China’s Future: Unstable and Unsettled

By Mo Zhixu, published: April 6, 2016

Authoritarian resilience has always been an illusion.  


Ten Years

Movie “Ten Years”


On March 6, 2015, the Wall Street Journal published a piece by George Washington University Professor David L. Shambaugh entitled “The Coming Chinese Crackup.” In it, he pointed to five indications that China’s political system is seriously falling apart—a view that attracted widespread attention for some time after its publication.

Ever since 1989, many have predicted the impending collapse of Chinese Communist rule. But there are two reasons why Shambaugh’s piece was so noteworthy. First, Shambaugh has enjoyed good personal relations with leading Party officials. His books have been published in Chinese translation, and state media have often quoted his views. In January 2015, the China Foreign Affairs University under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs named him second on a list of “America’s Most Influential China Experts.” Second, Shambaugh previously held a more positive assessment of the prospects for Chinese Communist rule. Like Columbia University Professor Andrew J. Nathan, Shambaugh was seen as one of the main proponents of the idea of “resilient authoritarianism.”

Over the past several years, these two leading American China experts have undergone a huge change in their evaluations of where China is headed. In January 2003, Nathan published an article entitled “Authoritarian Resilience” in the Journal of Democracy. In it, he wrote: “Under conditions that elsewhere have led to democratic transition, China has made a transition instead from totalitarianism to a classic authoritarian regime, and one that appears increasingly stable.” And in his 2007 book China’s Communist Party: Atrophy and Adaptation, Shambaugh argued that the Party had, through learning and adaptation, developed a capacity to overcome or contain many of its problems, including corruption.

Over the past several years, these two scholars have flipped their positions on the stability of Chinese authoritarianism. Shambaugh’s Wall Street Journal piece in 2015 was not only a re-evaluation of his personal views; it was also read as a signal that mainstream Western academics had begun to shift their views on the future of Chinese Communist rule. In that piece, Shambaugh wrote: “[Xi Jinping’s] despotism is severely stressing China’s system and society—and bringing it closer to a breaking point. . . . Its demise is likely to be protracted, messy and violent.”

In his most recent book, China’s Future (published in March 2016), David Shambaugh continues to echo the positions he raised one year earlier and explains in greater detail how he arrived at his conclusions. He writes that, if China continues on the path of rigid authoritarianism that it has followed since 2009, it will inevitably fall into the same middle-income trap that has snared the majority of developing economies. Chinese society will become increasingly unstable and unpredictable, and without political liberalization at some point something will cause a “sudden rupture.” This is obviously completely at odds with the earlier idea of a resilient authoritarianism with capacity for adaptation.

Before Shambaugh, Andrew Nathan wrote in 2009 in “Authoritarian Impermanence”: “The most likely form of transition for China remains the model of Tiananmen.” I’ve noticed that more and more political scientists have been expressing similar views. For example, in “The Twilight of Communist Party Rule in China,” published in the November 2015 issue of The American Interest, the Chinese-American political scientist Minxin Pei wrote: “The Communist Party’s post-Tiananmen survival strategy is exhausted, and its new strategy is likely accelerating the party’s demise.” Mainstream western scholars have indeed changed their views on the future prospects for Chinese Communist rule.

The Resilience Illusion

To a certain extent, it’s true that the Chinese Communist Party possesses a capacity to learn and adapt. Ever since Mao Zedong’s death, the Party has left behind the traditional planned economy and pursued a different model of development. This pragmatic effort isn’t without concrete goals. At first, the Party tried to learn from then-authoritarian regimes in Taiwan, South Korea, and Singapore, as well as from the East Asian authoritarian development model represented by the long-term one-party rule of the Liberal Democratic Party in Japan.

In 1989 the Party crushed the massive democracy movement, and in the same year Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union underwent tremendous political changes. Given the fates of these other Communist states, many were pessimistic about the prospects for the Chinese Communist Party’s regime. However, the Party never stopped its experimentation and efforts at adaptation. Spurred on by the collapse of Communist regimes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and, after Deng Xiaoping’s landmark “Southern Tour,” the Party accelerated the pace of the market reforms and opening to the outside world that it had begun in the 1980s.

Contrary to many predictions, the Chinese Communist regime emerged from the assault undamaged. It successfully became part of the international economic order and achieved sustained economic growth. During this same period, there was a peaceful handover of power from Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao. As China was experiencing miraculous economic growth, the government bureaucracy seemed to be growing more specialized and responsive to society’s demands, even if there was also more and more corruption. Although the same period witnessed the repression of the China Democracy Party, a dissident opposition party, and Falun Gong, economic growth brought performance legitimacy that increased the degree of support for the Party. With the arrival of autonomous cultural consumption and the Internet age, people began to feel that things had begun to loosen up. In sum, to many observers the Chinese Communist Party had effectively used adaptation to “re-consolidate itself.” As Andrew Nathan concluded in “Authoritarian Resilience”: “[China’s] particular authoritarian system . . . has proven resilient.”

