On David Shambaugh’s Collapsism

By @WoodenHarp, published: March 22, 2015

An interesting take by an anonymous Chinese tweep.


If the China-US relationship from the early 1970s to the late 1980 was built on national security considerations of the two countries against their common foe the Soviet Union, then the China-US relationship since the 1989 Tiananmen democracy movement and the collapse of the USSR has been built on the premise that, by helping China to open up, the US would gradually lead China to some kind of participatory political system with rule of law and civil society. And this premise has been broadly embraced and constructed in China as well as in the US, from the people to the governments, from left to right, publicly and privately, intentionally or otherwise. This premise, from the very beginning, has never been sufficiently examined and evaluated, nor have there been any successful precedents (Iran from the Pahlavi Dynasty to Ayatollah Khomeini can perhaps be considered as a classical failure). In any case, the practice of it has long departed from the evolving reality.

The premise has never been questioned, however, because it speaks to the best wishes of many people, and it meets, in particular, the interests of the big players. In time, as a result of a combination of calculated interests and intellectual laziness, it has become a tent into which you can put anything and everything, the tent itself riddled with holes. It has become a convenient justification for the US to endorse diverse policies, and a grand narrative that makes people feel good and enables them to ignore facts that do not fit in neatly.

Now, this narrative is beginning to falter, as it is becoming clear to the US that, over the last 30 years, cooped up under this grand narrative, it can almost be said to have suckled a rival to great power, who is now butting heads with it all around the globe. By degrees, this threadbare tent is falling apart, and can no longer contain the clashes and vileness that existed all along in the relationship. The calculation of interest and intellectual laziness over the last few decades are beginning to hurt American interests in palpable ways. Consequently, it’s very likely that those who propose, advocate for and carry out this grand narrative – Shambaugh is one of them – will become more and more the focus of inquiries from the public, the media, and even Congress. In the event of growing tensions between the two countries, it is not unthinkable to see some kind of McCarthyist investigations re-emerge.

The Shambaughs will need to defend themselves, re-tell the history of China-US relationship since 1989 and the fall of USSR, and respond to a series questions people may have. For example, how did this premise come about? How was it acted on? Has it ever been viable? Why is the outcome so different from the forecast? Where did it go wrong? Was it mishap, negligence, innocent mistake, or intentional misleading?

Needless to say, I’m simply stating my own personal views, not speaking for David Shambaugh. Nor do I assume I am correct. But Shambaugh’s WSJ article and his [New York Times] interview confirmed that he is indeed a proponent of this grand narrative. In his telling, that grand narrative was a consensus between China’s pragmatic reformers Jiang Zemin (江泽民) and Zeng Qinghong (曾庆红) and the American China policy makers, himself included. [In the picture Shambaugh painted,] it is as if Jiang and Zeng had been scheming deliberately and creatively, over the span of 15 years while they were in power, to kill off the Communist Party. Shambaugh believed that Jiang and Zeng’s reforms had been very successful up to 2008, and the Western expeditionary advisers to China had been able to influence its top leaders. Hope was dawning under Jiang and Zeng’s reforms, had it not been for the “Iron Quadrangle” – propaganda, internal security, the People’s Liberation Army and People’s Armed Police, and the state-owned enterprises. The four forces were so strong that reforms were doomed, despite the top leadership giving everything they had got.

Shambaugh paints Jiang and Zeng as reformers fashioned after Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦) and Zhao Ziyang (赵紫阳) [two leaders who gave up their career and freedom trying to reform the party], except the former being more measured and mature; while the Iron Quadrangle took after conservatives like Chen Yun (陈云) and Li Peng (李鹏), who lurked in the shadows, ready to guillotine the reform process at any moment. But Shambaugh forgot to tell us that, before Xi Jinping took power, every one of these four forces had been held in the tight grip of Jiang Zemin and Zeng Qinghong. The Iron Quadrangle was also the most reliable source of Jiang and Zeng’s power. Even if the Iron Quadrangle’s power grab and gallivanting corruption were not what Jiang and Zeng had intended, they were definitely not going against the tenor of Jiang and Zeng’s rule.

Shambaugh’s stirring serenade to Jiang and Zeng may stem from the empathy and understanding he arrived at as a result of him rubbing shoulder with them for years, or maybe in defense of his own decades of China work, or perhaps an echo of a call by certain Chinese political forces to the United States, reminding the latter to intervene in China’s domestic power struggle. No matter what it may have been, his theory on China’s Coming Collapse is too hasty by half.

I am not sure whether Shambaugh spent all those years in China not getting it, or if he thought it best not to get it: The collapse of a political force does not necessarily mean the CCP’s collapse; this is what makes CCP rule so extraordinary. Jiang and Zeng may have heaved the Party to an unprecedented height of power, but Xi’s reaction against their model (if we assume for the moment that is indeed what he is doing) does not necessarily have to mean a weakening of the Party. In exactly the same way, Premier Zhu Rongji (朱镕基) strengthened the Party when he ordered the state-owned enterprises to downsize, and so did Hu Jintao when SOEs gained turf at the expense of private industry. Zhou Yongkang’s (周永康) corruption lent strength to the Party, and Xi’s anti-corruption drive can in fact do the same thing. The next generation may completely turn the policies of their elders around, and may even lock the old boys up, but meanwhile, throughout the ceaseless reaping and sowing of the generations, the Party becomes ever more invincible.

