How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
The Chinese Communist Party marks its 100th anniversary this year, tallying among its achievements China’s decades-long economic boom and ascent to great-power status. But can Beijing count on continued success?
At the launch of our July/August 2021 issue, Foreign Affairs Editor Daniel Kurtz-Phelan and authors Yuen Yuen Ang, Jude Blanchette, and Orville Schell discussed the evolution of China and its ruling party over the past century—and the economic and political outlook for the next.
Yuen Yuen Ang, Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Michigan
Jude Blanchette, Freeman Chair in China Studies, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)
Orville Schell, Arthur Ross Director, Center on U.S.-China Relations
Daniel Kurtz-Phelan, Editor, Foreign Affairs
KURTZ-PHELAN: Thanks so much. Hello, all. Welcome. I’m Dan Kurtz-Phelan, the editor of Foreign Affairs. It’s my pleasure to be marking the release of our July/August issue today. And we’ve got with us authors of three fantastic essays from the issue’s cover package on China. We at Foreign Affairs, I think we in the worlds of foreign policy, international affairs more broadly, spend, of course, an enormous amount of time in the last few years considering U.S.-China competition, China’s role in the world, and the geopolitics in some of these questions.
It was our sense that, amid all the very understandable focus on those more geopolitical factors, the question of what was actually happening in China was getting less intensive consideration. That there was so much focus on the external that analysis of the internal had gotten, you know, short shrift in the broader discussion in some ways. And so we asked the authors of the seven pieces in this package in this issue to help correct that imbalance. We’ve got the three with us today, but also Oriana Mastro writing on Taiwan; Dan Rosen writing on the economic headwinds in China and the kind of faltering reform efforts; and then two of China’s most important international relations thinkers, Wang Jisi and Yan Xuetong, writing on how Chinese foreign policy and China’s role in the world and its relations with the U.S. especially look from Beijing’s perspective.
Now, it was not entirely by design that a common thread emerged in these pieces. You know, we’re having this conversation just a few days after Xi Jinping’s blowout celebration of the centennial of the Chinese Communist Party. I’m not sure if it’s fitting or not that the CCP’s centennial year is the same as the Council on Foreign Relations’. But, you know, you can make of that whatever you will. But in any case, when—if you watched Xi’s celebration, you know, it was all about projecting confidence—a kind of brash certainty about China’s future and of the party. And of course, stressing that the two are inextricably linked. But the question that emerges from the pieces in this package is really whether, you know, the spectacular rise of China over the past few days can continue into the years ahead.
You know, that’s the line we put on the cover, but it’s really one that emerged from the essays themselves. It wasn’t a kind of frame that we brought to this at the beginning. And that’s true whether you look at, you know, the state of Xi Jinping’s power, it’s true whether you look at the state of the Chinese economy or the state of the party. You know, what emerged from all of these was warning signs, and challenges, and risks across the whole range of areas. And that really led to the animating question that comes out in these pieces, and that we’ll try to explore in more depth today.
Now, Xi Jinping in his speech last week insisted that the party would not accept, I’m quoting him here, “insufferably arrogant lecturing from those master teachers from abroad.” But, you know, leaving that aside, we really do have three master teachers with us today, starting with Orville Schell. He is currently the director of the Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations. But Orville’s really the kind of ultimate America and China hand. He’s been one of the most really influential and eloquent chroniclers of the country and its relationship with the United States since even before Nixon’s visit, and has seen firsthand and been a player in the kind of twisting course of the U.S.-China relationships since then. He has too many wonderful books to mention, but the most recent is, intriguingly, a novel called My Old Home. Welcome, Orville.
We have Yuen Yuen Ang, who is a professor of political science at the University of Michigan. And she’s really done some of the most innovative and important research on China’s political economy today, including in two great books. The first is How China Escaped the Poverty Trap—am I getting that title right, Yuen? And the second more recent one is China’s Gilded Age.
And then finally Jude Blanchette, who’s the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. And he’s really distinguished himself as one of the most insightful analysts of power and politics in China today, and really somebody who can kind of consider those issues outside the frame of U.S.-China relation, which tends to lead to, you know, kind of motivated reasoning, by some observers, when considering the state of Xi Jinping’s power or Chinese politics.
So a great crew. I’m going to take the first half or so of our time for conversation with the three of them, and then we will go to questions from both CFR members and Foreign Affairs subscribers. So you know, Orville, let me—let me start with you, since you bring such historical depth to these questions. You know, there’s been lots of focus on what the United States and what American observers and policy makers got wrong about China in the decades since Nixon’s visit there, you know, almost fifty years ago. There were expectations that it would liberalize politically as it got richer, or that its foreign policy would moderate. You know, and that old consensus has given way to a new consensus in lots of ways.
You know, your piece has this wonderfully kind of elegiac quality when you, you know, note somewhat hauntingly that we’re back to this period when many foreign observers and chroniclers can’t even get access to China in the way that had become kind of standard in the intervening decades. So when you—when you look back on this fifty-year history, what do you see as the kind of key mistakes in American analysis of events in China over those decades? I’m not demanding self-criticism here but, you know, you were a major player in this. So curious to see how you see the course of this today.
SCHELL: Well, it’s great to be with you all. Dan, thanks for assembling us.
