Publication: China Brief Volume: 1 Issue: 8

By Robert Sutter

[For this issue China Brief is pleased to offer a debate on Gordon Chang’s recent book “The Coming Collapse of China” (Random House, 2001). In his book Chang offers alarming analysis of China’s economic and social weakness and the inability of the Communit Party to solve its myriad problems. Chang makes the startling prediction that China’s Communist regime could collapse of its own weigh in five or ten years. In this issue Dr. June Dreyer asks what if Chang is correct, while Dr. Bob Sutter argues that predictions of China’s demise are premature. Gordon Chang offers a reply.]

Gordon Chang and other specialists have focused recently on the danger of a regime collapse in China. Behind such a collapse, they suggest, would be the stress of conforming to WTO norms and other tensions inherent in the broader impact of globalization. The balance of evidence and likely determinants, however, support a cautious optimism about China’s future. The regime appears resilient enough to deal with anticipated problems, despite the challenges.


China’s current third-generation leadership and its likely successors will continue the process of institutionalizing politics that has made China’s political behavior much more predictable than it was during Mao’s time (1949-76). Today’s leaders lack charisma. They are, however, more technically competent and much less ideologically rigid than their predecessors. They are also aware of the problems they need to face, and are prepared to deal with at least some of the more important ones.

The upcoming fourth generation-which is composed largely of lawyers, economists and other technically qualified individuals-is more capable and innovative when confronted with economic and social problems, more technocratic and pragmatic when dealing with domestic and foreign policies. It has enjoyed better education. It has benefited from many exchanges with the United States and other countries. Nonetheless, it has but a limited understanding of the West.

“Institutionalizing” politics means, of course, little more than more institutions. But it also means that decisions are likely to be less arbitrary. A disadvantage is that China’s current (and future) leaders may not be as decisive as Deng Xiaoping because the growing bureaucracy and procedures hem them in. But along with the growth in the number of institutions within the government comes a distinct break with the Maoist past-evident in growing regularization and routinization. Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and National People’s Congress (NPC) sessions and plenums have been regularly scheduled and held since the late 1970s. Planning and budgetary cycles are adhered to. The principles of class struggle have been replaced by budgets geared to a socialist market economy and political constituencies. Socialist laws continue to be promulgated, though enforcement remains problematic.

The military is less well presented at the top-level CCP Politburo than it once was. Some observers approve of this development, some do not. Nonetheless, it could pose a potential destabilizing bifurcation between the CCP and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

China’s politics overall are becoming more stable and predictable, with its battles being fought on the institutional level. Personal rivalries and relations, however, cannot be ignored. Other key problems are leadership succession, nepotism, favoritism and increased corruption. At the top of this list is Jiang Zemin’s reported intention to remain in a senior leadership position while seeking the retirement of many of his Politburo Standing Committee colleagues. His record of seeking compromise and incremental advances suggests that he will not allow this issue to fundamentally divide the Chinese leadership.


Even if economic growth is not as strong as official Chinese statistics suggest, it will outpace population growth, continuing the overall rise in the standard of living that has characterized Chinese development over the past two decades. A young, highly trained labor force with modern technical skills will increase in numbers. The infrastructure of rail, roads and electronic communications greatly reduces perceived distance and helps to link the poorly developed interior to the booming coastal regions.

Chinese development continues to depend heavily on foreign trade, investments and scientific/technical exchange. This dependence is not likely to diminish. It will in fact increase. The regime faces daunting problems. Notable among these are ailing state-owned enterprises, a weak banking/financial system and WTO requirements. Also worrisome are the increasing number of unemployed and laid-off workers, decreasing inventories, a high real-interest rate, the divestiture of military enterprises, and bad loans and bankruptcies. The leadership has taken concrete steps recently to remedy some of these problems and weaknesses-which, given continued economic growth, appear manageable.

The signs of social discontent-seen recently with demonstrating peasants and laid-off workers and Falun Gong sect members-are likely to continue. Such developments, however, have a long way to go before they pose a major threat to the regime. A variety of current sources of social tension and conflict in China might present opportunities for expressions of discontent. Groups that might exploit such tensions include those people living in the poorer interior provinces, ethnic minorities, farmers, members of the unemployed or underemployed floating population, laid-off state-enterprise workers and other laid-off workers, students and intellectuals, and members of sects such as the Falun Gong.

To pose a serious danger to regime stability, however, these groups would need to establish communications across broad areas, establish alliances with other disaffected groups, put forth leaders prepared to challenge the regime and gain popular support with credible moral claims. Success also requires a lax or maladroit response from the current regime. The attentiveness of the regime to dissidence and the crackdown on the Falun Gong strongly suggest that Beijing will remain keenly alert to the implications of social discontent and prepared to use its substantial coercive and persuasive powers to keep it from growing to dangerous levels. Popular support for continuity is strengthened by a broad aversion to chaos and a perception that there is no viable alternative to community party rule in China.


China will continue to depend on its economic connections with the developed countries of the West and Japan. Nonetheless, nationalism will exert pressure to push policy in directions that resist U.S. “hegemony” and the power of the United States and its allies in East Asia, notably Japan. Beijing will resolve these contrasting pressures by, first, attempting to stay on good terms with its neighbors and, second, keeping economic and other channels with the United States open while endeavoring to weaken overall U.S. power and influence in East Asia and elsewhere in its long-term attempt to create a more “multipolar” world. Military modernization will continue at its current or perhaps a slightly more rapid pace. This poses some challenge to the already modern and advancing militaries of the United States and its allies and associates in East Asia, especially in such nearby areas as Taiwan, where the Chinese development of ballistic and cruise missiles and enhanced naval and air combatants pose notable dangers.

China also sees a challenging international security environment and is apprehensive about several international security trends. It is particularly concerned about the perceived U.S. “containment” and military “encirclement” of China, U.S. national and theater missile defense programs, and the potential for Japan to improve its regional force projection capabilities. These concerns are likely to grow as the United States and its allies strengthen positions along the periphery of China in Central and South Asia as well as the western Pacific during the ongoing antiterrorism struggle.

Taiwan, however, is China’s main security focus. It is also is the biggest problem in Chinese-U.S. relations, both politically and militarily. The issues of continuing U.S. arms sales and missile defense deployments in the region remain problematic for the future. China and the United States are currently attempting to find common ground but Beijing will continue to press for reunification with Taiwan. Taiwan’s domestic political and economic preoccupations and growing economic dependence on the mainland are moderating Taipei’s assertiveness in cross strait relations to Beijing’s growing satisfaction.

Robert Sutter is a visiting professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.