What’s more, to many observers, the Chinese Communist Party’s resilience gave it the potential to become, through further transformation, even more open and develop into a semi-democratic or freer single-party regime. Shambaugh wrote that the Party could take steps to govern in a more active and dynamic way and adopt a more open stance toward reforming its leadership and governance. Such steps would include further privatization of the economy, especially privatization of large state-owned enterprises, as well as liberalizing the land market. It would also include further development of rule of law in order to promote economic growth and innovation.

In this view, political transformation would take the form of party-building measures centered around the “Three Represents” policy, enabling members of the newly emerging social class like private entrepreneurs, technical professionals, and managers to become part of the political system and even join the party. This would not merely change the Party’s methods and style of governing, but also change its composition and direction. To a certain degree, this is similar to how, in the 1970s after losing its seat at the United Nations, the Kuomintang embarked on a new strategy of “Taiwanization.”

Within China, many people also believed that the Party could achieve the “transition from a revolutionary party to a governing party” through opening and proactive reform. Market reforms and opening up to the world would inevitably bring growth of the private economy and a newly emerging middle class, and it would also lead to the growth of social organizations, including NGOs. Eventually, pushed forward by these new social forces, a transformed Party would, together with these social forces, carry out a gradual, interactive, and stable transformation of all society, including transformation of the political system.

Ironically, however, these observations and predictions lost their interpretive power almost as soon as they were put forward.

First, those anticipated reforms never took place. In the economy, the 1990s policy of retaining ownership of large state-owned enterprises and selling off underperforming ones was replaced by a policy of building up bigger and stronger state-owned companies. Not only was there no further privatization of the state sector; we actually saw a resurgence of the state sector and a retreat of the private sector.

There was a similar phenomenon in terms of rule of law. Instead of moving in the direction of more emphasis on rights, rules, and limits on government power, statist tendencies re-emerged in the form of the so-called “Three Supremes” (in which judges were told to consider the supremacy of the Party’s cause, the people’s interest, and the constitution and law in deciding cases). Even more disappointing is that, after the transfer of power from Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao, the “Three Represents” policy that had inspired so much hope quickly ceased to get much attention and was relegated to a kind of ornamental existence.

Second, even those things that were seen to be the basis of authoritarian resilience turned out to be not as stable as they had seemed. The Bo Xilai affair demonstrated that struggles at the highest levels of power have not disappeared as a result of fixed terms of office. Since the 18th Party Congress, Xi Jinping’s strong anti-corruption campaign has not only firmly established his own personal authority, but also to a certain degree weakened the system of collective leadership and destroyed the consensus within the bureaucracy that economic growth could be a source of both political legitimacy and personal gain. At the institutional level, the post-1989 unity among elites that was so crucial to the regime’s survival and the bureaucratic driving force based on performance legitimacy both quickly became things of the past.

Perhaps one ought also to consider the shocking way that China’s leaders handled the 2015 stock market crisis. Once they were treated as mythical beings, but in the end they were shown to be just as mediocre as the bureaucrats responsible for the Japanese economy. These Chinese officials who had once been considered to be increasingly specialized and in possession of unrivaled capabilities were quickly exposed as “emperors in new clothes.” This shows that the core ideas of authoritarian resilience—meritocratic selection of a group of officials whose capacity for learning and adaptation makes them responsive to society’s demands and able to promote economic development—is most likely a myth, and China’s past economic miracle was little more than being in the right place at the right time.

Ultimately, the resilience of authoritarianism would have to be based upon an ability to attract emerging social classes. But with the quiet demise of the “Three Represents” policy, the Chinese Communist Party has increasingly come to base the continued survival of its regime on the suppression of new social groups. Even if the political system can successfully achieve relative security in the short term, it will have driven these emerging social groups to grow increasingly alienated from the regime.

In his controversial 2015 op-ed, David Shambaugh put forward “five telling indications of the regime’s vulnerability.” The first is that “China’s economic elites have one foot out the door, and they are ready to flee en mass if the system really begins to crumble.” In fact, it’s not only China’s economic elites: immigration has become quite a common subject of discussion among China’s middle class, and more and more of them are beginning to take action. Even more unsettling is the increasingly heavy repression of China’s emerging social groups, with the crackdown on online expression, rights lawyers, NGOs, and religious groups growing in both scale and intensity.

Only a few years separated the appearance of Andrew Nathan’s article, “Authoritarian Resilience,” and his subsequent admission that “the most likely form of transition for China remains the model of Tiananmen.” In 2015, Shambaugh told the New York Times: “in the middle of 2009, after Zeng [Qinghong] had retired, [the Party’s direction] abruptly shifted.” It had been only two years since the publication of his book, The Chinese Communist Party: Atrophy and Adaptation. However, the strengthening of the Party’s stability apparatus after the Beijing Olympics and the increasing repression since the 18th Party Congress all demonstrate that, set against the earlier economic miracle, any resilience that China’s authoritarian system may have had now appears to have been illusory.

What Will the Future Really Bring?

How did the illusion of authoritarian resilience disappear so quickly? No doubt this is a question shared by quite a few outside observers and thinkers inside China, with each one of them likely to put forward a different answer. But in my view, there are a few fundamental reasons why the illusion of authoritarian resilience faded so suddenly.

