By Adagbo Onoja
China as a social stalemate must frighten every actor in global security. Just how does the world manage such a global risk? Yet, that is what the world is hearing. Could such a verdict be an early warning or some academic false flag or both? And how do we know which it is?
David Shambaugh is as authoritative a scholar as anyone can get when it comes to ‘China Rising’. If the number of publications to his credit on the subject matter doesn’t prove this claim, then his deep insertion into the Chinese society should. He does not only speak the language, he has actually lived in China and he relates with the system. Although, all facts are, ultimately, interpretations, Shambaugh would escape the charge of inadequate facts on China. It is difficult to know who, between him and Professor Joseph Nye, his fellow American, does more ‘business’ with the Chinese than the other. Against this background, those who say that Shambaugh’s judgment on China and its future are pretty, pretty sound do have a point.
But when that judgment is that China’s on-going social transformation process could stagnate, it goes beyond scholarship to the world of risk and the prospects of managing such in a country of over a billion citizens. The world is bound to be jolted by such a judgment. The reception for Shambaugh’s declaration might not have been as hysterical as greeted Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History” essay or Huntington’s “Clash of Civilisation?” in the early 1990s, it has not been a low key one either. The book, China’s Future, has been reviewed in most major global newspapers, highlighting the thesis that China might be staggering to a social stalemate if it does not liberalise. But, what does it mean to liberalise, a word which does not mean the same thing as democratisation in Shambaugh’s book? Or how might liberalising save a system that came into existence from a different ideological thought process and dynamics rather than liberalism? These are some of the questions the book provokes.
Shambaugh is not praying for anything such as China breaking down. He is only doing his job as a scholar although scholars still see the world from where they stand rather than the way world actually is. His key claim is that China has arrived that stage where every aspect of its recent impressive developmental breakthrough are reaching diminishing return in performance, be it economic, social, political, cultural, technological, environmental, national security, foreign relations and what else. This is no secret to China watchers, he says, taking note of how even China’s leaders have more than admitted this, particularly in the 2007 statement of the then premier to the effect that the Chinese economy is unstable, unbalanced, uncoordinated and unsustainable. Whether a statement as this means anything more than reflexivity is open to debate but Shambaugh has a number of them by several Chinese leaders, linking them to the spectre of crisis that he sees on the horizon. And the resolution of which he ties to political liberalisation, some kind of glasnost with Chinese characteristics, if you like.
For him, politics will decide the next thirty years of China’s future, the reverse of the past 30 years when the economy was decisive. His warning is that China could get stuck in the middle income trap for ever if it does not overhaul the political process in favour of liberalisation. China, he says, may be distinct but it is unique as to escape the fate that befell 90 of the 101 countries that tried to get out of backwardness between 1960 to date but got stuck rather than achieve transition into “fully mature economies”. In the World Bank tracking of the process since 1961 to date, only 11 out of these 101 countries escaped that trap because, according to the narrative, they liberalized.
In other words, the trouble with China is what he calls the Leninist political system because, as he told The Wall Street Journal earlier in March in an interview on the book, “the main thing to remember is that atrophy of these Leninist-type regimes, and we must view the Chinese system as such, is both inevitable and a drawn-out process”. In particular, he takes note of what he regards as that system’s inability to date to successfully institutionalise adaptation – the process whereby authoritarian states come to terms with liberalising. That failure means that the Leninist political system, in Shambaugh’s view, embodies the risk of declining, stagnating and perhaps dying. In spite of himself, he fears China risking stagnation, aggravated social problems and accelerated political decline. That would be a repeat of Breznevisation, the experience of the defunct USSR towards its terminus which Shambaugh thinks Brzezinski, former US National Security Adviser, captured very well in his book, The Grand Failure. At that stage, Brzezinski could see loss of confidence, re-assertion of power through control or repression, nominalisation of rules and the progressive annulment of any normative essence of power in favour of governmentality.
