28 October 2016
Will President Xi Jinping choose a path that is best for himself or for China? Photo: Reuters
Will President Xi Jinping choose a path that is best for himself or for China? Photo: Reuters

China reaches historical crossroads

David Shambaugh, professor of political science and international affairs at the George Washington University, published an article on China in the Wall Street Journal last year, in which he predicted that the “endgame of Chinese communist rule has now begun”.

In his new book China’s Future, Professor Shambaugh continues to provide some insightful views on the future of China under President Xi Jinping.

According to Shambaugh, China has now reached a political crossroads, and there are four options lying before the paramount leaders of the Chinese Communist Party: 1.Neo-Totalitarianism, the kind of personal despotism and personality cult practised by Chairman Mao during the Cultural Revolution; 2. Hard Authoritarianism, the path being taken by President Xi; 3. Soft Authoritarianism, the ruling model adopted by former President Hu Jintao; and 4. Semi-Democracy, something similar to the current political system of Singapore.

Shambaugh believes that if China was to regress to the state of Neo-Totalitarianism, the country would inevitably go on a steep decline or even collapse eventually.

In the meantime, the current political path of Hard Authoritarianism adopted by President Xi, which he predicts will most likely be embraced as the ruling model that will guide China through the days ahead, may result in partial and incomplete reform and relative economic stagnation.

On the other hand, if Beijing returns to the kind of Soft Authoritarianism adopted by former President Hu Jintao, then the country may be able to continue with its moderate reform, which might bring about partial political change.

In Shambaugh’s opinion, only through a complete evolution to Semi-Democracy, like the one that has been practised in Singapore for decades, can the Celestial Empire be truly transformed into a modern country.

Under this model, a multi-party system, partially free elections, judicial independence, parliamentary politics, limited freedom of press, a professional and efficient bureaucratic system, free market economy and a legal system that guarantees basic human rights will have to be introduced to China.

However, although Shambaugh believes Semi-Democracy is the best option for both China and the Chinese Communist Party, he remains pessimistic about the prospect of Beijing adopting Semi-Democracy in the short run, because it is unlikely that President Xi would voluntarily relinquish the absolute power he has amassed over the past four years.

Even though one might not necessarily agree with Shambaugh’s analysis and point of view on China’s future, one thing that he has pointed out in his book is certainly beyond dispute: our country is definitely at a historical crossroads and our economic reforms have reached a decisive yet delicate stage.

Any important decision that President Xi makes and option he chooses while in power will undoubtedly have profound and far-reaching social, political and economic implications for the entire country over the next several decades.

The problem is, unfortunately, what is beneficial to the Communist Party or President Xi himself may not necessarily be in the best interest of the Chinese people simultaneously.

Worse still, as in the cases of other autocratic states, what benefits the ruling party is often against the common interest of the people.

That begs the question: will the collective interest of the Chinese people be given overriding priority over the interest of the Communist Party or even President Xi himself under all circumstances when he is deciding which political path his country is going to take in the days ahead?

Given the Communist Party’s nature as an autocratic regime and its obsession with gaining control over every aspect of the people’s lives, it is likely that Beijing will always have its own rather than the people’s best interests at heart when making important decisions.

And it will certainly go to any lengths to secure its rule even at the expense of the people’s rights.

Therefore, the harsh reality we are facing is that the people of China will not be able to take their future into their own hands unless true democracy is realized in the mainland.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on April 30.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate Professor of Law at the University of Hong Kong

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