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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

China: The Case for Selective Failure

October 8, 2010

Ross Terrill
Wilson Quarterly
October 2010

No one wishes for a total Chinese collapse, but
certain setbacks should be welcomed.

Please note: Along with a companion piece by
David M. Lampton, this essay forms the Autumn
2010 cover story: "What If China Fails?"

Seven decades ago President Chiang Kai-Shek wrote
in apreface to his wife’s book China Shall Rise
Again, "For the rebirth of a people certain
factors are necessary. Of these one is that the
people should go through a period of trials and
tribulations." China had already endured a
century of turmoil when Chiang wrote those words
in 1941, but more was to come. In contemplating
China’s future, we should remember that its
modern past includes numerous failures. The
Chinese themselves certainly don’t forget. For
decades before the collapse of the Qing dynasty
in 1911, China was beset by foreign encroachment
and farmers’ uprisings, and, after the
establishment of the Chinese republic, it
experienced the depredations of regional
warlords, an invasion by Japan, civil war, the
collapse of Chiang’s regime in the late 1940s,
and Mao Zedong’s quarter-century of uneven rule (1949–76).

Initially, Mao cast his lot with the Soviet bloc,
but the "everlasting" Sino-Soviet friendship
evaporated within two decades. This was a
failure. Emerging from Moscow’s embrace in the
mid-1960s, Mao announced a "rebirth." A Cultural
Revolution denounced both imperialists (the
United States) and back-sliding socialists (the
Soviet Union) and promised the coming of
Chinese-style revolution worldwide. But the
global "countryside" (the Third World) did not
"surround" the global "cities" (the developed
countries) as Mao had expected, and the Cultural
Revolution flopped. Another failure. And another
great relief for the West, as China sobered up after Maoism.

Beginning in 1978, Deng Xiaoping used the failure
of Maoism as a springboard for replacing class
struggle with economic development as China’s top
priority. Some in the West exaggerated the degree
to which China was becoming capitalist, "just
like us," and amenable to international
arrangements made in its absence. We received a
warning at Tiananmen Square in 1989 that Deng’s
politics were still Leninist, like Mao’s. But
soon the American hope in China kicked back into gear. It always does.

It may be that China will again face
disappointment. Its economic resurgence could be
just one link in a "growth chain that began with
Japan," as Jonathan Anderson, the head of Asia
Pacific Economics at the Swiss bank UBS, wrote a
few years ago. That chain then lifted the Asian
tigers, and now embraces China -- but tomorrow
may pass to the Indian subcontinent. Yet China’s
latest rebirth looks to be the most solidly
grounded in its modern history. The question is
where the new course steered by Deng, Jiang
Zemin, and now Hu Jintao leads: Is China moving
only to rescue itself from Maoism, or is it
aiming also to wrench world leadership from the
United States? Since Deng’s death in 1997, its direction has been ambiguous.

Some observers, believing that Beijing’s new
course has already triumphed, urge American
accommodation to China’s coming dominance.
Journalist Martin Jacques titled his recent book
When China Rules the World: The End of the
Western World and the Birth of a New Global
Order. Columnist Fareed Zakaria detects a
"post-American world." President Barack Obama
himself favors a change from the United States as
sole superpower to one among equals.

"If China can succeed in the next few years,"
former Clinton administration national security
adviser Sandy Berger wrote in 2007, attacking
President George W. Bush’s "tough posturing"
toward Beijing, "it will transform that country,
Asia, and the world in ways that serve our
long-term interests." Along the same lines,
respected China specialists such as Kenneth
Lieberthal and David M. Lampton, who are sanguine
about President Hu’s authoritarian China as the
new centerpiece of Asia, make two assertions:
that China’s present course will continue, and
that it is better for the West if China
flourishes. But China could stumble. And why not
be relieved if, in certain endeavors, it does?

China’s success or failure over the next 20 to 30
years will be revealed in four areas:

(1) The drive to achieve an ever higher standard
of living for a populace still mostly poor,
ranked 124th among nations in gross domestic
product per capita by the World Bank.

(2) The preservation of the unity of the
enormous, multinational territory of the People’s
Republic (almost double the size of the territory
ruled by the Ming dynasty of 1368-1644 and far
bigger than the China of the earlier Han and Tang dynasties).

(3) The ability of the Communist Party of China
(CCP) to maintain its monopoly on political power.

(4) The effort to eclipse the United States in Asia and beyond.

In the first two of these areas, success is quite
likely; in the last two, less likely.