On this ground, Shambaugh argues that thinking about China’s future implies going back to the toolbox of modernization theory as well as comparative communist studies as deployed in Brzezinski’s book above. In his view, China can surmount this if it opts out of a hard authoritarian strategy of power in favour of a soft authoritarian variant. But, would China do that? He has his doubts because he sees the regime as profoundly insecure, zero-sum minded and inclined to going it hard. He told Shannon Tiezzi of The Diplomat in March 2016 interview shortly after the publication of his book that those he calls the ‘hard authoritarians’ had seized power from those he calls ‘soft authoritarians’ such as Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao but that it was an evidence of incorrect lesson learning from the collapse of the USSR.
Only in the realm of global governance does Shambaugh concede grounds to China. He awarded the regime high scores for effective presence in global governance space, from climate change to anti-piracy, managing pandemics to UN Peacekeeping. In this realm, he thinks that China has responded positively to Western, US and EU pressures on it to end a free riding behaviour by contributing what is perceived to be proportional to China’s status in material wealth. But, other than this, he sees China’s larger international relations to be strained, stressed and fraught across Asia, Europe, Latin America, Africa and North America.
There is no scarcity of categorical positions throughout the book, positions which, together with the overarching argument, makes Shambaugh’s China’s Future inviting on whichever angles is your preferred entry point – the economy, the polity, the foreign relations aspect and even the social spectrum. As every other book, however, it is only an argument, crying to be read in the context of history, space and related texts. It is only by situating the claims of the book in these variables that we can decipher the limits and potentials of its argument.
Certainly Shambaugh touched on the heart of the matter when he asserted the primacy of liberalisation. There are those as late Lee Kuan Yew who would have little to disagree with in the argument although whether he would agree that a social breakdown is what results if there is no liberalisation is a different matter. Speaking in a one page interview with The Economist in 1991, the late Singaporean Prime Minister argued that democracy is not conducive to rapid growth for an agricultural society because such society must create agricultural surplus to get their industrial sector going and, in his analysis, creating agricultural surplus is better facilitated by military rule or dictatorship or authoritarian government such as was in Korea and Taiwan. According to Yew, democracy tend to become a parlour game in terms of who takes power, then who gets what spoils and these make growth slow and sluggish. In the interview, he cited India and Ceylon to buttress his standpoint.
But what happens after creating the industrial society? The regime must commence opening up the system. In the interview, he stated that after this point, it is a risk not to liberalise because the bureaucrats, engineers, agriculturalists, technologists, scholars, business elite and sundry experts who supervised the creation of the industrial society would no longer accept the terms of that order as it relates to politics. So, a clever regime must begin opening up at this point. Instructively, Shambaugh uses Singapore as an example of where democratisation emerged out of soft authoritarian state. Moreover, China has overshot the $3000 per capita income Samuel Huntington put as the threshold when the opening up must begin. Could Shambaugh then be correct to infer that the system is only superficially stable, ready to explode should some actors from within strike at an opportuned moment?
Kuan Yew was not addressing China’s future in that interview but, in a sense, he said what Shambaugh is saying about China today and which many insist to be the strongest explanation for the implosion of the Soviet Union. That is, the Soviet Union failed to open up to accommodate the diverse new species of political animals the process of social transformation from an agrarian to an industrial society had brought into existence through expanded educational opportunities, specialised trainings and so on. Alienated, they started protesting, silently first, bidding their time till they could make an attempt at reform to become a tragic miscalculation.
Interestingly, neither the author of China’s Future nor the Chinese authorities disagree that opening up is going on. Actually, Shambaugh has an elaborate narrative of a World Bank assisted reform package for China that stalled under the weight of its technical clumsiness. The dispute is on the type of opening up that serves the best purpose, depending on who is defining that. It is here that Shambaugh’s assessment of the situation in terms of the ascendancy of the ‘hard authoritarians’ risks a challenge. In March 2013, Ivan Krastev, the Bulgarian Political Scientist, wrote an article in Open Democracy that reverberated. The article’s combination of the entertaining with the serious probably accounts for that, what with the bits about how asking which is more democratic between Russia and China is like asking who is more feminine among Sylvester Stallone Arnold Schwarzenegger. But his rating of China in democratic practice must have also made the article to reverberate. Entitled “Is China more democratic than Russia?” it was certainly a critique but even then done with the academic honesty that recognized democracy wherever it exists. And so, he showcased China on five points even after saying that, on the whole, Russia is faking democracy while China is faking communism and none is doing democracy.
