China: Fragile Superpower: How China's Internal Politics Could Derail its Peaceful Rise, by Susan L. Shirk. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. xvi + 320 pp. £15.99 (hardcover), £8.99 (paperback).
Susan Shirk's excellent analytical study of Chinese governmental processes, first published in 2007, has now being published in paperback format with a new preface. Her study concluded that, contrary to the sense often conveyed of a monolithic system, internationally strong, in full control of its foreign policy and of its domestic political and economic system, there are substantial gaps in that control. Those gaps make it a fragile country domestically. That fragility not only affects its domestic policy but also its foreign policy, now increasingly important in its domestic politics. Consequently, it also offers the danger of international conflict.
Shirk's basic argument is that in their concern to retain power Chinese leaders feel very vulnerable to the increased potential for instability domestically. In part this is a consequence of the rise of nationalism among the Chinese population. This increased nationalism has been stimulated to a degree by the leadership itself in order to legitimate Party control, especially after the Tiananmen Square demonstrations, following which the Propaganda Department, the military and security services, together making up a "control cartel", gained more influence. It is also aided by a populist and competitive media. China faces various internal threats to social stability including, among others, corruption, pollution, income inequality, unemployment and ageing; the leadership, however, is specifically fearful of domestic instability arising from external events to which they have to respond aggressively or be subjected to nationalist criticism for their failure.
Noting the importance of economic growth as a result of China's reforms, Shirk argues that China's leaders want to avoid any international conflicts that could throw its economy off course and thereby threaten CCP rule. She notes particularly China's popular sensitivity on issues concerning Japan, Taiwan and the US. Crucially, international conflicts of these kinds threaten to undermine the US-China relationship on which China's leaders depend for China's continued economic development.
Consequently, Shirk's basic question is whether China's increasingly constructive approach in the field of international relations is sustainable within a China where nationalism is intensifying, mass protests are increasing and the impact of the Internet, cell phones and the commercial media is growing. This was an important question in 2007. It is an even more important question today given the events that have emerged subsequently, several of which illustrate aspects of Shirk's concerns.
The extent of change facing China since the book first went to press is considerable: Shirk notes in a brief preface to the paperback edition three such events: the protests in or about Tibet, the Sichuan earthquake and the Olympics, with the Olympic flame linking Tibet and the Olympics. Yet a more substantial change has been the onset of the global financial crisis and its impact on China.
She observed in 2007 that the onset of economic prosperity had already made China's leaders feel somewhat insecure and threatened, not only because of growing income inequality, but also because of the complexity of the social processes that growth and prosperity implied. This was undoubtedly true, but leadership concerns would seem even greater now with the economic growth and prosperity essential to their sense of security and legitimacy under threat. …