I mean, it’s obvious we’re at a real inflection point. And I think, you know, if I look back, 1972 was sort of where the goalposts got planted, when Nixon and Kissinger went. And although they didn’t say so at that time, it was the beginning of engagement. And the presumption, of course, was that if we simply engaged slowly, China would not turn into the United States, but it would become more convergent, more soluble in the system—the global system outside and would molt out of its sort of revolutionary extremism that characterized the Mao period.
And you know, even with 1989 and some big bumps along the road, that faith, that hope—that engagement would be the sort of elixir that would bring the first big communist country into some other state of grace—continued. And of course, that was the real story of my whole life, and our whole lives. And now I think that what’s so striking for me about where Xi Jinping has taken China is that we have irrefutably come to the end of that era of engagement. And yet, we really don’t know what the new operating system is. And we’re kind of spiraling downward in this freefall because we don’t know—it’s as if a compass had lost its true north and nobody knows which direction to sail in.
I mean, we kind of recognize that there is some systemic rivalry going on, some value rivalry that mimics itself in trade, and universities, and civil society, and everywhere else. But that’s sort of a historical tragedy that I see culminating in this moment. And Biden’s task is to—we’ll get to this, I’m sure—is there anything to be done?
KURTZ-PHELAN: Yeah. I mean, I do want to come back to those questions of what the United States can do, but lingering for a while on developments within China.
Jude, I want to go to you. And, you know, Orville kind of very succinctly described the old consensus as the ways in which it has come apart, at least in discussion here. What do you see as the new emerging consensus? And what, to your mind, does it get right and what is it missing?
BLANCHETTE: That’s a great question. And as I was hearing, you know, Orville talk, it just makes me realize how I completely agree that this sense of total uncertainty about the future dynamics of the relationship, because it strikes me that the bilateral relationship is undergoing significant change at the precise moment that many critical components of the global order are undergoing profound changes, many of them propelled by new technological developments, unraveling of old, you know, consensus on globalization. And so you have a nested—you know, a Russian nesting doll of uncertainty within uncertainty. And that’s what makes this so difficult.
If I could just try to find an area of commonality in consensus between Beijing and D.C., it is, to me, on this issue of national security. Both Beijing and D.C.—and indeed, I think if you were in Paris, and Brussels, and Canberra, there is a new striking consensus amongst governments that critical elements of interdependence, economic, technological amongst capital markets, is now a national security vulnerability. And so I think governments are now viewing critical elements of engagement as being fundamental national security risks. And so there is this rapid unwinding of previous elements of interdependence, but this big question mark of: What does engagement 2.0 or 3.0 look like in the future, to where you have a(n) infrastructure in place to ensure that—with differing interpretations of what national security is, I should add—but nonetheless, that capitals feel content they are both engaged and protecting national security?
And then just final thought here is, even in the United States where you hear this line, something to the effect of, you know, in this polarized world the only piece of, you know, consensus is on China. And every time I hear that I think, well, sort of. Because it strikes me that when you scratch a centimeter deep on that you have increasingly some pretty apparent partisan differences between Republicans and Democrats on the critical question of what specifically do we do. There is the run faster camp, which is about investing in U.S. domestic innovation. There’s the trip China camp, which is about a more—you know, offensive capabilities to slow China’s rise down.
So I think even within that consensus it is—strikes me as as much a bumper sticker as a strategy or a program. And so I think it’s going to be a really remarkable next few years to watch as we have the administration and, critically, Congress as key actors in forging China policy, almost—in think increasingly articulating really fundamentally different approaches to how we deal with China.
KURTZ-PHELAN: So, tabling again for the time being some of those questions about what should be done, Yuen, I want to go to you to focus on one particular element that came up in both Orville’s answer and Jude’s. It’s really about the kind of economic model that China has been forging or seems to be forging. You know, the—part of the consensus, if you went back to the ’70s, ‘80s or ’90s is that, you know, growth and development would just not be possible without, you know, liberalization, or certain kinds of liberalization. And, you know, that appears to not have been born out. There kind of seems to be a model of authoritarian capitalism or party capitalism, or whatever you want to call it, that has brought more growth for longer than I think most people would have guessed, you know, a couple decades ago.
To what extent do you see a new model taking shape in China? You know, is there a few development model here? And what do you see as the challenges as you—as you look forward? You know, to what extent will this—will, you know, kind of past success not guarantee future success?
ANG: Yeah, thank you very much for having me here. And I learned a great deal from all of the essays in this issue.
On the question about economic model, I think it’s useful to make distinction between the pre-Xi era and the Xi era. So the way I would think about it is that from 1978 to 2012, the fundamental goal for the CCP was to transition from poverty to middle income, from communism to a market economy. So all they had to do was the deliver rapid economic growth with the expectation that a rising tide will raise many boats. And indeed, it did. It created a large middle class. But when Xi took over, I characterize his reign and the particular challenges of his reign as China’s Gilded Age, in the sense that, yes, he has inherited a much wealthier country, but it has corruption, inequality, systemic risk, environmental pollution, and all kinds of problems associated with rapid growth.
