The skeleton in the cupboard
China: Fragile Superpower by Susan L Shirk
Reviewed by Dmitry Shlapentokh
A photograph of Susan Shirk shaking hands with Zhou Enlai, the Chinese premier almost 30 years ago, illustrates that the author has had a long career studying China. This is an important book from several other perspectives.
Shirk has been close to the heart of United States engagement with China. As a former State Department official responsible for engagement with China in the Bill Clinton era, she mentions in the book how, during one of China’s crises with the US, she rushed to her government office in Washington to participate in war games.
Most importantly, she avoids, at least in some cases, common Western stereotypes in dealing with China. Shirk’s approach to China’s internal development is the most interesting part of the book. She notes that not only has the nation achieved steady economic growth for the past generation, this could continue until by the 2020s-2030s, and China could surpass the US as the world’s biggest economy. While acknowledging that China could be a superpower in a generation, the author’s view is that China’s ruling Communist Party is and will continue to be in danger. The regime feels extremely fragile and is afraid of being toppled by a variety of forces, from peasants to unemployed students. Its fear is heightened by a history in which several Chinese dynasties were overthrown. And the regime is mindful of recent events: the collapse of the socialist regimes in the Soviet Union and East Europe, the “Orange” revolution in Ukraine and the “Rose” revolution in Georgia. The authoritarian framework of the regime is what has created the real problems and China could be more stable with greater democracy, particularly of the Western variety, Shirk asserts. How can the author’s statements and conclusions be assessed? One advantage of the book, at least what makes it different from others on China, is the author’s understanding – which is plain from the narrative – of the duality of China’s development. Most Westerners who deal with China choose only one alternative path for the country. Some, and this was especially the case in the 1990s, saw China as a totalitarian dinosaur standing alone among the ex-socialist states of East Europe and the former Soviet Union, which were engaged in a transition to the “end of history”, according to Francis Fukuyama’s much-quoted book.  While East Europeans and the republics of the former Soviet Union were moving to prosperity because they had embraced democracy and a market economy, China’s totalitarian dinosaur would experience a horrific shake-up and collapse, Western pundits said. Their vision of Red China was similar to their views of the Soviet regime in the first years of its existence. Here, scores of Western observers and an array of Russian emigres intoned that Soviet Russia – viewed as an aberration from all perspectives – was moving from one disaster to another and was doomed to collapse. As they saw it, the artificiality and monstrosities of the Soviet regime also made it a weakling that would not survive a serious military challenge. A similar vision of the regime in China has become increasingly unpopular in the past decade. The reasons for this included the increasing economic problems of the former socialist Eastern European countries and the Soviet Union, which had followed the models of American experts, and increasing troubles in the US itself. Western pundits, mostly from the US, who so recently prophesized the inevitable doom of China’s communist regime due to the rejection of the “self-evident truths” of Western democracy and unbridled market economies, now look at China from an entirely different perspective. They proclaim that China is engaged in a march towards global dominance. This vision of the inevitable triumph of totalitarian China mirrors the views of conservative pundits in the 1970s who prophesized the inevitable doom of the weak, over-moralized US – and the West in general – in confrontation with the tough, totalitarian Soviet Union. The author avoids this rather simplistic vision of China. Shirk actually sees the possibility of polar-opposite scenarios. While the first, indeed, implies China’s move to global dominance, the other implies, in the author’s view, a speedy decline. Shirk is essentially right in seeing these two vastly different scenarios. Still, there is a problem here, at least in the opinion of the reviewer. To start with, the alternative to an abrupt end of the present regime would not be a decline in the quality or number of democratic institutions. It would be anarchy and the disintegration of the country. This is a likely scenario, not only because similar events have taken place in China in the past, but also because of the experience of the Soviet Union. The second problem, and this is the most serious, is that Shirk fails to demonstrate that China has made such a great economic leap not only because it engaged in market reform – the former Soviet Union and East European countries did the same and with disastrous results for their economies – but because China has preserved the totalitarian skeleton of its past. This is what has allowed China to produce real goods instead of resorting to the service bubbles of the US and those East European and post-Soviet countries which followed the advice of American experts. It is the totalitarian aspects of China that make it possible for the leaders to pursue policies that benefit the country in the long run; they do not think about quick profits that enrich the few – which is what has pushed the US into an economic abyss. Thus, the author fails to understand that the totalitarian framework of China – as was the case with the Soviet Union – was both a dangerous poison and an elixir of life at the same time. On one hand, totalitarianism makes the country and regime fragile; on the other hand the very same qualities could well propel the country to global dominance. The Soviet Union could have done the same if it had not been beset by what Russians called “katastroika” (a play on the word in which “perestroika” is blended with the word “catastrophe”) launched by Mikhail Gorbachev. That the author did not elaborate on the positive implications of totalitarian rule in China (and elsewhere) is understandable. A person expressing this view would be unlikely to be employed by the US government, and major academic publishers would hardly accept such a manuscript. For this reason, Shirk should be excused and her book should definitely be read. It provides not just a new and basically sound view of China but also gives a glimpse into the minds of the American elite’s view of China at a time when the “Yes, we can” rallying call of America’s elite and public is increasingly being replaced by “No we cannot”. Note 1. The End of History and the Last Man is a 1992 book by Francis Fukuyama, expanding on his 1989 essay “The End of History?”, published in the international affairs journal The National Interest. In the book, Fukuyama argues that the advent of Western liberal democracy may signal the end point of humanity’s sociocultural evolution and the final form of human government. China: Fragile Superpower: How China’s Internal Politics Could Derail Its Peaceful Rise by Susan L Shirk. Oxford University Press, USA; 1st edition (April 16, 2007). ISBN-10: 0195306090. Price US$27, 336 pages. Dmitry Shlapentokh, PhD, is associate professor of history, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Indiana University South Bend. He is author of East Against West: The First Encounter – The Life of Themistocles, 2005.