keqiang, had prevailed over Xi Jinping in the competition for leadership at the 17th Party Congress in 2007. It’s quite conceivable that China would be traveling a different path, even if it wasn’t going to be democratic or liberal. The specific people, and the personalities and power bases here, matter hugely.

But we are where we are. Li didn’t succeed, and we’re now living in the Xi Jinping era, arguably the most closed and conservative since the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989.

So what does that mean for the prospects of conflict with China? First we need to understand the reality of the party-state we are dealing with. Since coming to power in late 2012, Xi and his core supporters have waged a ferocious, and largely successful, campaign to remake China’s political system according to their preferences, and in support of their own political position. The CCP has essentially subsumed the functions of government to a degree not seen before. The mask has come off, with the sickle and hammer, and bright red propaganda banners, now proudly displayed on the streets once again, only now among the glittering skyscrapers, as the Party reinserts its ideology into public life. National security now sits uneasily next to the pursuit of economic growth as the lodestar of policy formulation. Xi has also consolidated his hold on the military, which, it bears pointing out, swears fealty to the CCP, not the People’s Republic of China. And in a move that will have far-reaching implications for China and the world, the National People’s Congress recently approved a change to the state constitution removing the legal barriers to Xi Jinping remaining in power for life. This marks the decisive end of China’s reform era, and as Carl Minzner concludes in his presciently timed new book, End of an Era: How China’s Authoritarian Revival is Undermining its Rise, “China is now steadily cannibalizing its own prior political institutionalization.”

And so if, as Dr. Schake posits, “China remains the great test case of liberal ideology,” then liberal ideology is in serious trouble, for China’s conservative “counter-reform,” to again quote from Prof. Minzner, is likely to be the new normal for the foreseeable future.

That China will play a leading role in shaping the global order is undeniable. That the position of the United States in East Asia will change is likewise inevitable. This transformation will hopefully create opportunities in the case of the former, and undoubtedly challenges in the case of the latter. The question is whether it will be a more pragmatic Chinese leadership making the full use of its intellectual and foreign policy establishment that navigates these developments, or whether the country’s foreign policy will be driven by the whims of one man and the increasingly insular (and nationalist) CCP he dominates.

While some argue that Xi’s horizonless leadership tenure augurs well for dealing with issues like North Korea, as Prof. Susan Shirk notes in a sobering new essay, Xi’s increasing power, and concomitant lack of internal constraints, increases the possibility for erratic decisionmaking in both domestic and foreign affairs. She writes, “arbitrary and imprudent decisions taken during a crisis involving the East or South China Seas, the Korean Peninsula, or Taiwan could escalate into a hot war. The risks posed by Xi’s overconcentration of power are not confined within China’s borders, but extend to the world beyond.” Xi and the Party have subsumed every single important institution that might provide independent input into China’s foreign policy. From think tanks to universities, newspapers to government technocrats, all incentives are to conform rather than inform. In short, the number of voices empowered to warn the emperor that he has no clothes is diminishing. This development drastically elevates the possibility of miscalculation with an overly confident (or misinformed) hand.

Also concerning is the Janus-faced nature of Xi’s “China Dream.” One face, which was on display during Xi’s appearance at Davos in 2017, articulates a global vision of inclusiveness, of “win-win,” and steadfast belief in globalization and economic integration. Yet this is the rhetoric of “President” Xi Jinping, head of state. More important is the face of “General Secretary” Xi Jinping, head of the CCP and its military. Here, we should pay attention to one word which animates the world view of Xi Jinping, and indeed, his predecessor Mao Zedong: “struggle” (斗争). In 1949, Mao Zedong exhorted the Chinese people that when it came to confronting the United States, one must “cast away illusions and prepare for struggle.” Xi seems to agree. During his speech to the 19th Party Congress last year, Xi told the assembled, “Every Party member must fully appreciate the long-term, complex, and onerous nature of this great struggle; we must be ready to fight, build our ability, and keep striving to secure new victories in this great struggle.” Xi mentioned “struggle” 15 times during the speech, speaking of the CCP’s “tireless struggle,” its “arduous struggle,” and its “tenacious struggle.” The Party under Xi sees the world in Manichean terms.

On a related point, despite an outward appearance of extreme confidence in its political and economic system, which has been resplendent since the 19th Party Congress, internally the Party speaks of threats, challenges, and fears. As Xi Jinping told Party officials late last year, “Our party was born under a sense of peril, grew up under a sense of peril and matured under a sense of peril.” Earlier this year, he warned officials that they must be loyal “at any time, and under any circumstance.” Over the past five years, no fewer than six top Party leaders have been purged for their purported roles in fomenting plans to overthrow Xi. The CCP has weaponized outward confidence at the same time that it shivers with insecurity. The crushing of intellectuals, the massive spending on internal state security, the talk of hostile forces and internal coups – these are not hallmarks of real confidence. And Schake is correct that there is a chance, albeit remote, that these “internal contradictions,” as Party Marxists might call them, will undermine China’s rise.

But just because China’s outward bravado is not entirely justified doesn’t mean that its growing military and economic might should be dismissed as inevitably doomed. We will likely be dealing with Xi and the growing clout of the CCP and PLA for some time now. The question is not, “when will China collapse?” Rather, the question is what sort of worldview will Xi and the Party and military leadership bring to bear as they seek to expand China’s influence into the global system.

What is to be done? As U.S. policymakers chart a course forward, it’s important that we don’t overlearn the lesson of China’s recent political backsliding and assume that the current path Xi is leading China is the only path. Cyclical swings between openness and control have been regular features of the past four decades, and unless we believe the pendulum is broken or otherwise stuck where Xi has fixed it, we must look for opportunities to nudge the CCP onto a different path. I’ll punt on these specific options for the upcoming discussion.


[1] Of course, in the more specialist community analyzing China, there was always a more nuanced and realistic view of China’s many potential trajectories.


Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Kori Schake is skeptical about the idea that rising prosperity inclines modern polities toward democracy and peaceful international relations. China, though, will be the essential test of the theory in our time. Many things could still stop China’s rise, but if they don’t, then she argues we must prepare for a new policy of containment - or, if that fails, we must eventually learn to live under China’s rules.

Response Essays

  • Graham Allison expresses broad agreement with Kori Schake and admiration for her work. He notes three areas of potential discussion, however: First, he notes that strategic realities particular to the nineteenth century shaped the transfer of hegemony from the UK to the United States; second, he suggests we need to be clearer on what is meant by “contesting” China’s rise; and third, he argues that each country’s domestic challenges are likely to be more important than we may know.

  • Oriana Skylar Mastro is pessimistic about the rise of China to great power status and the effects it will have on the achievement of U.S. strategic objectives. China faces few significant obstacles to its continued rise, and the Communist Party has been largely successful in securing domestic loyalty. It has made a successful end run around the U.S.-sponsored world order largely through economic and soft power methods. The United States has been slow to rise to this challenge.

  • Jude Blanchette urges us to remember contingency and chance: Nothing that America did necessarily “lost” China; many factors beyond American control, and beyond most Americans’ knowledge, were also at work in China’s recent return toward greater authoritarianism. This may seem a counsel of despair, but it isn’t necessarily the case. The lack of inevitability in China’s recent political life means that further changes in direction may be on the horizon. Pendulum swings have been the norm in China’s modern history, not the exception.