And so the goalpost for development in China has shifted under Xi qualitatively, in the sense that it’s no longer about trying to achieve more growth, but about quality development. So this phrase, “quality development” appeared in the thirteenth five-year plan. And it was again elevated in the fourteenth five-year plan. The trick for the Xi leadership is that achieving quality development is much tricker than rapid growth, because it involves multiple and even contradictory targets and objectives. So if he tries to de-risk the financial system and then it results in lower growth, because there’s less credit for companies and so forth. So he finds himself in a bind because there are so many contradictory goals going on.
And then, on top of that, I would build on a point that Jude brilliantly made in his essay, which is he is in a hurry. He has exactly fifteen years to reach the goal of quality development by 2035. And so I think in that context he has chosen to use what he thinks is the most effective method, which is top-down control and commands, because it appears fast and it produces quick and certain results. But as I argue, it’s not, in fact, the most effective method.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Sticking with one piece of—or, one thing that the party has made much of in the last week’s celebrations especially, is this claim of having eliminated extreme poverty, which was a big push over the last several years. There’s obviously a, you know, kind of top-line story that sounds very impressive. Can you say a big more about what exactly what has entailed, what does that mean? And to what extent are there kind of continuing challenges in that vein that are not really captured by the, you know, official propaganda lines?
ANG: Sure. I’m happy to elaborate, because my first book was called How China Escaped the Poverty Trap. And a lot of people think it’s about Xi’s poverty elimination campaign. And then they find that it’s not, they get confused. So one essential piece of background to know is that the often-repeated fact that China took eight-hundred and fifty million people out of poverty was actually accomplished in the first, I would say, thirty to thirty-five years of reform. And that was accomplished through sustained, rapid economic growth—simply by liberalizing markets, creating jobs, industrialization. And so Xi’s campaign actually began in 2012, and it was focused on eliminating the last mile of poverty, particularly in the countryside.
So we have to distinguish between China eliminating poverty by means of rapid growth and Xi trying to do so by means of a very targeted campaign. So that’s what his campaign has really been about. And I would say that you have to kind of give credit where credit is due. It is very popular among the Chinese people, particularly among the poor. And I would even say that it part of Xi’s populist image that he’s trying to build—that he’s a pro-poor and anti-corruption leader. And I think it’s also fair to say that if you go to China, you see just millions and millions of dollars being poured into anti-poverty projects, new houses being built, train stations and bus stations built in the middle of nowhere, so that people in remote villages can go to the cities.
So many people have benefited, but there’s also tremendous collateral damage because village and township officials are being given these hard targets to eliminate poverty and they sometimes use methods that are too extreme and would actually create downstream side effects that would be more harmful than useful.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Jude, sticking with Xi Jinping for the moment, next November—November of 2022—the Party Congress we assume will send him into his third term, blowing through norms around the typical kind of two terms of leadership. You know, you expect in your essay—you say in your essay that you expect that that will happen, and there’s little reason to think that there’ll be dissension of anything that will upset his plans. But, you know, to the extent you can—you can discern any of this from being outside of the, you know, party structure, what do you see as the kind of state of his control over the politics in China? And to what extent are there risks to that control, uncertainties that you think might be concealed by, you know, the image that we get from the outside especially?
BLANCHETTE: Yeah, with the important caveat that I have absolutely no idea, let me nonetheless offer some speculation—you know, as best we can, flexing our old, you know, Kremlinology muscles here. You know, first is last week’s event certainly was not the—that was not the speech of an official who’s planning on retiring anytime soon. And I think if we think about symbolism as a demonstration of power in authoritarian systems, and indeed in democratic systems as well, the centrality of Xi Jinping in all the official discourse as well as the theatrics of the July 1st celebration are, from what I can tell, a decent proxy for his centrality in the political system.
You know, second is Xi is a long student of power politics in the party. You can look at his ten years in office as—and seeing a through-line of coup-proofing, of understanding how power is exercised and where challenges can come from and taking, I think, very concerted, aggressive steps to close off vectors of threat. That being said, one of the things about—as an external observer of authoritarian systems—is they look really solid, until they don’t. And so I think having some epistemological humility here as we look at China’s evolving political system—we need to move way beyond where we have been so far, which is we confuse grumbling in the party for some sort of, you know, proto-leadership threat. I think it’s not that. But I do think we need to refine some better metrics for how would we begin to assess that there are vulnerabilities or that Xi perceives vulnerabilities.
You know, final point here is, to me, the big, big black swan is not does China collapse or does the party collapse under its own—its own weight or from financial crisis. You know, the one big, outstanding Black Swan to me is Xi Jinping has gutted the process of transition of power. And as we—you know, we’ve seen this in the United States when Donald Trump got COVID-19 and there was, you know, a few weeks of speculation about what happens, or indeed when Alexander Haig stood up in front of the press in 1981 and said, I am in charge, after Reagan was shot—even though he wasn’t—leadership succession is hard. It’s hard in democratic systems, as we saw on January 6th.
And so I think the big question mark is Xi Jinping is mortal. There’s a non-zero probability of him dying in office. And there is a huge question mark that I have of how smoothly can power be transitioned, especially when he has spent ten years sidelining, purging, and building up, I think, key tensions within the system. I suspect the tectonic plates slip if there was something to happen to Xi Jinping. And we just wouldn’t know exactly how that would shake out in the end. But it wouldn’t be clean, I would suspect.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Mmm hmm. And I would say your essay does a brilliant job of kind of laying out those tensions and clarifying just why they’re so challenging for him.
