A couple of weeks ago, AEI scholar Michael Auslin published a column for the Wall Street Journal about a quiet dinner in Washington where a senior China scholar declared the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had reached the final stage before collapse. The political collapse of the world’s second-largest economy and a nuclear power is no small thing. What should Washington do? Go outside the Fourth Ring Road (a Chinese reference akin to saying go outside the Beltway), forge links to marginalized Chinese and speak out about Chinese human rights to show the Chinese people that the United States has “a moral stake in China’s development.” Even if the CCP’s collapse does not occur for years, these measures will help U.S. policy makers be “on the right side of history.”
Such measures appear trivial in the face of a problem the size of China’s potential political instability and the collapse of its governing structure. By Auslin’s telling, this anonymous China scholar and those nodding in approval think that these first steps constitute a genuine signal to the Chinese people that Washington stands and will stand by them. Rhetorical support, however, will not grace the United States in the eyes of the Chinese people if their discontent demolishes the CCP. Actions, rather than words, in the heat of another crisis at least on the scale of nationwide protests in 1989 will be the measure of Washington’s moral interest in China’s future.
Being prepared for a political crisis with the potential to bring down the CCP requires a much more serious effort that involves both research and planning. Before that day of crisis comes, the mindset for dealing with China must include the ability to imagine a China without the CCP and how that outcome might develop. The tens of thousands of demonstrations serve as a reminder that, despite China’s rise to international prominence, the country still has political fault lines capable of causing an earthquake. With this kind of warning, the moral failing would be to ignore the potential for regime-changing unrest or any other political crisis that might threaten the regime, and what Beijing might do to prevent that from happening.
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The purpose of these tasks is to reduce the uncertainty faced by policy makers as a Chinese crisis emerges and cascades across the country, as well as to identify ways and decision points where Washington can influence the CCP’s choices. If an effort is not made to reduce the uncertainty, then fear of the unknown is likely to drive U.S. policy makers to a decision about whether to support the Chinese government out of ignorance, rather than informed calculation.
One of the first research-related steps is to identify the cohesive and centrifugal forces inside China. The CCP used its sixty-six years in power to dismember Chinese civil society and insert itself into any group with the potential to become a political force. Groups that could not be coopted, like Falungong, became pariah and hunted by the regime. Nascent civil-society and activist groups survive in the blind spots of China’s underlapping bureaucratic maze. Chinese political culture beyond the party needs to be understood if Washington wants to claim a “moral stake.”
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Ahead of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the National Intelligence Council produced an assessment of Iraq’s political prospects after Saddam Hussein fell. The paper updated a periodically updated analysis begun in the early 1980s, and it accurately analyzed the sectarian rivalries and domestic cleavages that blew up under the post-Saddam U.S. administration. It is not clear, however, whether such a paper could even be done on China today, let alone in any accurate manner. Such a paper cannot be about Uyghurs and Tibetans, but the 1.24 billion Han Chinese who inevitably will dominate China’s autocratic or democratic future.
The second is to develop, maintain and update a database of leadership dossiers (as well as their families) that includes points of leverage, such as overseas assets that could be frozen, as well as electronic and telephonic contact information. The U.S. government is certainly as capable as Bloomberg and the New York Times of ferreting out this kind of information. If the CCP is imploding, the tense situation will ensure that many cadres start thinking in terms of their personal and family welfare, rather than the party. When survival is at stake, the CCP’s institutional cohesion is likely to falter as each looks after his own and looks to ensure there is an escape hatch. In this kind of situation, the ability to influence Beijing’s decisions will be highly personalized, and the ability to both contact and shape the incentives of individual decision makers in Zhongnanhai as well as provincial leaders and security officials could prove critical if Washington wants to shape outcomes.