First, the basic factors accounting for the continued survival (or authoritarian resilience) of the post-Tiananmen regime—things like elite cohesion, performance legitimacy, absorption of emerging elites, a foreign policy of “concealing one’s strengths and biding one’s time”—were all probably responses to the crisis of 1989. For example, elite cohesion was to a great degree spurred on by the sense of crisis brought on by the June Fourth crackdown and the collapsing regimes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Sensing themselves to be “all in the same boat,” these elites found temporary common cause and for a while obeyed the rules regarding fixed terms of office and collective leadership. However, this sense of crisis was bound to fade over time. In other words, these may have been short-term phenomena from the very beginning, rather than systemic phenomena.

Other things like a pragmatic foreign policy, emphasis on economic development, or co-optation of new social elites can all be explained similarly. If the basic factors accounting for the continued survival (or authoritarian resilience) of the post-Tiananmen regime were reactions to the June Fourth crackdown, then you can’t ignore the fact that the June Fourth crackdown was carried out in order to maintain dictatorship, prevent liberalization, and “refuse to give in even a bit” (“一步都不能退”). This means that so-called authoritarian resilience was, from the beginning, always bounded by the goals of maintaining dictatorship and denying liberalization. The further reforms that so many observers hoped for and the gradual transformation that some Chinese still await were in fact never under consideration by the Chinese Communist regime.

A political system with maintaining dictatorship as its goal achieved incredible economic results, and it led people to believe in the illusion of resilience. However, under the accelerating slowdown of the Chinese economy, the demands of the emerging society will increase and, under internal and external pressures like rampant corruption, quickly reveal the regime’s more repressive side. In his new book, David Shambaugh continues to believe that the “political system is the key” and that the Party can return China to the path of political reform, gradually increase political openness and change without losing control or power and thereby rescue itself from the brink of collapse.

Based on the logic of my brief analysis above, however, the basic factors accounting for the continued survival (or authoritarian resilience) of the post-Tiananmen regime from the beginning ruled out any political liberalization. So there will be never be any political reform. On the contrary, the Chinese Communist regime depends on maintaining the status quo of dictatorship. Looking toward the future, the far more likely prospect for China is a protracted and “highly unstable and unsettled” decline that Shambaugh predicted.



Mo Zhixu (莫之许), pen name of Zhao Hui (赵晖), is a Beijing-based Chinese dissident intellectual and a frequent contributor of Chinese-language publications known for his incisive views of Chinese politics and opposition. He is the co-author of “China at the Tipping Point? Authoritarianism and Contestation” in the January, 2013, issue of Journal of Democracy.




Miner Protests in the Northeast and the End of China’s Economic Boom, by Wu Qiang, March 17, 2016.

In the Wake of the Sino-American Summit, the Potential for a New Cold War, by Wu Qiang, October 12, 2015.


Alos by Mo Zhixu on China Change:

The Glory and Suffering of Pu Zhiqiang

Crime and Punishment of China’s Rights Lawyers

The Coming Information Totalitarianism in China


莫之許《中國未來:不穩定和充滿混亂》, translated by China Change.



8 responses to “China’s Future: Unstable and Unsettled”

  1. biopower says:

    “Even more disappointing is that, after the transfer of power from Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao, the “Three Represents” policy that had inspired so much hope quickly ceased to get much attention and was relegated to a kind of ornamental existence.”

    What a load of bullshit. The Three Represents was no more than a cynical bid to co-opt the newly minted millionaires, to ensure that all the elites had a stake in the Party system. Bruce Gilley has strong research showing the tight unity between wealth and power. That is one of the key legacies of the Jiang era. What “hope” did the Three Represents genuinely inspire? What nonsense from an otherwise distinguished commentator.

    • yaqiuwang says:

      I think the hope TR inspired is this: “enabling members of the newly emerging social class like private entrepreneurs, technical professionals, and managers to become part of the political system and even join the party” According to TR, the ppl the Party wanted to co-opt were not only the uber-rich as you said, but also the middle class. Of course, this didn’t happen, but people believed it, thus “inspirational”…

      • biopower says:

        So we’re just talking about another one of the Party’s lies. Were people like Mo Zhixu really deceived by that? Where can I read about this supposed hope?

        Everything I’ve read about the 3 reps is about how confusing and meaningless it was. I just haven’t read anything about the hope it supposedly inspired.

        The Party did co-opt a large class of people who gained benefits from being part of the system – most people in government, large numbers of people who got rich off the real estate industry, many professionals, intellectuals who didn’t dissent… right?

        I’m not even sure China really has a true mainstream middle class as we would understand it in the West. large numbers of people are systematically disenfranchised (migrant workers and their families, for instance), while another chunk are bought off through various state-associated franchises. i guess between that is the precarious space for a barely autonomous middle class.

        I understand the 3 reps as a cynical way of ensuring that the incipient capitalists were lined up with the state. buying off the elite is obviously a key strategy for any successful dictatorship. whichever way you swing it, the party system is based on a relatively smaller number of people screwing over a relatively larger number. That has never changed and will never change, so that is why I was resisting some pretense that this “might” have sometime been different because of an empty slogan.

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