Orville, I want to go to the party broadly with you. But first, quickly, did anything about the celebrations last week strike you as surprising, interesting, notable?
SCHELL: Well, I think, you know, Xi Jinping is a leader who does not mix easily and spontaneously with other global leaders. He’s a leader who thrives on ritual, ceremony, and pomp and circumstance, which he certainly had in spades at this centenary. And I think it was a kind of an effort to project power. And it seems to me that those who need to project—make such projections of power—are often people who are painfully aware of some weakness that perhaps we can’t see. I think where we can see some weakness and some real problematic policy decisions is in foreign policy.
And, you know, I think one of the great mysteries for me about Xi Jinping and his seeming confidence that people talk about is how can a man who has been so—in a country who’s been so successful, so successfully alienate so many other foreign countries? And toward what end? We’re left to ask that question: What kind of a country alienates Canada or Australia or India or Sweden or—you know, the list begins to go on—through wolf warrior diplomacy? So here we can see pretty clearly what happens, whereas the black box of internal politics is much more opaque. And I think there’s so many questions that beg answers, and I’m not sure we have them.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Orville, your essay really beautifully takes us through the really fascinating, and complex, and varied history of the CCP in ways that, you know, were not part of the official narrative last week. And to the extent you’re able to make sense of what’s happening now, what might be the currents of change that we’re ignoring? Are there, you know, potential forces within the party or other signs that there may be other forces that could disrupt that narrative in ways that we may have a hard time discerning right now?
SCHELL: One thing we definitely know about the party’s operations is there is a kind of a penchant towards totalism. If you had said to me in 1975, as I was hauling fruit trees in Shanxi and the Dazhai model brigade that in a matter of a year or two China would be in the throes of reform and opening to the outside world, I would have thought you were bereft of your senses. So it’s a reminder. I mean, I’ve been through enough of these sort of changes in China to recognize that what it does—it’s sort of trying on different suits of clothes. It’s lurching from one extreme to another. But that does not mean that the other pole, that the other side is vanished. It only means that it’s a kind of a state of suspension, suppression.
And I think we have to learn to be very circumspect about the freeze-frame we get of the moment and remember that buried within it are all sorts of other incipient trends and voices that have come out throughout history and are bound to come out again. And what you see of China today is an aspect of it, I believe. It is not the China finally expressing itself. In fact, it may be a somewhat aberrant aspect of it that will pass, like so many others in the past century.
KURTZ-PHELAN: So let me, before going to other questions, go back to something that both Orville and Jude raised early on, which is the question of what the U.S. can do about it. And the old consensus I think probably had slightly overstated notions or hubristic notions, on the U.S. part, of how much the U.S. policy was able to define or change China’s course. It seems to me that we may be, you know, correcting in the other direction now, and not quite understanding what tools we do have. So the extent that—and this would be all three of you—there are things that U.S. policy can do to affect these dynamics or do to shape China’s trajectory, what do you think those are? Do you think those tools exist? And to the extent they do, what are they?
Yuen, let’s start with you on this one.
ANG: Great. It’s a big question. And I think I would like to make two points. So the first point that I would like to make is that I would question the current U.S. consensus that the previous belief that engagement will lead to liberalization is wrong. I would actually question that consensus. I would say that it is partially right and partially wrong. Because, as you know, in an early essay that I wrote in Foreign Affairs, political liberalization was absolutely indispensable for China’s economic rise. Except, that political liberalization did not take the form that Western observers expected, such as multiparty elections or free speech at the social level. But if you look behind the curtains, there was so much liberalization within the government and party apparatus—including the rejection of dogma, allowing diverse opinions, allowing people to make honest criticisms, and so forth. So that was absolutely crucial for China’s economic rise.
And the second thing I would point out is that the current situation that we are seeing—a China that is prosperous but appears more authoritarian than ever—we might have to consider this is the result of a contingency, which is that Xi happens to be elected as the leader in 2012. And we also have to continue the contingent events surrounding his rise. As I describe in my essay, he came to office in particularly ominous circumstances, where it was in the midst of the biggest scandal in the party’s history. It was in the midst of an alleged coup. And I think those circumstances led him to be extremely insecure and paranoid. And so that paranoia has been institutionalized and built into his politics. And so there is a possibility that if a different person had been the president, or if Xi had come to office in different circumstances, we would be looking at a very different China today. But the policy of engagement—I don’t think that that was a mistake because, in fact, liberalization did happen.
So my second point is that while I don’t think it’s easy to come up with the right U.S.-China policy, I think it is fairly easy to point out that the U.S. should not make the wrong policies. It should avoid shooting itself in the foot. And I think this sudden withdrawal from China, this sudden call for disengagement and the antagonism has the effect—I think it has—I think it was Wang Jisi that pointed out that it has a backlash effect. It makes all of China—not just Xi and his team, but all of China—it makes China feel that the U.S. is making China its enemy. And so that actually has created—it has actually helped Xi a tremendous amount by uniting the country and uniting the party against him, even though we know that there are critiques of his controlling style of governance. So I think the U.S. has to at least avoid shooting itself in the feet and actually handling Xi the gift of unity around him.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Part of me is tempted to spend the next half-hour letting the three of you argue through that first point, which was very rich. (Laughter.) But I will resist that temptation and go to Jude on the U.S. policy question.
