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Politics & International Affairs magazine

David Shambaugh: Charting China’s Future: Domestic and International Challenges

There is a fundamental question whenever the topic of China is raised in a conversation – ‘What it will look like in the future’? While some scholars choose to present a sensational picture of a “well based scenario”, others play the ‘ostrich tactic’ and ignore the question completely, quite likely for its complexity and fear of being discredited when their predictions are proved inaccurate. The presented book tries to walk a fine line between the two. Those who seek some sensationalist reading will end up disappointed – the book does not offer any ‘great call’. Yet, it still does address the question explicitly and it does go into significant details, especially when taking into account its relatively subtle volume.

The book has the form of an edited volume and it consists of an introduction, conclusion and 15 chapters. The book’s editor David Shambaugh is one of the most famous and respectful China scholars and the contributors’ list of mostly European authors include other big names well-known to those who have read something on China before. The quality of the authors and their relatively high number can be considered a guarantee that the view which a reader will get is not a single non-relevant opinion of an un-known person but widely held position of a number of respectful professionals.

The aim of the book, as outlined in the introduction by the editor, is to analyze China of today and in the years to come and to do so a set of areas which are believed to be among the most important is analyzed. The book is therefore divided into seven sections, each covering two or three chapters by the contributing authors. It should be noted here that the aim of the authors was to present a book which can be read by a wide circle of readers interested in China and thus the style used is free of social jargon, texts do not include too many quotations and the length of each chapter is quite short, too.

The theme of the first chapter is China’s political future and is focused especially on the position the Chinese Communist Party holds in the country. K. E. Brodsgaard discusses in his chapter the Party as an institution and he shows how it has managed to keep track with changes up to now and does not show a lack of willingness to do so in the future. While he presents some challenges coming from the leadership transition in 2012, it is the second chapter of R. Wye which deals with this topic more particularly. Wye shows that this will be the first real post-Deng transition with the leaders not being appointed by him. Also, he discusses the legitimacy problems which the Chinese leadership may be facing in the future.

The second section of the book deals with the economy and consists of another two chapters. In the first one, J. Fenby focuses on the domestic economy and he discusses changes during previous few years, especially coming from the global recession and the consequent need to “rebalance” the Chinese economy. Fenby considers the short term response to the crisis being quite positive, although he warns of possible middle to long term instabilities. Similar opinion holds Peter Nolan in his chapter focused on China’s integration into international economy, where he admits that China managed to cure itself much faster than the rest of the world. Although it is not completely decoupled from the outer world and in case the problems in other parts of the world continue, it is likely to pose a burden on China as well.

The theme of the third section is a social future of China. R. Murphy in her chapter focuses on the Chinese civil society. She covers quite a broad range of issues and shows how the new media policies broaden the space for civil society which strives against the Party line. The other chapter of the section is provided by P. Potter who presents the current situation of the Chinese legal system. It is argued that under the on-going political system it is difficult to secure the neutral functioning of the legal system, yet there are some positive developments, such as increased legal expertize among Chinese lawyers.

Next section starts the international topics of the book and it discusses China’s position in the world and its relations with the major actors. In the first chapter, J.-P. Cabestan analyzes relations with the major powers. The author concludes on pretty conservative tone when he does not envision any landslide change in the relations with the US, the EU, Russia or the BRIC. P. Ferdinand in his chapter turns to the relationship with the developing world and he finds it interesting that China spends more on investment in this area than on trade. The author expects rising interest and importance of the developing world to China, especially for the sake of providing for natural resources, which, however, can lead to more tensions in the relations as well. In the third chapter of this section, the book’s editor D. Shambaugh discusses China’s role in global security affairs. After analyzing the dynamics of present situation in which China and the world find themselves in, he suggests that no change would occur in the recent trend. Thus we will observe continual rise in the Chinese involvement on a diplomatic level and in the low-cost non-traditional security issues, China will continue to safeguard its narrow defined national interest and it will continue its military modernization and build-up.

