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Sieren's China: The scholar who's predicting a crack-up

Might the American expert on China currently making waves with a provocative essay be more interested in attention than accuracy? DW columnist Frank Sieren thinks so.

The National People's Congress is over - who will be in charge of which reforms has been decided - and it's back to business as usual in China. The mercury's been hitting 20 degrees, and spring is on its way. But on my desk is an essay which, unlike the documentary "Under the Dome," about air pollution, has not actually caused much of a stir in China. Perhaps because it has little to do with most people's day-to-day lives.

But it's certainly piqued the interest of journalists and academics. It's about nothing less than the downfall of the Chinese Communist Party - indeed, the downfall of China. Its author is China expert David Shambaugh of the US, and the essay is about the "endgame of communist rule." Wow. Nice. It evokes the Cold War era, Tom Clancy, good versus evil. And good, needless to say, is - as ever - Western values.

For those who have long been irked by Chinese-style communism, Shambaugh's essay is grist to the mill. It suits the current political climate in the US well. Putin is being demonized - why not demonize his Chinese friends while they're at it? The media loves anyone who polarizes. Especially if they were previously known for courteousness.

Frank Sieren

DW's China columnist Frank Sieren

Sixty-two-year-old Shambaugh, a professor of international affairs and the director of the China Policy Program at George Washington University, is widely seen as a moderate and thoughtful figure who has long been welcome in Beijing. So his essay is especially interesting - in light of the media interest an academic essay can generate. It's possibly less interesting when viewed merely as an attempt to understand how China works.

The basic formula of this sort of essay is simple. Build a big scary idea out of oddly lame arguments. The end of the communist rule is nigh, thunders Shambaugh, and "Its demise is likely to be protracted, messy and violent."

"Despite appearances, China's political system is badly broken," he says. And these are the five reasons why:

1. "China's economic elites have one foot out the door, and they are ready to flee en masse if the system really begins to crumble."

This is both true and not true. Corrupt members of the elites are ready to flee not because the Party is looking fragile but because it is clamping down on corruption. Most of those who are leaving do so by acquiring another nationality or a Green Card. Better safe than sorry. But they usually end up returning. Because they want to keep on making money.

2. "Since taking office in 2012, Mr. Xi has greatly intensified the political repression that has blanketed China since 2009."

This is indisputable - and it's inhumane and unacceptable. But why should it be bringing the country closer to a breaking point? Few in China know about the various dissidents behind bars. But what they do know is how to get around censorship. It's tedious and inconvenient, but cheap if not free VPN software allows anyone to access international news coverage, including Taiwanese news in Chinese. Even if Beijing takes action against a few VPN providers as it did recently, there are always others to replace them. So, contrary to Shambaugh's thesis, the general public probably isn't feeling too repressed.

3. "Even many regime loyalists are just going through the motions."

Fair point, but on the other hand, Xi Jinping enjoys greater public support than any other Chinese politician for a long time. It might be thanks to his powers of persuasion. It might be thanks to efficient propaganda. But the time hardly seems right for any kind of overthrow. That would require much greater public discontent with the country's leader.

4. "The corruption that riddles the party-state and the military also pervades Chinese society as a whole. Mr. Xi's anticorruption campaign is more sustained and severe than any previous one, but no campaign can eliminate the problem."

It's much too early to say! It's worth trying. At least there are already far fewer party cadres who don't think twice about taking bribes.

5. "Finally, China's economy - for all the Western views of it as an unstoppable juggernaut - is stuck in a series of systemic traps from which there is no easy exit."

This could equally apply to the US and European economies. The difference is that China has much more scope to usher in reforms. But at this point, China is now the biggest creditor of the US, not the other way round. Right now, no economist worth their salt would dream of suggesting that China's economy is on the brink of collapse. Especially given that plenty of others are.

All in all, the bleak picture painted by Shambaugh is unconvincing. So why did he write this essay? Could it be that he liked former state and Party leaders Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao more than he likes Xi? Significantly, he explicitly praises them both for their prudent reformist policies rather than blaming them for the woeful state of the Party today. Xi Jinping has only been in office for two years. It's not impossible that, because Shambaugh is an old ally of Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, he's less than popular with Xi. So he's retaliating by maintaining that under Xi, the system is broken.

One way or another, the essay is less about accuracy and more about getting attention. Marketing, not mediation. If this was its purpose, it has succeeded. Shambaugh has raised his profile in one fell swoop. More journalists now know how to spell his name than ever before. But will this notoriety make him happy in the long run? Shambaugh is gambling with his reputation, and he doesn't have a great hand.

DW columnist Frank Sieren has lived in Beijing for 20 years

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