What are the possible triggers of a setback that
would affect China’s performance in one or more
of these areas? Most likely is a lengthy economic
slowdown resulting from exhaustion of the
Deng-Jiang-Hu model of development (cheap labor,
high exports, piggy-backing on Western
technology). Not only would China’s confidence in
its role on the world stage deflate, but the
position of the CCP could be threatened. An
economic slowdown of some sort is close to
certain for China. It would not necessarily harm
U.S. interests. Why welcome a China that leaves
our ally Japan in the dust, a China rich enough
to buy and sell its small neighbors, a China
quarreling endlessly with the United States and
the European Union over trade issues? Important
political constituencies within the United States
-- labor on the left, business on the right --
might be relieved to see China’s annual growth
rate cut in half, to four or five percent.

A second trigger could be social protest from
below. Labor turmoil in Guangdong and other
coastal provinces will probably grow as migrant
workers seek wages more in line with their actual
productivity. In the countryside, where 600
million Chinese still toil on farms, many people
are angered by rigged village elections,
arbitrary taxes and fees, and land grabs by local
authorities seeking to make a quick yuan through
development projects. Protests already erupt in
both the cities and rural areas, but they are
spontaneous and uncoordinated. If widespread
city-village networking occurred, facilitated by
the Internet and cell phones, China would be in
trouble, the more so should the economy stall and
the party be split over what course of action to
follow. National social protest interacting with
one of these other threats is quite possible, but
it could be forestalled by clever Beijing policies.

The third trigger for a setback could be the
eruption of major trouble in the large western
half of the People’s Republic, which was
historically not Chinese but inhabited by
Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Mongols, Tibetans, and others.
Especially problematic would be anti-government
turmoil in the far western "autonomous" region of
Xinjiang simultaneously with a pro-democracy
surge in Hong Kong or, worse, a renewed
independence push in Taiwan. Historically, China
has feared facing Inner Asian and maritime
challenges at the same time. The words of exiled
Xinjiang leader Abdulhekim of the East Turkestan
Center in Istanbul a few years ago must have sent
a chill down Beijing spines: "If China attacks
Taiwan at four o’clock in the morning," he said,
"we will have an uprising at three."

But while Xinjiang is a tense place, resentful of
Han (Chinese) rule, fracture of the semiempire is
unlikely. Beijing has the capacity and the
experience -- if the CCP doesn’t split over how
to respond -- to limit its damage to a few years
and a bloody nose. In the process, however,
Beijing would lose momentum in its current
activist foreign policy -- to the benefit of the United States.

A few countries might privately welcome China’s
social disruption or partial fragmentation.
Historically, major neighbors Japan and Russia
have taken advantage of turmoil or disunity in
China; the United States is less well-placed to
do so even if it wished. Chinese weakness has at
different times enhanced the influence of Japan
(from the 1890s to 1940s) and the Soviet Union
(1920s to 1960s), on both occasions at high cost
to the United States. Chaos would bring both loss
and gain to America’s friends in Asia. A trade
slump and an influx of refugees from China would
be a loss to much of Southeast Asia. But Chinese
arrogance toward smaller immediate neighbors --
Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, among others --
would be punctured. In the event of severe
disruption, Washington would worry about the
Chinese nuclear arsenal, of whose nature and
whereabouts U.S. intelligence has incomplete knowledge.

A final trigger could be military conflict on one
of the five flanks that China has to reckon with,
more than any other great power: Southeast Asia,
Northeast Asia, Central Asia, South Asia, and, to
the north and west, Russia and Kazakhstan. But a
major conflict seems very unlikely in the 30-year
span that I take as manageable for looking ahead.
Russia and Japan have every reason to avoid war
with China. And Beijing has good reason to avoid
war with the United States over Taiwan. With
President Ma Ying-jeou in office in Taipei and
President Obama in Washington, the Chinese seem
well placed to prepare the goose of Taiwan for
the oven of unification simply by continuing
their recent successful steps toward economic
integration and freer travel across the Taiwan Strait.

But conflict abroad arising from tensions at home
-- economic slowdown, coordinated social protest,
or party struggle -- is another question. In
Taipei, leaders have long been aware of the
danger of some faction on the mainland stirring
up the Taiwan issue to exploit, or divert
attention from, domestic woes. Not out of the
question is armed conflict arising from any one
of a number of sources of tension, such as
territorial disputes among several nations over
the tiny, oil-rich Spratly and Paracel island
groups in the South China Sea (on which President
Obama is taking a belated stand by rejecting
China’s attempts to avoid multilateral
negotiations). Grievances expressed in the
Chinese province of Inner Mongolia that prompt
the adjoining independent Republic of Mongolia to
make criticisms of China -- rejected by Beijing
as "interference" -- are another danger. It is
also possible that an uprising in Xinjiang would
entangle one or more of the nearby Central Asian
states toward which Moscow feels a paternal
interest, or that turmoil in restive Tibet would
push India to the boiling point over border issues.