BLANCHETTE: You know, obviously this is—this is—we could have a fourteen-day seminar of all of us discussing and debating. And there’s a million strategy documents out there for what we do. There’s great tactical suggestions. There’s great strategic suggestions. We’re not at a loss for specific examples of what to do. So let me maybe just offer, you know, one thought, which is: I always find I return to Deng Xiaoping for most of my strategic thought on the bilateral relationship. And in this case, you know, Deng talked about in his, you know, twenty-four character strategy the idea of cooling observing and calmly dealing with things.
And one of the things that strikes me about the United States right now is there is just a mass hysteria going on on China, where if you objectively look at the balance of power, if you objectively look at who is essentially the—who holds aggregate strength and power, the United States, especially in combinations with partners and allies, is, if this is a race, winning by a fair bit.
The question is, are we losing our lead to an increasingly innovating and powerful China? That, I think, is without a doubt. But I think the starting point is remembering that the United States has fundamental resiliencies, especially when racked and stacked with allies and partners. And so to me, I would be very happy if the United States was having a cooling observing and thinking about, essentially: What is our ten-year strategy to revive, bolster, resuscitate, and advance our innovation capacity, especially working with partners and allies?
And just one final thought there: This is where China’s dealing with a relatively crummy human capital picture, looking over the next ten to fifteen years. We are not. In areas where we’ve seen a population slowdown, we have a tool which China doesn’t. And that’s called immigration. And so I would be centering discussions on human capital as a core component of our strategy vis-à-vis longer term competition with China. It’s where our strengths lie. And it’s where we have more tools in the toolkit as an open and pluralistic society.
Technology is about innovation. Innovation is about human beings. So that seems to have gotten lost in this very national security first discussion on competition. But fundamentally this is a competition over which political entity will have—will unleash the most creative minds to be focusing on technologies and innovation of the future. And there, I think we have a good lead, even if we’re losing it. And so now it’s about doubling down on our innovative capacity.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Orville, let me—I’ll have you close this round out, then we’ll go to Q&A.
SCHELL: Well, I think, besides Jude’s suggestion that we remedy our own house and become more competitive, I mean, if you’re asking what can be done diplomatically, here I think—you know, I think we have a very meager arsenal. But as Hu Shi once said about democracy, “the only way to have democracy is to have democracy.” I think the only way to be a leader is to show leadership. Now, that’s a little bit difficult now, because you don’t want to seem like a panda hugger in this sort of bipartisan climate that we find ourselves in Washington.
But I do think that, you know, here the Kissinger-Nixon trip—it does provide some sort of a model. And if I was Biden, I would consider some kind of a secret effort to send some high-level people off to Switzerland, tell—ask Xi to do the same. Put them in a room for a week, see if they could come up with one or two alternative scenarios. Then get back to the leaders and let them talk about it quietly, off the record, to see if there is an off ramp. Now, I am not optimistic. I think Biden is perfectly capable of this. I’m not so clear that Xi would be able to do it, because of his aversion to compromise as being a hallmark of weakness and of yielding to sort of blame. But I think it’s worth a try, as I think engagement was worth a try. I think engagement was right to try. It failed, all right, but it could have succeeded. And I can point to those places where I think it could have. And I think America does, if it’s going to pretend to be a leader, well, let’s lead. Let’s try.
KURTZ-PHELAN: That is a good note to end this portion on.
Let’s go to questions from CFR members and Foreign Affairs subscribers. As a reminder, this meeting is on the record. And the operator will remind you how to join the question queue. Let’s go to our first question.
OPERATOR: Thank you so much.
(Gives queuing instructions.)
Our first question is a written submission from Ken Morse, who asks: Seen from afar, there appears to be relative unanimity between—within the CCP. However, as Orville has hinted eloquently, there is undoubtably considerable wrestling and arguing behind the curtain. Xi may be vulnerable. What are the forces that would like to move him aside, or at least his policies?
KURTZ-PHELAN: Jude, with the caveat that we should remember your and Orville’s urge to remember uncertainty here, do you want to take a crack at that one?
BLANCHETTE: Yeah. I was just reading—Joe Fewsmith, the eminent observer of Chinese elite politics, has a great new book out that I was just reading through last night. And it’s a good reminder in this time when we see this very manicured vision of unity within the party, that party politics has always been Hobbesian. And indeed, I think there’s no—there’s no reason to think it’s otherwise now. And indeed, as we know from—you know, Foreign Affairs has published a great piece by Cai Xia, and of course, she’s got a new piece out by the Hoover Institution. We know that politics within the party, especially at the elite level, is fierce and ferocious, even if Xi Jinping is essentially able to constrain some of the more threatening forces within the party.
And so its ninety-five million members in a country of one-point-four billion people. And although we don’t have access to really, really robust polling so that we’re able to really break down support levels, I think we know that there is a—there’s a wide degree of variance in support for the Xi agenda. And to build off of Orville’s point, I think there’s a reasonable case to be looking at the direction Xi is driving the county, to where it’s making its neighborhood more challenging. It’s making the bilateral relationship with the United States and the West more generally more challenging. And indeed, just looking at the coming ten years, a movement away from the proven growth model to now this much more state-led model, and the extraordinary level of ideological construction on the country many, many people are unhappy about.
