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A Few Questions For Susan Shirk

Susan Shirk, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State responsible for U.S. relations with China, is the author of China: Fragile Superpower. In her book Shirk opens up the black box of Chinese politics and finds that the real danger lies in the deep insecurity of its leaders. Below Shirk graciously answers some questions for OUP.

OUP: China looks so successful. Why do you call it “fragile?”

Susan Shirk: When I tell my American friends I am writing a book about Chinese politics and foreign policy called “Fragile Superpower,” they ask “what do you mean, 9780195306095.jpg‘fragile’?” When I tell my Chinese friends I am writing a book called “Fragile Superpower,” every one of them asks, “what do you mean, ‘superpower’?” No one questions “fragile.”

China’s leaders face a troubling paradox: The more modern and prosperous the country is, the more insecure and threatened they feel. Market reforms and economic opening have turned Chinese society on its head and created latent challenges to Communist Party rule.

Inequality has widened. People suspect that the rich have acquired their wealth through official connections and corruption. Protests by workers and farmers occur every day.

Popular nationalism helps build popular support for the Communist Party but could turn against the Party in a crisis. People now have much more information about news inside and outside the country through the Internet and the commercialized mass media. Preventing competition between Party politicians from becoming public is becoming increasingly difficult.

The People’s Republic is a brittle authoritarian regime that fears its own citizens and can only bend so far to accommodate the demands of foreign governments. China may be an emerging superpower, but it is a fragile one. And it is China’s internal fragility, not its economic or military strength that presents the greatest danger to us.

We need to understand the fears that motivate China’s leaders if we want to head off conflict with it.

OUP: Can Communist Party rule survive in China when it’s collapsed in almost every other country in the world except Cuba, Vietnam and North Korea?

Shirk: So long as the leadership remains united and the military loyal, the Communist Party can manage social unrest.

OUP: What was “Tiananmen” and what were the lessons that the Communist Party leaders took away from it?

shirk-ucsd.jpgShirk: In 1989 large-scale prodemocracy demonstrations occurred in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and over 130 other cities in China.

The leadership split over how to handle the protests, and the regime remained standing only because the military followed orders and forcibly put down the demonstrations.

At almost the same time the Berlin Wall fell and communist regimes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe toppled.

Since that time China’s Communist leaders have feared that their own days are numbered. They have an acute sense of domestic insecurity.

And everything they do in both foreign and domestic policy is designed to prevent another Tiananmen by

  • 1. Preventing large scale social unrest
  • 2. Avoiding public leadership splits
  • 3. Keeping the military loyal to the Party

OUP: How does this fragility affect the way China acts in the world?

Shirk: China has a split personality, the responsible power and the emotional, nationalist power which we might call China’s “id.”

Both faces of Chinese power reflect the leaders’ fear about their political survival.

On most issues, China acts cautiously because it is preoccupied with its own domestic problems and intent on avoiding conflicts that could disrupt economic growth. Keeping the economy growing by at least 7 percent per year is considered a political imperative to prevent widespread unemployment and labor unrest.

The responsible China is leading the Six Party Talks on North Korea’s nuclear program and participating actively in regional and global international organizations.

But in a crisis, or when dealing with the hot-button issues of Japan, Taiwan, or the United States, the leaders feel they have to act tough to show how strong they are. Like Chinese Clark Kents, they abandon their usual mild-mannered demeanor and reveal themselves as nationalist superheroes.

They take risks to defend China’s honor. In reaction to some perceived provocation from Japan or Taiwan they might make threats from which they feel they cannot back down without risking their own domestic support. Or if their domestic support is waning, they could be tempted to “wag the dog” to deflect attention to foreign threats.

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Recent Comments

  1. [...] A Few Questions For Susan Shirk [...]