One, is that the Chinese system is not haunted by the ghost of succession because, every 10 years, the arrangement produces a new leader and the risk of personalised authoritarianism is minimal. The candidate can only emerge from the Chinese Communist Party but it shows sensitivity to rotation of power. Two, “Although non-democratic regimes have in-built hearing problems”, China allows the protest culture which helps it to gauge what is on the people’s mind about the local power processes. Three, in China, the loyalty test does not start until the party has taken a position, not before it. The message is that if you shout plenty, Fela style, the Chinese authorities would listen to you. His fourth point is that the Chinese authorities recruit and socialise elite from all manner of schools, classes and regions rather than run cronyism while the fifth is that China is about experimenting with different models with a view to finding out which one would work best rather than closure to innovation.
Against these grounds, he opined that “between ‘faked democracy’ and ‘faked communism’, the latter offered more in capability and accountability and advised Western commentators to look beyond institutional design in making sense of the performance of authorities. Some people would, therefore, ask if Shambaugh heeded Krastev’s advice in his book. That is whether he looked beyond the formal institutions in coming to his conclusions about classifying the tendency in power now as ‘hard authoritarians’. Many would wager that if he followed Krastev, he might have seen a core of informed cadres grappling with the contradictions of what they are doing, learning lessons and shifting grounds as and when due but not in response to the understanding of it all by those outside the logic of what they are doing.
In 2012, that was what scholar Lanxin Xiang at The Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva saw. Xiang has a very different assessment of the collective character of the present generation of Chinese leaders. He doesn’t see them as hardliners but people who are not going to drag their feet in embarking on a serious reform should the system need it. For him, they represent a generation that is counter-intuitively the most mature of the generations that have ruled since the revolution, asserting “Their unique sense of history and political stamina in politics and foreign relations will be a decisive factor for years to come”. He credits Xi Jinping with being tough, congenial but also pragmatic, rating his life experience ahead of Obama’s. Having crossed words with Shambaugh before on China makes Xiang’s position more interesting.
There is also the question of how come Shambaugh still calls the Chinese Communist Party a Leninist organisation contrary to the widespread jokes about whether Lenin would recognise it as one were he to surface today in Beijing. Many students of the Chinese Communist Party agree that after the whole range of innovations it has absorbed, including virtually removing the class factor in party membership and making it an all comers’ forum, there isn’t the Leninist thing there anymore.
Of course, almost everyone foresees trouble for China if it does not activate some form of opening up. Xiang’s view of it is that there is a real threat to the “Mandate of Heaven” in Chinese politics. The threat lodges in “failure to rule by virtue” and the contestation of it in the feeling that some people have collected better share of recent prosperity, much of it corruptly as far as the perception goes. Someone added an entertaining ring to that by pointing to how “Modern communist bureaucrats are too busy collecting capital to read Karl Marx’s Das Kapital”. New claimants could, therefore, raise a new narrative of power challenging the princelings, that is the current generation of power holders, most of them traceable to the first generation of revolutionaries who effected the revolution. How far such a narrative can move the multitude even if there is no suppression of protests is a big question. A second problem area is if the economy were to slow down and block present benefits of transformation. After all, as Xiang puts it, no national economy in history sustains an indefinite growth. These two arguments are different from Shambaugh’s.
Might Shambaugh have been conceptualising liberalisation from the Western view of it without thinking much about the difficulty of pushing through “existing Western derived ‘rules of the game?” In other words, how much can modernisation theory and comparative communist studies tell us about whether China is heading to stagnation or global primacy? The problem seems to be that Shambaugh does not agree that China is already a liberal economy. The specificity of ‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics’ tends to escape his attention. Instead, he insists there is a universal experience about transition from non industrial to industrial economy and society. And that no communist country has made it on the terms of communism or Leninism.