I guess my question, just a final thought, is: I always come down to the so what? In other words, organizing a leadership challenge or a coup in an authoritarian, one-party system is extraordinarily difficult—especially in modern times when a leader like Xi Jinping has access to advanced, advanced surveillance capabilities, and has made strategic and tactical moves to cut off, for example, access between other senior civilian leaders and the military—something you would—seem to be necessary for a coup. And indeed, if you’ve read Roger Garside’s new book, his coup scenario starts with civilian leaders meeting with the military. The problem with that scenario is it ain’t going to happen in China right now.
And so I think vulnerability, sure. Perceived vulnerability, undoubtably—in the same way Stalin after the purges didn’t feel—you know, still locked his bedroom door. But if we think about a coup or leadership challenge as being a logistical challenge, I would really want to see someone show the math on how in 2021 under Xi Jinping’s rule you would effectively be able to marshal security services, the military, a collection of state-owned enterprises necessary, maybe some of the telco firms who command, you know, things like WeChat, to be able to, in one, you know, move, effectively move Xi from power. And I still see that as being extraordinarily remote scenario.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Orville, do you have any quick reactions or additions to that?
SCHELL: Well, I think economics are king. And if there’s a global downturn, a domestic downturn, that could change the game. But I do think it’s worth noting that, you know these years of reform have created a very large, cosmopolitan Chinese class that’s used to living on both sides of the divide. Now, I share Jude’s sense that probably nothing will happen precipitously and immediately. But there are an awful lot of disgruntled people. I mean, we know that the entrepreneurs are not happy. Look what’s happening to their companies. It’s like they’ve been kneecapped, one after the other. All the great titans of, you know, the going out movement have vanished, or disappeared, or been defenestrated. The intellectuals, people in the media. I mean, we know these people. And they’re not—they’re not happy campers right now. What is it going to mean for Xi? I suspect very little, until there is some—the economic worm turns somehow.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Yuen, anything to add?
ANG: Yeah. I would add that there has always been intense divides among Chinese elites, since time immemorial. And in fact, there is a whole field of study in Chinese politics called factionalism. It’s also important to keep in mind that these elite factions in China, the competition is extremely high stakes. So it’s not just about losing office or becoming unpopular. If you lose, you become like Bo Xilai. It’s a matter of life and death. So the competition is intense and very high-stakes. But I would add that there is probably only one potent force that can unite the Chinese elites, despite their divisions. And that is U.S. hostility toward China. If it is perceived that the U.S. is hostile toward China and intent to undermine it, then that will unite the elites in a way that no other force can.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Let’s go to the next—the next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question will be from Joe Nye. Feel free to unmute your microphone.
Q: This was a very nice set of essays. And I was very impressed by the ambition. I wanted to go back to the point about engagement. And the key question I think is did we simply get it wrong, or did we get the timing wrong? We were looking for change in the pace of a decade or two. And maybe the change is really—should be measured in a half-century or more. And when I read Orville’s essay, he sort of put forward at the end of his essay a view that liberty would eventually be the solvent for the system, that when people have a per capita income above a certain level they no longer think only about escaping poverty. They want something else.
And I thought Professor Ang’s very nice comment—(inaudible, technical difficulties)—but she also mentions in her essay growing inequality in China. She points out in her essay that the Gini index in China is much worse than the United States. So you have liberty and equality, which could be two great solvents if we take a fifty-year time horizon. On the other hand, if you look at Tony Saich’s data, the system is very popular. And if you look at rising nationalism in China, it seems to be that that may be a glue that resists the solvent. So if you take one party Leninist control, plus rising nationalism, is that going to defeat liberty and inequality?
KURTZ-PHELAN: That is a great and big question. Let’s go to Orville and then Yuen. And then, Jude, if you have anything quick to add we can go to you.
SCHELL: Well, Joe, listen, you know, I live in California where we’ve had many occasions where we’ve been led to believe that we’re—the rules of the game had changed. There was a new new thing and everything was different. In my experience, human beings remain somewhat constant, even though they can be manipulated. And I do—maybe I’m quaint in this belief—but I do believe that the sort of yearning for liberty and freedom, you know, to be maximally unhectored and uncontrolled and unbullied, is a powerful human impulse. And if you look at Chinese history. You see that it does keep bubbling back up to the surface, even though China has a very authoritarian, imperial tradition. So I don’t know. I’m not willing to say that nationalism is the new new thing, the new rules of the game that will trump some of these other impulses, because I think they’re pretty deep. And history certainly would bear that supposition out.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Yuen, do you share that—
ANG: Oh, thank you very much. That was a very insightful set of comments. I think I would just briefly reiterate the point that engagement with China was not wrong. And I would again emphasize that the circumstances today has a significant degree of contingency and it was not that engagement had caused this outcome. So but the U.S. has to have a more sophisticated plan for engagement. It has to engage the right group of people. It has to engage them in the right way. So I would see actually this issue, having two respected China scholars share their perspectives from Beijing, as a very effective way of engagement. So they get to speak, and we get to listen. And we should do more of this. The more that China is isolated, the more that creates conditions for dogma and authoritarianism. So we should not give up on engagement. We should do it more. But we need to do it in a more—in a smarter way.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Jude, anything you’d like to add?
