Chinese leaders Xi Jinping (C), Li Keqiang (3rd R), Zhang Dejiang (3th L), Yu Zhengsheng (2nd R), Liu Yunshan (2nd L), Wang Qishan (1st R), Zhang Gaoli (1st L) attend the third Plenary Session of the 18th CPC Central Committee in Beijing, capital of China, Nov. 12, 2013. The session lasted from Nov. 9 to 12. (Xinhua/Lan Hongguang)

By Alexander Neill, Shangri-La Dialogue Senior Fellow for Asia-Pacific Security

Recently, an essay published in the Wall Street Journal written by David Shambaugh, professor of George Washington University, has created reverberations within the China-watching community.

Citing five indicators of current political and socio-economic decline in China, Shambaugh has concluded that the rule of the Communist Party of China (CPC) is nearing conclusion and China's political future is at crossroads.

His conclusions have naturally generated ire in China and heated debate in Western circles. Shambaugh's views have also attracted attention because his assertions run against the grain of the conventional wisdom that China's political system and economy will remain stable for the foreseeable future, despite a downward trend in China's GDP growth.

One of Shambaugh's key arguments is that until 2009, the CPC was showing signs that it could be adaptive, proactive and dynamic with approaches to reform, but that after the Fourth Plenum of the 17th CPC Central Committee, this trend discontinued abruptly.

Through a comparative lens, Shambaugh argues that atrophy taking place in the Chinese political system is characteristic of all Leninist political systems but that this trend is not necessarily irreversible.

In an IISS Fullerton Lecture speech in Singapore in February this year, Shanghai venture capitalist Eric X. Li gave a starkly contrasting vision to the one portrayed by Shambaugh.

Li opened his speech with the hypothesis that the 21st century will be defined by demand and competition for reform. He asserted that those who succeed in reform will be the winners, those who fail, the losers.

He concluded that the CPC stands the best chance of winning this race. Consequently, Li argued, the 21st century will be a Chinese century.

Li argued that the third plenum of the 18th CPC Central Committee, held in November 2013, had introduced the most dramatic political reforms in decades, most importantly the restructuring of the relationship between central and regional authorities and the reorganization of the relationship between the Party and state.

China is now experiencing re-centralization of power after a long period of devolution: Corruption is the most significant threat to this process, thus Chinese President Xi Jinping has launched a long-term and institutionalized anti-corruption campaign.

Describing the CPC as the most powerful reform organization in the world, Li asserted that like all political systems, the Party may eventually succumb to ossification, but it is young and robust enough to continue to reform for the next few decades.

Like Shambaugh, Li also explored the drivers of political decay but focused on failings within Western-style democracies. In particular he pointed to political scientist Francis Fukuyama's argument that in the contemporary US, strong rule of law and democracy accompanied by weak government has resulted in "political decay."

Failure of reform in the US, according to Li, has occurred because of excessive public participation and transparency. The strong emphasis on the rule of law has resulted in the judicialization of governance and the growth of legalized corruption, according to Li.

In an address hosted by the IISS and Chatham House in London on June 18, 2014, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang stressed that the purpose of reform is to provide more platforms for Chinese innovation and creation so that there will be "a chance for everyone's dream to come true."

Examining the contrasting arguments above, it is evident that any political system reaching maturity will start to show the signs of political grey hairs and ossification.

This does not mean a zero-sum game between the current and rising superpower has to take place, and as Yan Xuetong, dean of the Institute of Modern International relations at Tsinghua University argues, bipolarization doesn't mean the world is seeing another Cold War.

Crucial to the development of a new world order is the ability, therefore, for China to implement far-reaching and challenging reforms.

This article orginally appeared in the Global Times


Shangri-La Dialogue 2015


The 14th IISS Asia Security Summit: Shangri-La Dialogue convened from 29-31 May in Singapore. For conference proceedings, analysis and videos, visit the Dialogue homepage and on Twitter follow @IISS_org and #SLD15

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