Planning for China’s ‘Fall’
HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA—At the annual Halifax International Security Forum last week, much of the discussion centered on challenges to American leadership and what role the United States will play globally in the coming years. Many of the same questions that were asked about Barack Obama could have been directed towards China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, as became clear during the forum’s panel devoted to China. While the conversation on China revolved mostly around territorial disputes and the policies of leading nations like Japan and India towards Beijing, the discussion seemed to take for granted China’s inexorable rise and a concomitant growth in its influence and power.
Yet a growing number of China watchers have been raising the alarm that all is not well in the world’s second-largest economy. Indeed, any discussion of China these days would be far more foresighted to focus on the growing challenges and potential dangers that the new leadership is facing. The implications of China experiencing an unexpected economic crash or major political crisis, let alone a military conflict, should be as much a part of strategic planning as plans based on more optimistic scenarios. Not so long ago, the U.S. government and CIA were caught flat-footed by the collapse of the Soviet Union. To avoid surprise, the following is a short list of things that governments and policy analysts around the world should pay attention to:
1. Leadership divisions and scandals. The significance of the Bo Xilai case was not limited to its status as the most serious leadership crisis in China in perhaps four decades. It also revealed the power struggles that go on in Zhongnanhai and the level of corruption that feeds the staggering wealth of China’s rulers. Recent stories about the family riches of new Party Secretary Xi Jinping and Premier Wen Jiabao show that Bo’s use of his official privilege to gain wealth was not an aberration. Despite the public unity displayed by the new Standing Committee, there are still factions within the Politburo. The jockeying for power during Mr. Xi’s term is just beginning and a new scandal similar to that which deposed Mr. Bo could divide the leadership, not to mention cause significant social dissension. Nor is it clear how the PLA leadership will respond to perceived weakness or failures on the part of China’s leaders. How much it respects Mr. Xi and is willing to follow his lead will only become clear over time, but it certainly will expect him to protect China’s interests abroad and prevent greater social instability at home.