Talking Behind their Back: Chinese Thoughts on their Coming Collapse

The summit meeting between Presidents George W.

The summit meeting between Presidents George W. Bush and Jiang Zemin in Crawford later this week provides an opportune moment to reflect on the future course of Sino-American relations and the implications of China's "fourth generation" leadership taking the helm of the Middle Kingdom. It is clear that the events of September 11 have significantly altered the relationship between the United States and China.  The predictions of a coming conflict with China, so popular just two years ago, have faded.  Officials in both Washington and Beijing are now more concerned with the war on terrorism and China's leadership succession. (1)  Behind these questions, however, looms a more serious issue - the future of China itself, a subject with enormous implications for the United States.  Pronouncements about the approaching collapse of China remain as popular today as they were a decade ago in the aftermath of Tiananmen Square - although an increasing number of Western China-watchers are giving serious consideration to the possibility that China may be able to transform itself successfully, averting regime collapse.

Chinese scholars and policymakers, of course, are very familiar with the pronouncements and prognostications of American analysts and academics - after all, the average research center in China receives such periodicals as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, and The National Interest.  Of course, the reverse is rarely true - how many academic and policy research institutes in the United States receive the leading Chinese journals, such as Guoji Guanxi [International Relations] and Jingji Yanjiu [Economic Studies]? While we remain fairly ignorant of Chinese views on international affairs, we should not assume the same is true for them.

Following a talk I gave at a university in Shanghai on the differences and similarities between the Soviet regime on the eve of collapse and China's current situation I was struck by the obvious - Chinese are well aware of Western predictions about their country's coming collapse and well-versed in our literature.  I was surprised to learn that Gordon Chang's The Coming Collapse of China (2001) had even been the topic of a seminar at this particular university. Contrary to what one might expect, Chinese scholars have a sophisticated understanding of our literature on democratization and regime change. Works such as Samuel Huntington's The Third Wave was translated into Chinese several years ago, and has for the past several years been required reading at the country's top universities, such as Beida and Fudan. The study of such works is not simply an exercise or a vacuous attempt to formulate refutations. This research is used to identify problems, devise solutions, and guide the course of further reform.

For the last two years, I have sought to gather and analyze Chinese views on democratization and regime transitions in post-communist states.  The Chinese are keenly interested in studying the cause and effects of reform in other formerly communist countries.  While many American China specialists have concentrated their attention on Chinese perceptions of the United States, I have spent a considerable amount of time reviewing what the Chinese have been saying about the problems of democratization in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.  A number of Chinese periodicals, especially Dongou Zhongya Yanjiu [East European and Central Asian Studies] and Eluosi Yanjiu [Russian Studies], are examining and debating the merits of the reforms undertaken in other parts of the former communist bloc.  I have also had the opportunity to interview some of China's leading minds on the subject, including those from the country's foremost policy think tanks and research institutes as well as Communist Party insiders.  The Chinese are actively studying "what went wrong" in Russia and other countries in eastern Europe, hoping to devise policies that can continue to promote economic growth and a gradual deepening of pluralism, without resulting in a violent or sudden collapse of the current system.  The high degree of Chinese interest in comparing and contrasting China's experience with reform over the last twenty-five years with that of Russia and the other states of the Soviet bloc supports the notion that China may be able to stave off a regime collapse indefinitely.

What is clear is that Chinese academics and policymakers are drawing their own conclusions about the causes of regime collapse in places like the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, as well as the desirability of following in the footsteps of their former brethren in eastern Europe and Eurasia.  They see a number of pitfalls arising out of the Third Wave of democratization.  Chinese scholars caution that the collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the kind of peace, prosperity and stability to eastern Europe or the former Soviet Union that had been expected or promised.  While the Chinese are well aware that certain eastern European states, such as Hungary and the Czech Republic, have made important strides towards democracy and economic development, they also believe that the region's success stories are not appropriate models for China. Instead, the fate of Yugoslavia provides a much more pertinent and troubling analogy.