China’s hard line a sign of weakness not strength



In an illuminating anecdote that David Shambaugh heard from two Chinese officials who witnessed an encounter between Hu Jintao and Russian leader Vladimir Putin with Beijing’s increasingly harsh scrutiny of NGOs, The FT’s Tom Mitchell reports.

He writes that Mr Putin “physically grab[bed] Hu by the lapel at a summit and [told] him: ‘If you do not get a grip on these NGOs in China, as we are doing in Russia, you will have a revolution!’”

Now, Shambaugh’s assessment in his new book, China’s Future, is that “China is today more repressive than at any time since the post-Tiananmen period”, Mitchell adds:

Rights lawyers, labour activists, non-governmental organisations and other civil society actors who were tolerated by the party a decade ago are now targets of an intensifying crackdown that reflects not strength but “a zero-sum approach to power and a highly insecure regime that lacks intrinsic confidence and does not trust its population”.

When the Wall Street Journal published Shambaugh’s essay – “The Coming Chinese Crackup” – predicting the demise of China’s Communist party last year, the reaction of officials in the foreign ministry in Beijing was immediate and predictable. According to people familiar with the exchange, they told a senior editor at the newspaper to “take it down now”.

As Shambaugh, professor of international affairs at George Washington University, told a recent meeting at the National Endowment for Democracy, the party’s embrace of “hard authoritarianism” is a sign of weakness, not strength.

In China’s Future, Shambaugh writes: “Even party loyalists are just going through the motions . . . the regime’s propaganda has lost its power, and the emperor has no clothes,” the FT’s Mitchell adds:

A year ago, this argument went against the conventional wisdom. The emperor in question, Xi Jinping, president and party general secretary, was riding high, recognised by friend and foe as China’s most powerful leader since Deng Xiaoping or even Mao Zedong. Then his administration botched a stock market rescue and roiled global markets with seemingly erratic changes in currency policy. In the context of slowing economic growth, propped up by ever greater debt levels, people are asking whether the new emperor has lost the plot….

Back in 1998, according to his argument, Jiang Zemin, then president, Premier Zhu Rongji and Vice-President Zeng Qinghong steered China from a period of intense repression after the 1989 massacre to a period of “soft authoritarianism”, during which the party sought to “manage political change rather than resist it”. Shambaugh credits this to Mr Zeng, a figure little known outside China, who said in 2004: “A party that is not dynamic and does not change with the times will become moribund and cut off from its popular base until it ultimately dies.”

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