Reading David Shambaugh’s “China’s Future” as the proceedings of the country’s 19th Party Congress unfolded in October this year – with leader of the Chinese Communist Party Xi Jinping delivering a three-and-a-half-hour speech before his name was added to the party’s constitution, and the reveal of the new Politburo Standing Committee – was initially interesting, because one could evaluate the accuracy of his forecasts. Yet the book never goes beyond the tired, reductive liberal democracy-authoritarianism dichotomy, and as a result too reads more like an exhaustive list of Chinese economic, societal, political, and geopolitical problems (the four chapters after the introduction are organised as such), rather than a critical analysis.
The thesis of “China’s Future” is straightforward. That China and its ruling party will have to choose from four pathways – neo-totalitarianism, hard authoritarianism, soft authoritarianism, and semi-democracy – and the preferred choice, in the view of the writer, is the fourth: “Without a return to a path of political reform, with a substantial liberalisation and loosening of many aspects of the relationship between the party-state and society, there will continue to be very marginal reform and social progress”. In other words, the aforementioned problems would worsen, if the country continues along its present trajectory. Be that as it may (with the economic references to “the Middle Income Trap” and the “Lewis Turning Point”) the underlying assumption is that China is no different from case studies which have come before it, and therefore would regress to the mean in the absence of reforms. In this vein, its historical achievements or progress are not given due attention.
Throughout the book, furthermore, there is no acknowledgement that the country could – atypically – defy existing models of development. Neither is there the recognition that many of the problems are not unique to China alone. Nor is there an evaluation of the trade-offs or constraints that Chinese leaders will face, and instead that single argument of democratisation is constantly repeated.
And in this approach, Shambaugh keeps turning to “the Singaporean model” as the supposed template that China should follow, ignoring obvious differences – among others – in country size, histories, and culture, and at the same time overlooking flaws within the Singaporean system. “Singapore’s ruling [party] was a model for emulation”, he wrote, “that tolerated symbolic opposition, promoted a market economy, and ruled by legal edicts enforced by pliant courts”. Even so, observers have found fault with this model of semi-democracy, and if China does make the desired transition to such a model, would the call for more liberal democracy persist (as it is in Singapore, at the moment)? A more compelling forecast of China’s future should go beyond conventional frameworks, and unfortunately they are not found in this book.