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, ‘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?
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.