Doomsayer Gordon Chang published a book in 2001 titled The Coming Collapse of China, an event he said would take place within five years – or 10 at the most. The anniversaries rolled round and China kept right on going. Undaunted, Mr Chang continued to prophesise. "Instead of collapsing in 2011, the mighty Communist Party of China will collapse in 2012," he wrote four years ago. "Bet on it."
Predictions of China’s collapse have usually been the province of the enthusiastic rather than the analytical among China-watchers.
That changed with a devastating Wall Street Journal article by David Shambaugh on March 6. Professor Shambaugh, who teaches at George Washington University, is no Gordon Chang. He is a Sinologist taken seriously in policy-making circles in the West and China, one of a small group of scholars whose dry, detailed work provides much of the source code for more popular analyses of China.
So when he says that the "endgame for Chinese communist rule is here", people listen. He identified five portents of this collapse, which he said was likely to be "messy, protracted and violent". These were capital flight, intensified political repression, a general failure of will across the Communist Party, embedded corruption and economic stagnation.
It certainly sounds like a toxic mix – from a scholar who has previously praised China for its resilience and expressed confidence in its reform efforts. Indeed, China itself has rated Prof Shambaugh as the second most important expert on its affairs, an assessment now no doubt under review.
Many China-watchers began to revisit their own assumptions in response, though most rejected the idea that the party’s end is imminent. The rich may be leaving China in unprecedented numbers, for instance, but that is also true in India and France. Becoming global is part of getting rich. And while economic growth may be slowing, it’s still within the lower ends of the bounds set by the government.
While most rejected Prof Shambaugh’s prescription, many found aspects of his diagnosis persuasive, referring to ailments that he had not even raised. The government has embarked on a campaign of repression, censorship has heightened, and public rhetoric has taken an increasingly aggressive anti-western tone. Many of the corrupt have been rooted out, but corruption as a systemic problem remains. Environmental degradation casts a pall over Chinese cities in the most literal sense.
The danger for China is not so much that Prof Shambaugh’s prediction will come true, but that in making it he has fixed public attention on what appear to be intractable problems.
Even the idea of collapse becoming mainstream can have self-reinforcing effects. It becomes part of the conversation between policymakers. Companies feel compelled to at least acknowledge the possibility when planning investment. This could become a source of increased Sino-American antagonism if the US’s much heralded Asia pivot ever gets off the ground in a serious way. More generally, an atmosphere of pervasive gloom hangs over China’s soft power efforts like a bad smog over Beijing.
One problem with Prof Shambaugh’s critique rests on the fact that if he is right on this occasion, then he was wrong in his previous, more optimistic assessments. Indeed, Mr Shambaugh was wrong back in 2012 when he predicted that Xi Jinping would emerge as a weak leader.
It’s almost axiomatic that predictions about China turn out to be wrong to the extent that they are detailed and precise. For years, there was a pervasive belief among China-watchers that economic openness would force political change and that the inheritors of the system would one day decide to liquidate it in an orderly fashion. A common yardstick to measure Chinese leaders is still the question of whether they are “reformers” – with “reforms” being whatever changes the person writing wants to see.
This in turn is because so much of how the Communist Party operates is still opaque. We know what its formal structures are and how they work, but we have to guess as to how power actually operates within the system. At the bottom of it all is the fact that nobody really knows what, over the longer term, is going to happen to party rule in China. The party itself admits that much of the economic data it relies on is falsified by local officials and that it has to use spy satellites to make sure that cadres in the countryside are not operating illicit mines or golf courses.
It’s hard for China-watchers to absolutely reject predictions of collapse when they come from a credible source. But it is also impossible to dismiss the idea that Mr Xi’s aggressive programme of ideological retrenchment, economic restructuring, cadre purging and political repression might actually work and secure the party’s rule into the indefinite future.
In some respects this outcome would be just as disturbing as Mr Shambaugh’s endgame scenario, and for that reason alone it is just as important for China-watchers to watch out for.
Jamie Kenny is a UK-based journalist and writer specialising in China