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Is China’s fall inevitable?
Lim Teck Ghee 
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One of the most debated issues among China watchers is whether the country’s rise can continue or whether its economic and political system will fall back – if not self-destruct – from internal contradictions and external challenges. 

This question has been posed for the last 30 years. However, the evidence from examination of the past record is that China’s primarily economic-driven global juggernaut is certainly not running out of steam. Also forecasts that the country’s social cohesion may be breaking down as a result of the breakneck speed of change and modernisation or that the country’s government could go the way of the Soviet Union by fragmenting into rival cliques with disastrous consequences for the unitary state have been shown to be premature.

Today, the subject of China’s rise or fall is as important and intriguing as ever – not only for the global community but also countries in the region, including Malaysia. 

With regard to external challenges, perhaps the most cited is the resistance of the United States to the rise of China. Many foreign policy experts – especially the hawkish - have argued that the US as the world’s pre-eminent superpower will respond aggressively and check China’s rise in the international arena and global economy.

This may yet happen but it  appears to be unlikely during the current tenure of Donald Trump, possibly the most right-wing and conservative - as well as anti-China in his rhetoric - of US presidents in this present era. 

The latest sign of a softening in US foreign policy on China may be deduced from the recent visit of Stephen Bannon who was until recently Trump’s chief political strategist. 

 

Flip-flop stance

Bannon was widely believed to be responsible for Trump’s anti-China hard line during his presidential campaign. And until recently, he has been vocal in openly criticising China. In an interview with 60 Minutes, a widely followed US current affairs programme, he said that China was “at economic war with the US” and that it was now Washington’s turn to respond. 

“To me, the economic war with China is everything. And we have to be maniacally focused on that. If we continue to lose it, we’re five years away, I think, 10 years at the most, of hitting an inflection point from which we’ll never be able to recover.”

That was a year ago. Today Bannon’s hawkish talk seems to have evaporated.

In a speech to a private investor conference during his first trip to Hong Kong on Sept 12,  he told the group that President Trump respected no world leader more than China’s Xi Jinping.

He also reportedly called the Chinese economic system “quite brilliant” and praised the relationship between the US and China. He was also reported to have said that the two countries were key to bringing world peace.

Whatever the reason for his flip-flop – it could be that he was being polite to the conference sponsors who reportedly paid a very large speaking fee to get him – the change in his China position reveals the confusion in the ranks of the right-wing and conservative forces in the US, faced with the reality of China’s rise; and their inability to mount a coherent or cogent policy response.    

It must be also clear to Bannon and other conservatives - witnessing the helplessness of the Trump administration in dealing with the latest display of anti-US sentiment and nose thumping by North Korea - that it may be in the US interest not to take down China in the foreseeable future before the Korean question is finally peacefully resolved.

This is because no other nation in the region has a greater capacity to discourage Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile programmes than China.

 

Internal crisis of political legitimacy and economic failure

Clearly what can bring China down is not the belligerence of the US as a waning superpower in an increasingly multipolar world.

Most analysts agree that the greater possibility of China’s fall will come from internal contradictions stemming from inept or poor governance, diminished political legitimacy and abuses and ineffectiveness in managing the country’s economy, society and resources, leading to massive corruption, inequalities, and widespread recurring socio-economic crisis. 

 

But how likely is this pessimistic scenario to happen?

Various indicators provide us with some clue on the current thinking of the Chinese population with regard to the degree of respect and support for their government; and indirectly on their sense of satisfaction with the present Chinese state and its legitimacy.

The first stems from independent surveys by the Pew Research Center and Ipsos, the global  market and opinion research specialists, which consistently show that the Chinese central authorities command a high degree of respect and support within the country.

An Ipsos survey from October last year showed that 90%  of Chinese are satisfied with the track the country is taking. By contrast, only 11% of French respondents felt the same about their country and 64% of Americans responded that the country was heading in the wrong direction.

The second stems from China’s top think-tank, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, which has  estimated that China will be the second most powerful nation by 2050.

What is noticeable about the report is not just its forecast of the long period needed before China can take its place behind the US in the ranking of world’s nations but also that it did not mince words about the limitations of China.

The same report warned that China’s core competitiveness could not match its ranking when it comes to high-level talents, culture, education, health, science and technology. For example, China’s index of high-level talents stands at 8.3% of that of the US and 10% of that of Japan, indicating a big gap in the human resources sector.

The rest of the world may want to take comfort from these reports which show that while China’s fall is not going to take place any time soon, the country remains a middle-income nation whose domestic challenges in ensuring sustainable development and making sure its citizens enjoy a higher standard of living and greater dignity will remain on top of its agenda of priorities in the medium term.

Dr Lim Teck Ghee is a public policy analyst. Comments: editor@focusmalaysia.my



This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 253.