Warnings of China's imminent collapse are - once again - greatly exaggerated

Andrew Leung says despite the dire prognosis from some China experts, the Chinese state and economy remain fundamentally sound - and a prediction of collapse is not supported by facts

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 May, 2015, 3:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 May, 2015, 3:00am

Notwithstanding President Xi Jinping's growing power at home and influence abroad, some top American academics are forecasting China's imminent collapse. Their prognosis was rebutted by Kevin Rudd, former prime minister of Australia, in a report last month for the Harvard Kennedy School.

Predictions of China's collapse are not new, but the prognosis by some of the world's most respected experts on China carries traction. In Hong Kong, for example, some politicians quietly hope for China's regime change rather than accept the government's reform proposals for universal suffrage.

It is therefore opportune to examine the collapse theorists' contentions. They are largely as follows.

First, the elite seem to be voting with their feet. Some 64 per cent of rich Chinese are emigrating or intending to emigrate, according to a 2014 Hurun research report. More are sending their children to study abroad and buying overseas properties at record levels.

Second, Xi is clamping down on dissent and "universal values" - including constitutional democracy, civil society, free press and neoliberal economics. This manifests insecurity.

Third, lip service is being paid to Xi's mantra of following "the mass line" (serving people first) and of realising the "China Dream".

Fourth, Xi's anti-corruption campaign is unlikely to succeed as corruption is stubbornly rooted in the single-party patron-client networks, a non-transparent economy, a state-controlled media and absence of rule of law. Moreover, the campaign is mainly targeting former president Jiang Zemin's network and seems to spare the unpopular princeling camp, of which Xi is the chief patron.

Fifth, the Communist Party's much-needed third plenum reforms are spluttering as powerful vested interests continue to block implementation.

Warnings of regime collapse and national demise were in fact sounded by both Xi and his predecessor Hu Jintao , along with former premier Wen Jiabao , who called on the party to rid itself of widespread corruption and abuse of power.

Before Xi was installed, Wang Qishan, now the anti-corruption supremo, was known to have circulated Alexis de Tocqueville's Ancien Regime and the French Revolution among his colleagues. So a sense of existential crisis already permeated before Xi took over.

The crisis mood turned critical following the disclosure of criminal dealings involving former Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai , a princeling himself. This signalled not only corruption and power abuse on a wide scale but also sparked rumours of a "palace plot" in collusion with Zhou Yongkang , then the powerful public security tsar and influential Politburo Standing Committee member. This must have deeply shaken the entire party leadership, regardless of faction. The fear is that if not resolutely treated, the cancer of corruption will threaten the party's very survival, bringing down everybody.

That is why the anti-corruption campaign has been so vigorous and wide-ranging, catching many "tigers" as well as "flies". This is also why Xi had to be given sweeping powers across the board. Zhou is now formally being tried, breaking an unspoken rule that criminal charges are never laid against a former Politburo Standing Committee member.

It is understandable that there is a pervasive sense of fear and unease among many party officials who have feathered their nests in the corrupt system for decades. Some are quietly moving their assets abroad or trying to seek overseas boltholes for themselves or their children.

Xi's anti-corruption drive, however, enjoys robust public support. In addition, there is no broad-based clamour for regime change. Indeed, according to the Pew Research Centre's 2013 Global Attitudes data, the citizens most satisfied in the world with their country's directions were to be found in China and Malaysia.

At its fourth plenum last October, the party put the rule of law (or rule by law) at the forefront. There are moves to gradually improve judicial independence by establishing circuit high courts and by elevating the powers of judicial appointments, among other measures. Allegiance to China's constitution is to be upheld.

It means that China's one-party model cannot be questioned under China's laws. But that doesn't mean party leaders are above the law, as the current anti-corruption campaign tries to show.

Xi's call to follow "the mass line" may sound confusingly Maoist. In fact, it underscores the realisation that years of unbridled economic growth have created an extremely unequal and unstable society. It is now necessary to get back to revolutionary basics - power legitimacy comes from looking after the people's basic livelihood and well-being.

Premier Li Keqiang's work report at the National People's Congress meetings in March registered some tangible progress, despite slower economic growth. Some 13.22 million urban jobs were created last year, more than the year before. Newly created businesses also increased, by 45.9 per cent. Meanwhile, the contribution of both consumption and services to gross domestic product rose slightly. China's economic model is beginning to shift towards more moderate but more sustainable growth.

Ever mindful of the collapse of the USSR, a degree of political repression is likely to stay as the party enters the "deep waters" of reform. To China's top leaders, Singapore's model of gradual and orderly development often comes to mind.

Xi has displayed remarkable confidence in steering China towards greater heights by launching the "one belt, one road" New Silk Road strategy. This aims to link China by maritime and rail infrastructure to the rest of Asia, the Indian Ocean, East Africa, the Red Sea, continental Europe and Central Asia.

The creation of a related China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank has attracted support from many countries, including key US allies. Nothing less than China's historical renaissance in the realisation of the "China Dream" is at stake.

Amid uncertainties of China's trajectory, it is only natural that some may choose to take out an insurance policy of settling their offspring or assets abroad, as was the case for Hong Kong before 1997. But all the evidence seems to show that, instead of imminent regime collapse, under Xi, China may well witness a new Asian Century - with China at its very centre.

Andrew K. P. Leung is an international and independent China specialist based in Hong Kong