It would be hard to imagine two more divergent views of the Chinese regime than the ones presented in these books—which were written, as it happens, by colleagues at George Washington University. Based on urban surveys and focus groups, Dickson’s book finds strong levels of trust in and support for the Chinese government. Dickson teases out how these attitudes are affected by the regime’s nimble use of various tools: repression, propaganda, economic performance, controlled channels for complaints, limited toleration of civil society groups, and the co-optation of ambitious young people by the Communist Party. To be sure, the regime may be digging its own grave by promoting economic growth, since modernization tends to make citizens less deferential. But the process of attitudinal change is slow and counterbalanced by patriotic sentiments and a cultural commitment to order and harmony. Dickson doubts the regime will be forced to democratize anytime soon.
Shambaugh argues that China made a wrong turn a few years ago toward hard authoritarianism. Instead of responding to its many economic, social, and ecological challenges with the rule of law, accountability, and reform, the party has doubled down on vacuous propaganda and repression. It is beset by corruption, slack discipline, and a loss of self-confidence. He acknowledges that the decline may be slow and could be reversed, and that the outcome will not necessarily be democracy, since the regime has stamped out democratic alternatives. But the party will eventually lose its grip on power if it does not undertake fundamental political reform.
Both books are convincing. The reader can only conclude that the Chinese regime is like Schrödinger’s cat, alive and dead at the same time. The one truth both authors accept is that China’s quest for a workable political system is ongoing.