War always has unintended consequences, but, to
be hard-nosed about the matter, U.S. interests
are unlikely to suffer if China gets into a
conflict with Russia or even Japan. War in the
Taiwan Strait, however, though increasingly
unlikely, would be appalling for the United
States and Japan, hardly less than for China.
Similarly, military conflict in the South China Sea would be unwelcome.

The United States should be neutral toward
China’s economic and territorial evolution. It is
probably good for the West that Beijing continue
its economic progress, though not if it remains
authoritarian decade after decade. To a degree,
it is also in the West’s interest for China to
avoid a return to its past disunity. That said,
China is as likely to lose territory as it is to
become larger by adding Taiwan and other "lost
territories," and the West should prefer the
former to the latter. "One Mongolia," for
example, uniting China’s Inner Mongolia region
with independent Mongolia, while unlikely, would
not be against U.S. interests, nor would Xinjiang
becoming a separate country or part of an existing Turkic country to its west.

If the prospects for continuing Chinese economic
growth and unity are reasonably bright, China’s
prospects with respect to the two other gauges of
success or failure are not. The CCP will be hard
pressed to retain its monopoly on political power
for another 30 years, and Beijing is certain to
fail in edging aside the United States. Moreover,
in these two areas U.S. interests favor Chinese failure.

A few years ago, the Party School of the Central
Committee in Beijing asked me to compare the
country’s recent reforms with those of the late
Qing dynasty in the 1880s. The issue on my hosts’
minds was intriguing: When does reform steady a
system, and when does it undermine it? The Qing
failed to change, belatedly tried to reform, and
quickly crumbled. Meiji Japan reformed itself at
roughly the same time, and to this day Japan
retains its monarchy. My young Party School
interlocutors were quite aware that
contradictions between the nature of China’s
political system and the post-Mao reforms could
resemble the late Qing contradictions. They
candidly compared the loss of faith in the
Confucian worldview in the late 19th century with
the loss of faith in Marxism in China after Mao died.

At Harvard and the Council on Foreign Relations,
and in prominent U.S. and European newspaper
columns, awe at China sweeps aside doubts that
are vivid to the young CCP elite. Historian Niall
Ferguson walked "along the Bund in Shanghai" and
suddenly realized "that we are living through the
end of 500 years of Western ascendancy."
Journalist Orville Schell felt "an unmistakable
sense of energy and optimism in the air" while in
China, "bittersweet for an American pondering why
the regenerative powers of his own country have gone missing."

Such premature declarations of China’s success
seem to have influenced public opinion. A recent
Wall Street Journal/NBC poll found that more
Americans expect China to be the world’s leading
nation 20 years from now than expect the United
States to be. Columnist Nicholas Kristof, a fan
of the Chinese education system, told his New
York Times readers, "One reason China is likely
to overtake the United States as the world’s most
important country in this century is that China
puts more effort into building human capital than
we do." He may be right about the larger contest
-- a century’s a long time -- but, while waiting,
one marvels at why millions of Chinese and other
young people around the world are foolish enough
to seek student visas to study on American campuses.

"Chinese people are educated to be the same,"
complained a savvy Shanghai fashion designer to
The Washington Post, adding "that’s a problem."
It is, and as long as that trait persists, and
the oxygen of intellectual freedom lacks, Chinese
higher education will not match ours. Maybe it’s
no accident that no Chinese has won a Nobel Prize without first leaving China.

The theoretical problem for China’s authoritarian
state is that the rationale for paternalistic
communist rule is disappearing. One rationale for
Leninist rule was to allocate resources; the
market increasingly does this in China. A second
was to be the guardian of truth; yet official
doctrine can be disregarded by most Chinese much
of the time. Young Chinese yawn when a party
congress rolls around. The practical problem is
that the muscle power of China’s economy and
civil society grows by the month, seemingly at
the expense of the party. A showdown could give
China a more just and sustainable political system. Or it could lead to chaos.

