Don’t be fooled by the question mark on the cover of David Shambaugh’s latest book, China’s Future.
The director of the China Policy Program and professor at George Washington University, Shambaugh offers fair yet largely bleak assessments of the future of China’s economy, society, and polity. Although he ends his book stating, “The outstanding question is whether China will get along better or worse with the world,” it seems to me that the only real question is when and how China will get worse.
In the chapter on China’s society, in the section entitled, “The Need for Soft Authoritarianism or Semi-Democracy,” Shambaugh even writes:
So far the authorities have been able to control, co-opt, and contain the ‘nodes’ of protests when they break out—but this cannot be assured in the future. And let us remember that Chinese society has a historical propensity to erupt in a large-scale social upheaval every twenty-five to thirty years or so. It is overdue.
Sure, we can’t ignore China’s progress, especially when taking into consideration its ties with the U.S. (see page 150). The U.S. and China are indeed seen as global leaders in many respects, but China undoubtedly lags in many other areas.
The key insights I gained from reading this book belong to the four pathways that he envisions China could take: Neo-Totalitarianism, Hard Authoritarianism, Soft Authoritarianism, or Semi-Democracy.
Shambaugh argues that the latter two would be the best pathways to either moderate reform and partial transition, or successful reform and full transition, respectively. Of course, he admits that the chances of China shifting to a path of semi-democracy, similar to that taken by Singapore, are “regrettably minimal.” As a result, he believes that transitioning from its current hard authoritarianism to soft would be the best route.
Then as if we needed more pessimism, he concludes the book by contemplating the possibility of war between China and the U.S. or its other neighbor(s): “not to be discounted” and “not insignificant.”
Well, I’m sure as hell not looking forward to the future of China after reading this—not that we Westerners likely would regardless—but what is for sure is China remains the country to watch.
Check out the book on Amazon, or ask for my copy 🙂