How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
When is an anticorruption campaign not just an anticorruption campaign? When it might be a harbinger of a regime’s approaching developmental crisis.
China’s extraordinary advances in recent decades have dragged the country up from totalitarian poverty to middle-income authoritarianism. The scale and speed of this transformation rank it as one of the great events in human history. But Beijing has now picked most of the low-hanging fruit of modernization, leaving it the unenviable task of trying to reach the upper branches of the tree without falling. So we decided it was time for a deep dive on China’s condition today, and have put together a great package with seven authoritative articles on the country’s politics, economics, demographics, national identity, corruption, and racial and ethnic tensions.
The authors—all top experts, most of them Chinese—have different perspectives, and some are more optimistic than others. But collectively, they paint a picture of a country bumping up against the classic challenges of the middle phases of development, pretty much across the board. China’s existing institutions seem unlikely to be able to manage the country’s problems for too much longer, yet Beijing seems unlikely to adopt the reforms that could help because they would threaten the Communist Party’s hold on power. President Xi Jinping’s signature anticorruption campaign emerges throughout as the epitome of the situation—the regime’s attempt to deal (and be seen to deal) with some of the country’s major problems, but one that will have a hard time achieving its ambitious goals.
There is plenty of evidence here to support the view that China’s next decade will be a turbulent one: that the anticorruption campaign, adopted as a sort of strong medicine to cure the communist regime’s ills, will in fact only hasten the patient’s demise, by heightening the contradictions within the elite.
But there is also evidence to support the view that the regime may be able to muddle through for quite a while. Xi and his government have plenty of assets as well as liabilities, including support from the mass public and key elite factions, vast foreign exchange reserves, a protected currency, control of the banking system, smart technocrats, a large real economy, and the absence of any significant opposition movement.
And it’s possible that the likeliest scenario will be neither crisis nor resilience but rather an eventual gradual political evolution, like those of other former authoritarian regimes dominated by a single party, such as Mexico or Taiwan.
Whatever China’s future holds, it should be fascinating to watch the drama play out. This package provides an accurate snapshot of the situation today—and the material to form educated guesses about what will come next.
—Gideon Rose, Editor