A book by an American Professor of Political Science in the year 2016 resting China’s future in paralysis unless China liberalises is a statement on development strategy for the whole of the ‘Third World’ to ponder about. It is a statement beyond China just as much as it equally forces its readers to ponder if there is any connection between it and the reported “America’s own paranoia about China’s internal problems”. Above all, could this work have anything to do with the changing phases of perceived obsession with China, particularly in the West?
We are told there was the phase which doubted China’s survival. Then it was replaced by the phase which captured fears of China taking over the world and displacing the West from primacy. Those who push this cite Martin Jacques’s When China Rules the World with its suggestive chapter title such as “the changing of guard” and “the age of China”. Jacques basically agreed with Fareed Zakaria and John Ikenberry about the ‘Rise of the Rest’ which Ikenberry put best when he wrote that “led by China and India, a set of fast-growing developing countries will rival the US and Europe within decades, the first time in the modern era when non-Western, developing countries would climb into the top ranks of the world system via economic growth”. Ikenberry’s book was published in 2008, the same year with Fareed Zakaria’s own book, The Post American World And the Rise of the Rest.
As if operationalising this, Jacques found the world envisioned by Ikenberry in Goldmann Sach’s rating of the economies by 2050 and what did it look like? Barely Western, what with the top ten being China, US, India, Brazil, Mexico, Russia, Indonesia, Japan, UK, Germany, Nigeria, France. (I deliberately extended the list to 12 so as to include Nigeria but to also take the opportunity to add that Nigeria is listed there only in terms of its potentials rather than anything that exists on the ground now. Patriotism demands that we say great things about our country but truth equally demands that we say that Nigeria has not started the journey to modernity yet and it is not debating it. It is still debating ancient topics such as restructuring in an age when territory has gone virtual substantially). In this sense, Zakaria’s ‘rise of the rest’ has no better or more powerful phrase for capturing what is happening in human history: the dilution of the essentially European experience that has defined modernity and this is happening without bloodshed but through experimentation and creativity in political economy or “economic growth”.
As an academic and cultural authority in his own right, Xiang might have struck the chord when he argued that Western understanding of China in terms of a rise and fall paradigm or of a rising power that would displace the West are both wrong. His explanation is that Chinese view of history is not linear but cyclical and the question of model building or rational planning of domination is not part of the culture. The implication is that an American foreign policy strategy such as Pivot to Asia, for instance, was inherently provocative and read in Beijing as containment. Yet, the US cannot leave the theatre just like that because it is listening to many powerful voices, among them that of John Mearsheimer, selling the narrative that great powers are a tragedy in international politics. His theory is that they are because, no matter how hard they try, they cannot get away from clashing with each other because they are not only afraid of each other, the only cure for that fear is power maximisation. Because Mearsheimer’s book is easy to understand, is rich in history and he being of the University of Chicago, his message is widespread and automatically implicated in the US foreign policy, generally and specifically. Generally, the belief is that “the West’s assumption that China would be a status quo riser is misconceived” is widespread.
Could Shambaugh’s argument then be taken as an early warning or something else, an important question since expertise does not escape discursivity? After all, by his own testimony, a key analytical framework of the book is comparative communist studies, the same framework employed by Zbigniew Brzezinski, his confessed intellectual hero, in The Grand Failure published two clear years ahead of the demise of the defunct USSR. Could China’s Future be a repeat performance, this time by Shambaugh, a legatee of Brzezinski?
Africa, more than any other continent, would be interested in the plausible answers to this question. And why not when, as the editor an American energy publication frankly put it: the US never had a bogeyman like China and Africa is where the bogeyman is lurking. History could be about repeating itself. The recent pattern of conflicts across the continent could be ominous. But this continent cannot bear another Cold War. The consequences of the old one are still unravelling.
Instead of serving as battleground for great power discord, it be made to serve a unity ground for great powers through a distinctively joint great power developmental intervention focused on Africa’s rapid industrial transformation. Let the greatness of the powers of the US and China be measured in clear, measurable, joint but transformative commitments to Africa; the US for what it has already got out of Africa and China for what it could get. Joint engagement in Africa would take the US and China out of another cycle of unproductive competition into a meaningful humanitarian intervention.