In a recent book – China’s Future? – David Shambaugh is deeply pessimistic about the prospects for the People’s Republic. He thinks China is in stagnation for inability to modernise and that the regime is making things worse by moving towards harder authoritarianism. That makes it more typical of Leninist dictatorships, and the experience of Leninist dictatorships is that they don’t last because they don’t adapt in time.
One should listen carefully to Shambaugh, who is one of the most experienced and measured China watchers around. Still, a somewhat different case can be made (as Shambaugh agrees, wherefore he makes no prediction).
First, it can be argued that the regime is adapting, although not in the way “we” would like. By turning towards harder authoritarianism, it is tightening controls. It knows it can put less trust in purchasing legitimacy by spreading economic rewards, and is therefore relying more on control. It is probably true that the price for that adaptation will be economic stagnation in “the middle income trap”. But the leaders now in power are probably reconciled to that inevitability and are concentrating on how to survive in a less favourable economic climate.
Second, it can be argued that the PRC is a new kind of Leninist dictatorship, radically different from previous ones. There are many common traits of course, but Xi’s China is not like Brezhnev’s Soviet Union. In brief, it can be argued that Xi and Co have perfected the art of dictatorship sufficiently for the regime to survive adversity.
If Shambaugh is the pessimist, is the alternative view optimistic? Regrettably not. The two scenarios here are that the PRC breaks down or that it survives by control. In the first case, China falls into an abyss of chaos, as so often in its history. In the second case, it survives by grace of harder dictatorship. In both cases, the Chinese people are looking into an unhappy future.