The CCP’s monopoly on power might end in various
ways. The CCP could drop "Communist" from its
name and become the China Party or the China
National Party. Such a result would fulfill the
hope of Hu Jintao for a "harmonious society,"
just as Nikita Khrushchev hoped for "a state of
the whole people," signaling an end to class
struggle in the Soviet Union. In this clever
transition -- which eluded Khrushchev -- some
kind of one-party state might continue for some
time, with freedom and democracy perhaps
advancing a little. But Hu’s "harmonious
society," like any consensus crafted from above,
offers less long-term stability than a society in
which interests clash openly in an atmosphere of free competition of ideas.

Alternatively, the CCP could split over a crisis,
with non-Leninists winning out and forming a
social-democratic party that takes power in
Beijing. This would be a major victory for
freedom and democracy. Other possibilities, such
as a military takeover, are less likely.

A freer China is not guaranteed after the end of
the CCP’s monopoly on power, but such a China
would undoubtedly be in the interest of the
United States. There would come better access to
China for U.S. products, genuine cultural
exchanges, as well as reduced tensions over human
rights, the Internet, and many other issues.
Washington folk complain at times about the
political ways of Japan, Germany, and South
Korea, but in these democracies elections
function as a safety valve that makes for
ultimate stability. China does not have such a
safety valve, and as long as the CCP remains in
power, it will not. The failure of the CCP, if it
led to a freer China, should please Americans.

Finally, there is the question of China’s
geopolitical ambitions. Are the Chinese "catching
up" or positioning themselves to be the
"indispensable power" in Asia? Some Western
observers see Beijing well on the way to joining
the "international community." Others see China
seeking a return to its past imperial primacy in
Asia, when Korea, Vietnam, and even Japan paid
tribute to the Chinese court. We can see hints of
Beijing’s long-range strategy before our eyes.

China urges an "East Asian community" that would
exclude the United States. It quickly befriends
any country in Asia, Africa, or Latin America
whose poor relations with Washington give Beijing
an opportunity to aid and trade, especially
countries whose oil fuels the U.S. economy. China
has developed ballistic and cruise missile forces
and diesel and nuclear submarines aimed at
canceling the U.S. military presence in the East
and South China seas, the Taiwan Strait area in
particular. It denies Washington even observer
status in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization,
which links Beijing and Moscow to the Central
Asian countries in a mutual security pact. The
Chinese navy has announced a “far sea defense”
strategy to justify activity in the Middle East
and across the Pacific, a departure from China’s
longstanding strategy of devoting itself to
coastal defense. These are formidable steps.

Yet so far Beijing has often acted with prudence.
It knows that China’s prospects of success or
failure depend heavily on whether the United
States is determined to stay number one; a
provoked America would be as tough to challenge
as a supreme America. Beijing will go beyond
"catching up" if and when it is able to do so.
Call it Hegemony by Available Opportunity.

For decades Beijing has been keenly focused on
U.S. power, checking how far China is behind the
United States, assessing what it would take to
catch up, and recruiting other powers to help it
resist the United States. The 1991 Persian Gulf
War, for example, led the Chinese military to
reappraise American power upward and postpone
hegemonic hopes. The Chinese Communists are very
conscious of this putative contest with the
United States, though Americans (beyond the
Pentagon) are not. Chinese look out their windows
and see one great mountain, the United States,
plus several big hills (Japan, the EU, Russia).
Most Americans look out their windows and see
multiple hills, one of which is China.

"Decline is a choice," the columnist Charles
Krauthammer wrote, and some hand-wringing
American intellectuals have chosen it with
regrettable haste. They are agitated at American
assertiveness abroad, yet they nonchalantly
report that China is taking over the world. They
ignore the likelihood that by being a shrinking
violet, the United States would simply hand the
future to China. Others on the left, happily not
dominant in the Obama administration, embrace
decline because they don’t believe the United
States is morally fit to be the world’s sole superpower.

Some declinists nudge world leadership on a
bemused China. Asked by The New York Times about
China’s rise, a Chinese assistant foreign
minister replied, "If you say we are a big power,
then we are." Declinists of all stripes are
united in failing to grapple with the simple fact
that a Pax Sinica designed to replace Pax
Americana would not work. America’s world
leadership derives not only from its economic
weight -- which remains vastly greater than
China’s -- but from additional strengths that China lacks.

Most obviously, despite Beijing’s ambitious
military buildup, the People’s Liberation Army
doesn’t have the ability to project power far
from home. China also lacks a magnetic message
for the world that could replace the American
brew of democracy, free markets, pop culture, a
near universal language, and innovation.
Beijing’s model of authoritarian-led prosperity
may prove useful for minor Third World countries,
but Chinese nationalism is empty of answers for
most of the non-Chinese world. Similarly, Chinese
culture remains impermeable, clumsy in
give-and-take with other cultures. Extraordinary
numbers of Chinese workers and engineers now work
at sites in the Middle East, Latin America, and
Africa, but they live largely in isolation from
their host societies. Last year, on the 60th
birthday of the People’s Republic of China, Hu
Jintao said, “Today a socialist China is standing
toweringly in the Eastern world.” Yet, especially
in East Asia, Chinese dominion would be a very hard sell.

