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Features May 2007: Volume 4, Number 2

The Fragile Superpower
by Susan Shirk


China is re-emerging as a major power after 150 years of being a weak player on the world stage—a brief hiatus in China’s long history. For 2,000 years, until the late nineteenth century when it was overtaken by the United States, China had the largest economy in the world. Since 1978, by shedding central planning, creating a market economy, and opening to the world, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has revived itself as an economic powerhouse and a world power.

History teaches us that rising powers are likely to provoke war. Inevitably, as China moves up the economic and technological ladder, it will compete with America and expand its global reach. But a much graver danger is that as China rises in power, the United States will misread and mishandle it, so that we find ourselves in a hostile relationship.

Even if the two sides manage to avoid a shooting war, a Cold War with China would wreak havoc in the United States and throughout the world. The two countries have become economically dependent on each another: The United States is China’s largest export market (buying approximately 20 percent of its total exports) and China loans most of the dollars it earns from trade to the U.S. government to cover its large budget deficits. If Washington imposed economic sanctions on China and China retaliated by selling off some of the billions of dollars of American government debt that it owns, American interest rates would shoot up, our economy would slow to a crawl, and a global recession (even more dire than the one we are currently facing) could be the result. A hostile relationship with China would also make it impossible for our two countries to work together on the many global issues that affect the interests of both countries, such as AIDS, avian flu epidemics, global warming, and terrorism.

Our best chance of avoiding antagonism with China is to open up the black box of Chinese domestic politics, look inside, and figure out what makes China act as it does on the world stage. We find a society drastically changed by economic reforms and opening to the world. China no longer resembles the bleak People ’s Republic of the Mao Zedong era that was the object of our Cold War fears. The China of today looks more benign and familiar: It is less totalitarian and more capitalist, less monolithic and more diverse, less drab and more colorful, less isolated and more globalized. Yet although the transformations under way inside China give it a greater stake in international peace, they also make it more dangerous as its Communist leaders struggle to maintain political control. China’s leaders face a troubling paradox: the more developed and prosperous the country becomes, the more insecure and threatened they feel. The PRC today is a brittle, authoritarian regime afraid of its own citizens, and struggling desperately to stay on top of a society roiled by economic change.

China is stronger economically and more secure internationally than it has been since the nineteenth century, but paradoxically, its Communist leaders have a deep sense of domestic insecurity. China may be an emerging superpower, but it is a fragile one. China’s internal fragility, not its economic or military strength, presents the greatest danger to us. Unless we understand the fears that motivate its leaders, we face the possibility of conflict with it.
Like all politicians, China ’s leaders are concerned first and foremost with their own political survival. They don’t have to stand for election, but they face other political risks that democratic leaders do not have to worry about, and are haunted by the fear that their days in power are numbered.

They watched with foreboding as the Communist governments in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe
collapsed almost overnight beginning in 1989, the same year in which massive pro-democracy protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and more than one hundred other cities almost brought down Communist rule in China. Jiang Zemin, who led China during the 1990s after Tiananmen, and Hu Jintao, the current leader, know that they lack the
personal prestige of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, who founded the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Their nightmare scenario is a national protest movement of discontented groups— unemployed workers, hard-pressed farmers, and students upset about official corruption —united against the regime by the shared fervor of nationalism. Chinese history tells them that they have good reason to worry. The two previous dynasties fell to nationalist revolutionary movements. Mass movements that accused leaders of failing to defend the nation against foreign aggression brought down the Qing Dynasty in 1911 and the Republic of China in 1949.

In 1989, the regime was shaken to its roots by the nationwide student protests that have come to be known as the Tiananmen crisis and by the divisions within the party elite over how to handle them. If the military had refused to obey Deng Xiaoping’s command to forcibly impose order or if it had split, the Chinese Communist Party might have followed its Soviet counterpart into the dustbin of history.

After that close call in 1989, China’s leaders became fixated on what they call “social stability.” They use that euphemism to convince the Chinese public that Communist Party rule is essential for maintaining order and prosperity, and that without it, a country as large as China would fall into civil war and chaos.

If you are a Communist leader sitting in Zhongnanhai, the compound where the Communist Party and government leaders live and work, worrying over daily reports about violent protests, international considerations will always take second place to the number one priority: preserving Communist Party rule. In an internal crisis, keeping the lid on at home is much more important than foreign relations.
A corollary is true as well: When an international crisis confronts China’s leaders, domestic politics comes ahead of foreign relations, as we saw after the U.S. accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, the collision between a U.S. surveillance plane and a China fighter jet in 2001, and in a number of crises related to Taiwan and Japan.
Of course, China’s leaders are not unique in their preoccupation with domestic politics. Even in Western democracies like our own, foreign policy is driven as much by domestic considerations as by the opinions of our allies and other foreign countries. What distinguishes China, however, is that the survival of the regime, not just the next election, is at stake.

We should try to make sense of the way China is behaving in the world and anticipate how it will behave in the future as it rises in power by looking at its foreign policy inside-out—starting with the fears of China’s leaders about their own survival. Every good diplomat knows that you can never get anywhere until you put yourself in the shoes of the person sitting across the table from you. Only by taking this leap of empathy and understanding the situation China’s leaders face, can America and other countries influence China’s rise in a peaceful direction.

Susan Shirk is the Ho Miu Lam Professor of China and Pacific Relations at the Graduate School of International Relations and Pacific Studies and the director of the UC Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation.


People’s Republic of China (PRC)


Susan Shirk


"Our best chance of avoiding antagonism with China is to open up the black box of Chinese domestic politics, look inside, and figure out what makes China act as it does on the world stage."