BLANCHETTE: Just very quickly. I guess in slight—well, slight disagreement with Orville, I’d say there are other—there are two other critical, I think, baked in elements of humanity. And that is tribalism and a belief in order. And so all of these, of course, mix up and smash against each other, and some overtake others at certain times. And just when I hear the way that the party is legitimating itself, it certainly recognizes that there is a—this is why the ideological campaigns against, you know, universal values, rule of law. So it certainly sees these as a threat. But I think it spends most of its time articulating a vision of: The world is disorderly. The world is violent, nasty, brutish, and short. The Communist Party is here to provide order.
And to, you know, Yuen’s point, I do think—and, again, this is not a normative statement but just an analytical statement—I think the prevailing global sentiment right now on China is a powerful catalyst force for elite opinion in China, where what could be empty propaganda slogans about being encircled by the world now have a degree of factual, you know, basis, that the party is turning into a—I think, again, objectively, a compelling narrative of: Times are uncertain, my friends. You know, the world ahead of us is uncertain, unstable. And it’s up to the Communist Party to chart the way forward. They’ve been saying that for seventy years, but I think it felt more propagandistic in the 1960s. Now I think their data points on global disorder, democratic dysfunctionality are stronger. I wish that were not the case, but that seems to be—that seems to be the reality on the ground.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Let’s go to the next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question is a written submission from Danny Taro (ph), who asks: My question is with regards to Russia. What role could Moscow play in this somewhat tripolar post-COVID world in helping to balance Washington and Beijing, notwithstanding the current economic situation in which Vladimir Putin finds himself in?
KURTZ-PHELAN: This is a question of great obsession to people in Washington right now, so it’s a big one to ask. Orville, let me—let me go to you on this one.
SCHELL: Well, I mean, it is the great triumvirate. Everybody’s trying to flip everybody. And—(inaudible, technical difficulties)—thus, and it’s happened in the past, and it’ll happen again. But certainly, right now China and Russia do seem to be having a—kind of a new flirtation. So it doesn’t look really likely that Russia’s available to be flipped. But stranger things have happened.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Jude, do you want anything to add quickly?
BLANCHETTE: I barely qualify as a China expert, Dan. The fact of me pretending to be a Russia expert would be disservice to your listeners. (Laughs.)
KURTZ-PHELAN: Fair enough. All right. Let’s go to the next—the next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question will be from Trudy Rubin. Please unmute your microphone when prompted.
Q: Hello. Can you hear me?
Q: OK. Trudy Rubin, from the Philadelphia Inquirer.
I want to follow up on several things that were said. Some mention was made of the idea that the U.S., in order to deal with China, has to up its own game. The Biden administration seems to understand this. And they put forward money, bills to increase investment in R&D. Do you think this approach so far has been sufficient and specific enough? And I’d also like to ask you what you thought of Blinken and Sullivan’s approach in Alaska. In order to look tough, does it pay off to do what happened there? Would the Chinese side have been as aggressive without that initial approach? Or, you know, is this the only way to deal with things? And if you could forgive me, one last thing. Will Xi Jinping wait on Taiwan while everyone figures out how to engage in the meantime?
KURTZ-PHELAN: Three big and good questions. Jude, let’s maybe start with the first one of those, which is, you know, I think it’s right that the Biden administration is making a bet that this will bring Americans together, despite the partisan times around some shared goals. Do we think that’s happening?
BLANCHETTE: So the big push right now is a package of legislation. You know, you’ve got the Senate bill, the USICA, and then the very American-named EAGLE Act in the House of Representatives. If we’re thinking—if this bill passes, by the way, and it hasn’t, and gets to the president, is this package of semiconductor funding and some of this new funding and reorganization of the National Science Foundation going to be the difference? No. It won’t be. And I think there’s a real concern that Congress gets this bill up and out, and then says, well, there was our—there was our big push on China. Here you go, America.
I think if we really want to be thinking at this at a very, very deep level, part of this is fundamental immigration reform—which I think obviously gets into some very complicated political waters. I think also thinking more soup to nuts about the entire structure of our education system, including things—not to make this a socialist grab-bag—but including thinking about things like early-age nutrition to make sure that students show up at school not with empty bellies, which has long tail effects on their academic performance five, ten, fifteen years down the road. More integration between our education system and STEM fields, whether that’s programs for paid internships for students to be going and working in tech firms. I think it’s that level of systematic thinking.
But the problem is democratic systems don’t do particularly well at those wholesale soup-to-nuts reevaluations. We’re better at piecemeal approaches. And so this is not to be a fatalist or a pessimist, but I think this is going to be a long, long, long slog. And looking at—you know, this is going to be over multiple administrations if we get this right. So in fairness to the Biden administration, I think we need to think of this as a ten-year program rather than, you know, what are we going to see this fall in terms of a USICA that’s going to—that’s going to solve the China problem.
KURTZ-PHELAN: And, Trudy, let me—let me ask you to table the Taiwan question. There’s a great essay in the issue by Oriana Mastro on this specifically. And we’ll have a set of responses in our next issue. So you’ll get a full-scale discussion of this. But let me—let me see if we can get another couple questions in before we wrap up.