Section no. 5 moves its focus on a particular area of Asian region. M. Yahuda deals with the relations with northeast Asia, while A. Booth discusses the relations with ASEAN. Both authors warn from possible rising of tensions if they are not addressed properly and on time. The main causes are economic frictions and nationalism together with unresolved territorial claims.

The topic of the sixth section becomes even more particular in regard of “international” relations and deals with the question of Taiwan. R. Myers presents the complexity of relations with discussing the level of interdependence on both sides, as well as the effect of party policies of the Taiwanese government. He discusses the two possible scenarios – positive and negative – to demonstrate the variable nature of the relation. D. Fell focuses on Taiwan domestic politics and he discusses its impact on the Taiwan policy toward China and cross-strait relations. He presents six future scenarios and argues for the highest chance of continuation of present status quo in the near future, which still could give rise to unification in terms close to Taiwanese demands.

The final seventh section of the book deals with the issue of Hong Kong and Macau within People’s Republic of China. The chapters of B. Hook and R. L. Edmonds present a fairly complex picture of relations between the central government and the special administration regions when discussing its dependence on the Mainland for economic benefits yet also trying to keep its distinct social and political environment. While there should be no big issues in shop for Macau, Hong Kong may face some problems ) trying to keep its political setting.

The whole book is concluded by the editor who provides somewhat extended conclusion of the chapters and analyzes the issues once again from the own perspective. The editor explicitly defines position which is allegedly shared by all the contributors of the book – that China will not head for a major change during next five or more years and it will mostly follow the directions taken during the previous years. He also explicitly distances this position from the position of those (mostly American) scholars who have envisioned the cataclysmic change in China to come soon. To put in other words, the contributors of the reviewed book stand for evolutionary rather than revolutionary development in China in near to middle term future. Yet David Shambaugh does not end here and he subsequently moves on and analyzes what the variables to be followed are when trying to assess future development of the Chinese political system. Here he presents his opinion that the political system in China is a dependent variable and not an independent one. This being said, he discusses the role of various sections of the book and their possible impact on the political development. He admires the way the Chinese leaders have been managing the country for years, yet he foresees even more challenges coming in the next years – particularly mentioning international tensions over which Beijing does not hold control and quickly rising expectations of its own people, which puts burden on its actions.

Not much will be added in commenting on this book, which the author of this review finds very appropriate and coming close to the goal it set for itself. Hence before the assessment, it is essential to think once again about its aim. It does not try to be an academia book per se, nor does it try to be ‘neutral’ in a way it is often understood in the social sciences. Quite the contrary, it breaks many unwritten rules. It presents some basic hard facts conceptually put into order and followed with (unusually) straight analyzes, own opinions and interpretations of the contributing authors. From this perspective, a limited number of options to criticize the text are available. Clearly, what is not available is assessing whether the authors are correct or not in their predictions. We could, theoretically, dispute their opinions right now, yet here we would move to a very dangerous zone as we would face 15 world renowned experts on China in their subsequent areas of interests who basically share one general opinion about the major trend.

While for any clear criticism based on labeling as correct/incorrect we would have to wait for some time, it should be pointed out that most chapters actually do not present rigid prophecies. Instead, they try to offer a guideline under which the development on the ground can be put into a bigger picture and be comprehended. Thus the hard facts and the conceptual work themselves would be useful even if their interpretations would later be proved wrong by the real development.

Let us then give credit to such a publication of brilliant scholars who indeed offered their clear opinions about what the future of China in the next couple of years might be like. They do not claim the certainty and they try to be even less sensationalist. Quite opposite, they just share their personal views based on the data they consider the most telling and arrive to rather humble and conservative conclusions. While the future will tell how much they are correct or not, we can use their own data and guidelines to prove their opinions wrong, if necessary. This can demonstrate even further how useful the publication is.

Shambaugh, David (2011) (ed.): Charting China’s Future. Domestic and International Challenges. London – New York: Routledge.

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Richard Turcsányi
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13th January 2013