“Over the past few years, the United States’ approach to China has taken a hard-line turn, with the balance between cooperation and competition in the U.S.-Chinese relationship tilting sharply toward the latter,” writes Minxin Pei. “This ongoing tension—particularly with the added pressures of the new coronavirus outbreak and an economic downturn—is likely to expose the brittleness and insecurity that lie beneath the surface of President Xi Jinping’s, and Beijing’s, assertions of solidity and strength.”
Pei explains that “A key component of Washington’s strategic confrontation with Beijing is economic ‘decoupling,’ a significant reduction of the extensive commercial ties that the United States and China have built over the last four decades.” While decoupling may not significantly depress China’s economic growth, Pei notes, “It will certainly have a net negative impact on the Chinese economy, one that may be amplified by the country’s domestic economic slowdown, which is itself the product of a ballooning debt, the exhaustion of investment-driven growth, and a rapidly aging population.”
“The deepest threat to the regime’s stability will come from the Chinese middle class. Well-educated and ambitious college graduates will find it difficult to obtain desirable jobs in the coming years because of China’s anemic economic performance. As their standard of living stalls, middle-class Chinese may turn against the party,” Pei maintains. “In such an adverse economic environment, signs of social unrest, such as riots, mass protests, and strikes, will become more common.”
“An economic slowdown would also disrupt the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) patronage structure, the perks and favors that the government provides to cronies and collaborators,” Pei argues. “Dissatisfaction among the elites may spiral if Xi’s prized priorities, such as the Belt and Road Initiative, continue to receive preferential treatment and everyone else must economize.”
Furthermore, “In the event of a dramatic slowdown, the Chinese government will most likely find itself confronting greater resistance in the country’s restive periphery, especially in Tibet and Xinjiang, which contain China’s most vocal ethnic minorities, and in Hong Kong, which was British territory until 1997 and retains a different system of governance with far more civil liberties,” Pei notes.
“The CCP is still far from dead,” Pei acknowledges. “Short of China’s losing a direct military conflict with the United States, the party can conceivably hang on to power. That said, a regime beset by economic stagnation and rising social unrest at home and great-power competition abroad is inherently brittle. The CCP will probably unravel by fits and starts. The rot would set in slowly but then spread quickly.”
The current coronavirus outbreak has revealed the fragility of President Xi’s strongman rule, Pei concludes. “The events of the past few months have shown that CCP rule is far more brittle than many believed. This bolsters the case for a U.S. strategy of sustained pressure to induce political change.”
Minxin Pei is Tom and Margot Pritzker ’72 Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College.
This article is part of the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs, which will be released in full on April 14.