Are We Ready If China Suddenly Collapsed?
If Washington is concerned that the CCP is approaching its twilight, then asserting a moral stake in China’s development requires nothing less than a substantial effort to understand China’s political landscape beyond day-to-day policy-making concerns and to influence Chinese leaders before they pull the trigger on their citizens again. Without advance preparation, U.S. and other international leaders will find the prospects of an unstable China distressing, possibly with the view that it is “too big to fail.” They may even watch from the sidelines as in 1989, not knowing the best course of action or how to influence the decisions of Chinese leaders. This may not be wrong, but such a momentous decision should not be left to ignorance, preexisting mental images or scattered information collected as a crisis breaks.
(This first appeared in 2015.)
A couple of weeks ago, AEI scholar Michael Auslin published a column for the Wall Street Journal about a quiet dinner in Washington where a senior China scholar declared the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had reached the final stage before collapse. The political collapse of the world’s second-largest economy and a nuclear power is no small thing. What should Washington do? Go outside the Fourth Ring Road (a Chinese reference akin to saying go outside the Beltway), forge links to marginalized Chinese and speak out about Chinese human rights to show the Chinese people that the United States has “a moral stake in China’s development.” Even if the CCP’s collapse does not occur for years, these measures will help U.S. policy makers be “on the right side of history.”
Such measures appear trivial in the face of a problem the size of China’s potential political instability and the collapse of its governing structure. By Auslin’s telling, this anonymous China scholar and those nodding in approval think that these first steps constitute a genuine signal to the Chinese people that Washington stands and will stand by them. Rhetorical support, however, will not grace the United States in the eyes of the Chinese people if their discontent demolishes the CCP. Actions, rather than words, in the heat of another crisis at least on the scale of nationwide protests in 1989 will be the measure of Washington’s moral interest in China’s future.
Being prepared for a political crisis with the potential to bring down the CCP requires a much more serious effort that involves both research and planning. Before that day of crisis comes, the mindset for dealing with China must include the ability to imagine a China without the CCP and how that outcome might develop. The tens of thousands of demonstrations serve as a reminder that, despite China’s rise to international prominence, the country still has political fault lines capable of causing an earthquake. With this kind of warning, the moral failing would be to ignore the potential for regime-changing unrest or any other political crisis that might threaten the regime, and what Beijing might do to prevent that from happening.