A tacit East Asia security system exists, and
only its unusual character has prevented full
recognition of its achievements. It consists of
the United States as a hub with spokes out to
Japan, South Korea, Australia, Taiwan, Thailand,
the Philippines, and other countries. Its
unstated function is to hold Japan and China in balance.

Since the 1970s, Washington has had businesslike
or better dealings with both Tokyo and Beijing,
and these two have had fruitful intercourse with
each other. This is no mean achievement. It would
be canceled by a China that "succeeded" in the
sense of eclipsing the United States and keeping
it out of security arrangements for East Asia.
All benefits of the tacit balance in the region
would be at risk. Japan-China tensions would
sharpen overnight. Japan might spread its wings,
to the dismay of some Asians. Voices in Australia
would say that China must replace the United
States as the regional gatekeeper. Small
countries close to China would simply throw in the towel.

The desirable policy to keep the current balance
in East Asia and peacefully stave off a Pax
Sinica is twofold. First, burnish America’s East
Asia alliances so that Beijing has no illusions
about the strength and loyalties of Japan, South
Korea, and Australia, nor about the sentiments of
other U.S. friends, including India, Indonesia,
Thailand, the Philippines, Singapore, and
Vietnam. Since money and trade talk, too, the
pending free-trade agreement with South Korea is
urgent, and Obama should not shackle American
multinationals in Asia with the new taxes he is
seeking. Second, speak up for freedom and
democracy and do not hesitate to assert them as
American values. These two policies would keep
pressure on Beijing not to reach for hegemony.

Unfortunately, President Obama has lapsed from
this twofold policy. He declines to distinguish
democracies from authoritarian governments; all
have an equal chair at Obama’s table. Last
November he welcomed "the rise of a strong,
prosperous China" as a "source of strength for
the community of nations." Unlike his
predecessor, George W. Bush, he did not say a
"free" or "democratic" China. But there is a
world of difference between China as an unfree
superpower and China as a democratic superpower.
Obama ducked the issue. Ironically, so far he has
won less cooperation from Beijing than did the "cowboy" Bush.

Historically, Americans have been slow to meet a
foreign challenge but relentless once uncoiled.
Ask those Japanese who remember the 1940s. Ask
the British (who thought us slow in 1940) or the
Germans (who subsequently experienced American
might). For many years -- since Tiananmen Square,
actually -- Gallup polls have found most
Americans to have a "very unfavorable" or "mostly
unfavorable" view of China. The Chicago Council
on Global Affairs has found Americans
increasingly negative toward China with each survey since 2004.

There are wise heads in Beijing who understand
the latent power of American nationalism and
other dangers facing a Chinese rush to the top.
They urge their leaders to stick with Deng’s
maxim of "hide our strength and bide our time."
These cautious folk in well-connected think tanks
and even government ministries do not believe the
public mantra that the United States is "holding
China back." Rather, they see clearly that the
United States is a force fueling China’s rebirth
-- by buying Chinese exports and supplying
technology for Chinese industry, among many other ways.

The undulation of national success and failure in
the 20th century was spectacular -- Russia,
Germany, and Japan all rose and fell—and is
unlikely to be replicated soon. With
globalization, failure for a major nation can
hardly be total because many countries would see
it in their interest to forestall that outcome.
But, also because of globalization, a new world
hegemon is hardly possible in the dramatic, "fill
the vacuum" sense of the United States’ post-1945 ascendancy.

I hope for a measured rise of China that balances
economic growth with political freedom; that
takes pains to achieve give-and-take between
China’s singular culture and other Asian and
world cultures; that appreciates the 21st-century
world as an interlocked whole with little virgin
space for a new hegemon to plant the flag; that
restrains its militant generals in the People’s
Liberation Army and rejects hyper-nationalism;
and that is cautious about its apparent looming
triumph because the United States is more
resilient than believed by eager Chinese
nationalists and the United States’ own pessimists.

* Ross Terrill, associate in research at
Harvard's Fairback Center for Chinese Studies and
a former public policy scholar at the Woodrow
Wilson Center, is the author of Mao (rev. ed.,
2000), The New Chinese Empire (2003), and Myself
and China, just published in Chinese in Beijing.
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