OPERATOR: Our next question is a written submission from Scarlett Kennedy, who says: Some have said that engagement was a mistake and resulted in China growing into a powerful authoritarian adversary instead of democratizing. Do you think the U.S. was instrumental to China’s rise or do you think China’s growth was inevitable?
KURTZ-PHELAN: So a specific gloss on the engagement question. Let’s do—from all three of you—quick answers on this. Orville, we can start with—start with you.
SCHELL: Well, as I said, I think engagement was not a mistake. It was absolutely right. And, you know, it even survived 1989, as I—as I suggested. And yet, in the end, it did enable China to grow much more powerful. But I think, you know, it’s—it could have very easily have turned the other way. And if you look at all of the leaders, particularly in the ’80s, and even Johnson and—I mean, these leaders were interested in reform. And what we’ve lost is the key ingredient that made engagement functional, which was reform. Without reform, you cannot have engagement because you will be diverging rather than converging.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Yuen and then Jude, anything you would add to that?
ANG: China’s rise is not inevitable, just as nothing is inevitable, I would say. Engagement has certainly been a key contributor of China’s rise, but it is by no means the only factor. There had to be so many other factors, particularly domestic political changes, coming into play in order to have China’s—to see China’s rise today. I think it’s important, again, to keep in mind that there had been tremendous social liberalization happening in China at the level of society and within the government bureaucracy. And these are aspects of liberalization that we don’t normally expect to see in the sense of multiparty elections. So engagement has actually produced this liberalization outcomes. And again, I would emphasize that the particular outcome that we see today has a very strong contingent element.
BLANCHETTE: I’ll cede my time.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Great. Let’s go to one more—one more question.
OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Hani Findakly.
Q: Thank you very much. And thank you for this extremely good discussion. I have a couple of good questions on the subject of the ultimate strategy that we have vis-à-vis China. In the absence of a detailed strategy, as the speakers suggested, is there an ultimate goal that could satisfy and change the course of relation between the two countries? And related to that, we focused quite a bit on the changes in China since Xi Jinping had taken over in 2013. Have there been changes in the United States itself that may explain the changes in the dynamics of the relationship between—(off mic)?
KURTZ-PHELAN: All right. Thank you. Those are good, big questions to end on. Let’s go Orville, Jude, and Yuen in ninety seconds or so—or, ninety seconds each, and we can—we can wrap up there. Sorry to rush through this last one.
SCHELL: You know, I don’t see Xi Jinping’s more unrepentant sort of belligerent hardline as being a response to the United States, although I think Trump was something of an affront. But Trump was also a little bit like Xi Jinping and a little bit like Mao Zedong as well—to make great disorder under heaven. But I think his roots go back into the Cultural Revolution, not into America.
BLANCHETTE: Oh, go ahead, Yuen.
ANG: Go ahead, Jude.
BLANCHETTE: I was just trying to think about the initial question. I think that’s—you know, right now we’ve got superficial bumper stickers we could use as an answer, which is well of course climate change, you know, global pandemics—there’s a lot of what should be unifying concepts or goals for both parties that would allow a kind of a next generation of relations to come through. I think problematically though we’ve seen, especially in the wake of COVID-19, obviously public health has—and global pandemics has become a political issue, as have vaccines. And climate, indeed, has elements of competition riven within it. And so just as—less of an answer, more as a that’s a great question, I would say we don’t have a story for why the two countries should get—should get along anymore.
And I think without that ability to have a convincing, politically accepted narrative in both countries—like we did with engagement because of the, you know, economic interdependencies and the purported benefits of this, which underlaid—and the strategic rationale up through the end of the Cold War, which were politically plausible and acceptable to both publics, I don’t know what that narrative is anymore. And so that means—or, in many ways, it feels like we’re shouting into the wind because we don’t have a framework for relations, you know, that is going to be—anticipate and survive throughout the 21st century. And I think that’s a big challenge.
ANG: A great question. And with regard to strategy via-a-vis China, I would just highlight a point that is simple, but I think widely neglected. Which is that it’s important for the U.S. to distinguish between China—as in Chinese society and its people—versus the Chinese Communist Party, versus the handful of CCP elites, versus Xi himself. These entities are often bundled together. And so when the U.S. says: I’m going to disengage with China. We are antagonistic toward China. That kind of antagonism spills over into the entire Chinese society, creating enmity between two nations, which is unnecessary and very dangerous. So I think at the outset, just very simply, the U.S. side should make a clear distinction about which particular actor are they dealing with. And this calls for differentiated strategies.
Why should the U.S. not engage with the Chinese people, with Chinese scholars, with Chinese scientists, for instance? That kind of engagement provides a flow of information and so forth. And then there are other strategies with regard to dealing with the top CCP elites, with Xi specifically, and so forth. So it cannot be a one-size-fits-all. It has to be a different shade of strategy according to different actors in China.
KURTZ-PHELAN: So a good note to end on. So, Yuen, Jude, Orville, thank you so much for this rich discussion today and for the great pieces that you all contributed. Let me quote an unbiased source, the great political scientist Joe Nye, it really is a fantastic set of essays. So I urge you to read not just these three but the other four. They make for great reading on their own, and all together. So with that, we will wrap up. And I hope to see many of you for another one of these events once we’re—once we’re in the fall. And again, thanks to our speakers today for joining us. Take care, everyone.