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China's Transition into the 21st Century: U.S. and PRC Perspectives

Authored by Dr. David Shambaugh, Senior Colonel Wang Zhongchun.

July 29, 1996

35 Pages

Brief Synopsis

This past April the Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute held its Seventh Annual Strategy Conference. The theme, "China Into the 21st Century: Strategic Partner and . . . or Peer Competitor," was especially timely.

Dr. David Shambaugh and Senior Colonel Wang Zhongchun look at China from two very different perspectives. Professor Shambaugh contends that those who succeed Deng Xiaoping, fearful of any further erosion of Communist Party hegemony and determined to return China to a purer form of neo-Maoist Marxism, will become even more conservative as China's economic and social problems intensify. Despite considerable political and economic challenges, his best estimate is that China will, from inherent inertia, "muddle through" well into the 21st century. Indeed, it is in the interests of the United States for China to hold together as a territorial nation-state and political unit because disintegration would foster socio-economic dislocations that could destabilize Asia. At the same time, U.S. policy must maintain pressure on China to improve human and civil rights performance.

Senior Colonel Wang Zhongchun provides a tour d'horizon of nearly a half-century of Chinese defense policy, from a distinctly PRC perspective. He then argues that China has attained a position of security and, even though the world presents many uncertainties, Beijing is committed to playing a positive role for peace and stability in Asia. The central principle in today's security analysis is that defense policy must support economic development so that China can grow into an economically progressive, democratic, and modern socialist country. Colonel Wang portrays China's military posture as one that seeks, above all, to protect China's territorial sovereignty, while focusing in this relatively peaceful era on modernizing in step with national economic development.


The United States is dealing with a complex and transitional political system in China. By some measures it is a strong, centralized, competent and decisive system. By others, it is a decentralized, weak, fragile, and decaying system. Understanding the nature of the transitions affecting the Chinese political system, the system's many complexities, and its strengths and weaknesses, is fundamental to fashioning an American strategy for dealing with China in the years to come. How China will behave on the world stage, whether it keeps its agreements with the United States and other nations, and its willingness to accept and uphold the norms and standards of international relations, all depend in no small part on the nature and evolution of China's political system and the officials that work in it.

This paper explores several elements of China's current political system with an eye towards anticipating its evolution and potential impact on Sino-American relations. Predicting this evolution is a difficult and ultimately impossible task. If Chinese politics have proven one thing since 1949, it is their unpredictability. At a time of such transition in the Chinese state and society, analysts have identified numerous potential scenarios and variables for China's political future.1 My own estimate is that political change in China will be incremental at best and will very likely lurch further in the direction of harsh authoritarianism. I do not foresee the blossoming of political pluralism and democracy in China unless there is a fundamental change in the regime--a possibility to which I would assign very little chance. Rather, I foresee that:

• The ruling party and elite will continue to take a zerosum view of politics--i.e., any gain in political autonomy on society's part is a loss for the state, and any move towards liberalization and pluralism is a step in the direction of increased societal pressure on the state and the ultimate political demise of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). While this is not necessarily a correct view--the CCP could likely increase its legitimacy and longevity by relaxing its authoritarian grip and increasing political freedoms and participation--it is the consensus of the current ruling elite and represents a key lesson learned from the events of 1989-91 in China and the communist world.

• No Gorbachev-style political reformer will emerge in the post-Deng era. The regime will continue to be comprised of a combination of party apparachiks, economic technocrats, military modernizers, and political commissars--all of whom have an interest in maintaining tight authoritarian political control and modest economic reforms. The balance of political power among the ruling elite will thus remain profoundly conservative and dominated by the Soviet-trained generation now in power. This generation and ruling elite is profoundly suspicious of the West in general, and the United States in particular.

• Dissent and popular unrest will be dealt with harshly, and no genuinely autonomous forms of civil society will be permitted to develop.

• The regime and state will not be allowed to implode and fall from power. Brute force will be used to maintain power if necessary. The military and security services will not only strictly police society, but will also play an increasingly important role in elite politics. A Polish Jaruzelski-style military/ security dominant state could well emerge if the partystate is challenged on a mass scale and proves divided or ineffective in dealing with popular unrest.

• Intensified nationalism will remain the psychological glue binding the state to society. This will also tend to win over many conservative intellectuals to the regime, and further isolate liberal intellectuals. "Neo-conservatism" (xin baoshouzhuyi) will replace "neo-authoritarianism" (xin quanweizhuyi) as the ethos of the intellectual elite.

• The political center (Zhongyang) in Beijing and the party and state authorities at the provincial and local levels will continue to work out a modus vivendi for demarcating respective responsibilities. The parameters of such a bargain are already taking shape in the form of the new revenue-sharing scheme and nomenklatura appointment procedures. In essence, the quid pro quo will entail a tradeoff of greater flexibility and leeway given to subnational levels in economic affairs in return for strict compliance in political affairs.

These are the main elements that I foresee in the evolution of the Chinese political system towards the turn of the century (any predictions beyond that are too difficult to envision). The implications of such a political system for U.S.-China policy are not encouraging. The very essence and nature of the Chinese political system will be an object of American concern in and of itself (particularly in the realm of human rights), but also because such a political regime will likely be very reluctant to meet American demands and cooperate on a variety of substantive issues of deep concern to the United States. The Chinese leadership will tend to see the United States in adversarial terms and vice versa. The decentralization of the economic system and declining local compliance with central policies also suggests that China's capacity to enforce bilateral and international agreements will continue to decline, thus further irritating Sino-American relations.

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