  2. William Warne

    Hi Susan, I am the person who did the last posting I have noticed thus far on your article ending with the paragraph:
    “One should watch in the next few days to see how China’s own domestic media report inside China on Wen Jiabao’s visit to Japan.
    Here is my opinion:

    If the Chinese people want to enter the Information Age not witnessing the failed examples of Nationalism in the Middle East, and witness the victory for all mankind in what I propose here, then they should read on and learn as you are doing. The US has a real need to end the hate, and build the trust of the Iraqi people by seeking Faithful Christian troops that understand the Bible. Right Now! They can now gain the true meaning of their faith by accepting a conversion to Islam as a willingness to stand for the security of the women and children throughout the middle east, and beyond. The US has always shown the ability to adapt to new realities in their global circumstances, and should consider solutions which could only come from God’s blessing. If people like me; nurtured in the changes experienced by “baby boomers” throughout North America, Europe, and Russia, do not see the value in finally letting our hearts open to know the forgiveness of our enemies throughout the world by shining the light of truth about God, and our relationship to him. If we come to Allah now, we will learn the truth allowing you to finally get closer to God, and realize the elusive dream of peace that has slipped through humanities fingers since the dawn of time. The world needs to see examples of spiritual truth from faithful people now. It has always been a bitter reminder to each new generation, that they must learn the wisdom of the previous generation’s mistakes if continued progress to truth wishes to be made. The Chinese youth must see the truth in honest, and faithful expansion of the souls growth as witnessed by mass conversions to Islam by all spiritually mature people wishing to learn the wisdom of Allah from Mohamed’s perspective. Non believers in all lands will marvel when they see the blessings of peace displayed by the brave young men who are willing to risk ridicule, and win the trust of the Iraqi people, by earnestly studying the HOLY QUR-ĀN. Let our brave young men in Afghanistan, and Iraq embrace the people they are protecting. They have the power to show true faith in God by praying as Muslims with the people. The brutes and hypocrites fomenting hatred will have no place to hide once the truth in God is demonstrated to a selfish, and superficial generation. If the US wishes to show the true path to peace Allah is waiting to see the truth of it. It’s amazing how simple things can become, when you put your trust in God, and seek to learn the truth. I pray careful preparation of only the most honourable, intelligent, and dedicated to truth people are chosen to initiate this change in religious expression. It must be done throughout the world of all believers, if we wish to demonstrate the truth of God in our lives, and give people a chance to repent from their sins, and learn of God’s plans for our lonely planet. All the technology in the world won’t illuminate the truth in peoples hearts if we do not see our unity in God, and the beauty in all our fellow man. Only when we humble ourselves before our fellow man and learn to worship together in honest search of God’s purpose for us will we truly be able to win trust, and establish peace. I pray you will be blessed with what I have sent you here today. God speed.
    I am just a man who has accumulated, a combination of information, experience, and willingness to be brave for all our sakes.

  3. Veronica Lee

    It is alleged that the Chinese Communist Party allocates 1/4 of China’s internal revenues to suppressing religious and spiritual groups in China, including Falun Gong, Christian home churches, etc. How does the Chinese Communist Party’s deprivation of people’s religious freedom impact the Party’s stability and rule?

  4. helloone

    I am from china. I don’t think you truely understand china and its leaders!

  5. Sonny Azhak

    Hi Susan: I saw the provocative title on your book about China and the fragility of its state. I sure am gonna buy your book.

    Your focus on China seem to have hinged on China’s frosty relations with the Asia-Pacific powers: Japan, Taiwan and the US. But, your analysis has overlooked China other nemesis in Asia: INDIA. China has unresolved issues with India over the North-Eastern border (arunachal Pradesh) and Aksai Chin (North Kashmir)which the former claims as its own (main because these areas are contiguous with Chinese-occupied Tibet). China fought a war with India in 1962 on spurious grounds while China’s propaganda machine works overtime to reinforce phoney claims of land ownership. China bristles at India for harbouring the Dalai Lama and his followers which it sees as a fifth column. Finally, China has proved to be an irresponsible power when, as one of the 5 permament members of the UN with veto powers, it has transfered nuclear and missile weapons technology and kits to the dysfunctional state of Pakistan – thereby violating the NPT Teaty to which it is a signatory. Shouldn’t China have been punished for this? It seems China has been using Pakistan as a cat’s paw against India, which China sees as a potential pole of power and competitor. What’s your views on these?

    All these citations I have made leads one to the conclusion that China is a revisionist power bent on correcting what it calls historical slights, real or imagined.

    Will you enlighten us about this difficult relationship China has with its arch nemesis India?

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