The growth of the People’s Republic of China has sparked major controversy in international politics in the twenty-first century. China’s ascent has been interpreted in a variety of ways, as have projections for its economic, military, and political future. On one hand, experts applaud China’s remarkable economic progress under the country’s modern political structure, with annual national income growth rates averaging 9.7% between 1978 and 2005, the year Deng Xiaoping’s market-oriented reforms got underway. On the other hand, a few academic scholars view China’s meteoric rise as a cause for concern and an invitation for conflict. This is based on the realist premise that a rising power will inevitably use the anarchic international system and its growing economic power to expand its military might, creating a scenario, particularly if China ignores the fundamentals of a liberal democratic political system.
The question of China being able to rise only on the terms of the reformation of its political system may be considered irrelevant to the fact that China is already on the peak of its rise, such that even the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, expressed fear of China agitating the international order. One widely held belief, however, is that as Chinese citizens enjoy greater economic freedom, they will also want greater political freedom. China’s middle class will seek a bigger say in political decisions that affect their lives as they have more time and money. The foundation of this way of thinking is liberalism. It assumes, as the European experience has shown, that rich persons become stakeholders in their governing system. The universal end goals of human progress are understood as limited government, individualism, and political pluralism. If these objectives are accomplished, “the end of history,” as Francis Fukuyama famously phrased it, would be the outcome.
In addition, many Chinese people believe that authoritarian one-party rule is simply a phase in the country’s political evolution. The most rapid economic development in human history needs authoritarianism to stabilize Chinese society. But what happens after that? It would be naive to believe that liberal democracy of the Western type is just around the corner. Not to mention how US foreign policy is aimed at forcing China to liberalize.
However, Zhao Ziyang, who was deposed as the Communist Party’s general secretary in 1989 and sentenced to life in prison for opposing the use of force to end the occupation of Tiananmen Square by pro-democracy and anti-corruption demonstrators, concluded that “our biggest problem is that everything is owned by the state.” He also claimed that “if a country intends to modernize, it must embrace a parliamentary democracy as its political system in addition to a market economy.” Otherwise, this country would not be able to have a decent and contemporary market economy, nor will it be able to become a modern society with an appropriate judicial system.”
Consequently, there are “two breakthroughs” required to achieve the goal of a perpetual Chinese rise: first, the ruling Communist Party needs to allow for the emergence of alternative parties as well as press freedom. Second, the party needs to transform itself through democratic means, allowing legitimate conflicts of opinion to flourish while modernizing the legal system and establishing an independent judiciary.
Furthermore, as the belief that markets and private entrepreneurs are unreliable and untrustworthy grows, President Xi Jinping has attempted to bring China’s vast private sector under control by placing attentive Communist Party members on the boards of private companies. They learn the spirit of government programs to incorporate Communist Party building into the company’s culture. As a result, the amount of industrial and infrastructure investment generated by private enterprises, which was previously a key driver of China’s economic development – peaked in 2015 – has been dropping ever since. Not coincidentally, the amount of capital required to achieve one unit of economic growth has increased by a factor of two since 2012. Market reformers have been pushed out of the way in the interim.
Furthermore, at a time when China’s economy should be liberalizing, Xi Jinping’s China is increasingly requiring ideological conformity and restricting expression. China formulates the most thorough effort to selectively suppress human expression ever deployed. Even though surveillance technology is improving globally, the problem is that China’s national security law permits for speech to be criminalized: a lawyer who documented and publicized the plight of Wuhan residents at the start of China’s COVID-19 outbreak was sentenced to four years in prison for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” which China considers to be a crime. As part of this procedure, the nation runs a vast internet censorship operation that employs over two million employees. This endeavor, though, may be unsuccessful. Despite widespread manipulation by political agencies, the social media distribution network is durable and resistant to manipulation. Authoritarian nations may have achieved absolute control of all sources of information before the internet, but the chances of accomplishing that objective are now considerably less and diminishing.
China has placed a significant emphasis on the Communist Party’s archaic and kleptocratic control over economic growth, particularly under Xi. As economic openness supports prosperity, China regards political openness as a danger to its legitimacy. As a result, it may be on the verge of economic stagnation. Although China’s achievements over the last four decades have been monumental by any standard. These advancements, however, were made under extremely advantageous circumstances that no longer exist; the absence of competition from developing countries, abundant direct foreign investment, a vast reserve of low-skilled workers, a strong consensus among party leaders in support of economic modernization, and perhaps most importantly, an absence of entrenched elites capable of blocking reform, and also considerable support from the United States for modernization was among these factors.
However, collapse – not decline – is far from assured but China does have enough of an untapped domestic market to power the country’s economic expansion for years to come and stay on its “rise” tide. Indeed, part of Xi’s “Made in China 2025” program is to develop and rely more heavily on the home market. Nevertheless, Gordon Chang’s foreword to his 2001 book “The Coming Collapse of China” was titled “The Final Chapter,” and it claimed that China was “in long-term decline and even on the verge of collapse,” that it “couldn’t afford to spend at the current pace for much longer”.
Consequently, China’s collapse does not appear to be imminent. The Chinese Communist Party and the country’s growing economic elite are most likely to be competent to hold onto their positions of authority for the foreseeable future, and the growth model of catching up, importing foreign technology, and exporting low-end manufactured goods will likely last for an extended period. Nonetheless, Chinese development is expected to come to a halt, particularly as China approaches middle-income national living standards. As a result, neither creative destruction nor actual innovation will occur, and China’s remarkable growth rates will gradually fade unless it reforms its political system.
Beenish Ayub is an undergraduate student of International Relations (IR) at National Defence University, Islamabad.