The Party is like an octopus with many arms. Depending on its political objective at a given moment, it decides which arms must be tough and it keeps switching arms and, after one round, everyone else is Laocoöned to death. When thirty million people starved, the Party declared victory; when the Chinese people could finally fill their stomachs, the Party was still declaring victory. And when you come right down to it, the Party that allowed the people to eat is the same Party that starved thirty million of them, with not very much difference between the two at all. What differed was merely the specific policies of the two periods, and the generations of intellectuals, elite, bourgeoisie and upstarts who stumbled over one another’s corpses singing the praise of their master. Their ranks include the court jester Guo Moruo (郭沫若) who called the Party “more beloved than Mom and Dad,” and his peers the Zhou Xiaopings (周小平) and the Shambaughs. As Shambaugh has noted, the glitterati who enjoyed the favor of the last king are now cast down watching Xi reshuffle the deck. Shambaugh may, however, not have the chance to join the new generation of cheerleaders who are careening toward their own private spring.

If American policy towards CCP is a soccer game, the Party has been the one scoring thus far. I don’t know what it is with the United States; maybe it is time for a reckoning. Americans always believe that they are the Good Guys on the international stage. Perhaps they are, and I sincerely hope they really are. But it would behoove the Americans to understand that Baddies like Hitler and Stalin, whom you can take on and finish off with finality, are ultimately not that scary. The Ugly, of a size comparable to the US and exactly half a planet away, is I am afraid the ultimate opponent to the US and the Western civilization it represents. And it is just as clueless to place your hope in this opponent falling apart on its own.



(Translated by China Change with permission from the author.)

Chinese original here and here.


2 responses to “On David Shambaugh’s Collapsism”

  1. George Ge says:

    The evil of CCP is clear, what’s not clear is US policy toward those rouge regimes. I think, US must uphold its principle, and be clear about it, no matter, it’s Iran or China.
    One step back, it will be a disaster.

  2. Onymous says:

    In the early 1970s, when most Americans worried about the USSR, I said that China was the only non-Western civilization that could fundamentally challenge the global primacy of Western civilization. Around that time, a nationalistic young Chinese historian (not from PRC) said that his China had suffered in the 19th century because his ancestors arrogantly assumed their country’s superiority and were complacent about dangers from the West. He said that the West is powerful now but would also suffer in future because of arrogantly assuming its own superiority. Such a prediction, made during the late years of China’s Cultural Revolution, seemed like little more than angry wishful thinking. But now, “only” 45 years later, the karmic effect is staring us in the face. At the depths of its self-inflicted decline, China seduced Western leaders who were all too happy to condescend; it was Mao who proposed to Nixon through diplomatic contacts in Poland that Nixon make a public statement of hope to visit China.

    About ten years ago, during Hu Jintao’s presidency, a leading Chinese specialist in international relations said that many Chinese criticized Jiang Zemin for being too soft on the USA. As noted in the article above, the idea that Jiang and Zeng were doing “Reform” is a key concept of the US-China relationship during those years. But “reform” ambiguous: Chinese deploy “reform” intending to achieve more effective centralized rule. Western liberals understand “reform” to mean devolution of authority resulting in less centralized rule, as a matter of principle. It’s truly a case of “same topic, different dreams”, a metaphor made explicit recently by Xi Jinping’s “China Dream”. Diplomatic ambiguity has been at the core of the US-China relationship, as skillfully fashioned between Nixon-Kissinger and Mao-Zhou, particularly over the two sides’ fundamental disagreement over Taiwan. So there is arguably a constructive place for ambiguity in US-China relations, but the ambiguity should be recognized as being ambiguous.

    Western intellectuals cannot grasp China’s view of “reform” because of their own historical commitment against centralized rule. For the many Western intellectuals ignorant of Chinese history to comprehend the inherited force of China’s millennial commitment to centralized rule, it is perhaps necessary to imagine that Charlemagne’s empire persisted throughout Europe until the present (as Napoleonic reforms have done in France since the early 19th century). Under such a Carlist “Roman” Empire, here would have been no independent nation states and no Protestant Reformation, just a vast empire uniting all of Western Europe, administered by Latin-speaking central bureaucrats supported by Roman Catholic religion. Such a vision runs profoundly counter to the prejudices of people who celebrate the defeats of Napoleon, Bismarck, Hitler, and Brezhnev by “liberal” forces, when all of whose figures tried by arms to re-create a European empire within the last two centuries (roughly). Post-WW2 Western intellectuals support the voluntary model of the European Union. Hence Fukuyama’s profoundly foolish “End of History” theme; even he recognizes that, so one of his latest books devotes much space and admiration to China’s early centralization, with “modern” features, in ancient times.

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