Is the Growing Pessimism About China Warranted?

A ChinaFile Conversation

There are few more consequential questions in world affairs than China’s uncertain future trajectory. Assumptions of a reformist China integrated into the international community have given way in recent years to serious concerns about the nation’s internal and external direction, as China has become more repressive at home and more assertive abroad. A number of critical variables will shape China’s evolution: the political orientation of the regime, needed economic transitions, social stability and civil society, national identity and historical legacies, diplomatic relationships, and the broadening footprint of the military. In a special symposium of articles just published in The Washington Quarterly, five leading China specialists have weighed in on these issues: David M. Lampton, David Shambaugh, Minxin Pei, Orville Schell, and Jeffrey Wasserstrom. These long-time China hands unpack the complexities and uncertainties, explore the forces shaping China’s future, and offer several alternative pathways the regime and nation may follow in the years ahead. Is the growing international pessimism about China’s internal and external behavior warranted?


The People’s Republic of China (P.R.C.) under Xi Jinping appears headed toward one of two very different outcomes. Each is worrisome. Each enormously consequential. The first is that President Xi becomes a durable strongman by continuing to strengthen personal dominance, falling back on the Leninist playbook as well as populist (and popular) policies of attacking corruption with minimal legal restraint, taking down competing personal and organizational networks, and rallying the populace around the flagpole of assertive nationalism. In this scenario, strategic tension with the United States and many P.R.C. neighbors would mount because assertiveness breeds opposition. As Shanghai Professor Yida Zhai observed, “Power cannot make China a great state.” Zhai worries about the sizeable gap between the objective recognition of China’s strength by P.R.C. neighbors and those neighbors’ far less favorable evaluation of that strength. Further, following this path leaves unaddressed China’s problems of political institutions, including succession and the stable management of an increasingly diverse society. But make no mistake—such a trend could persist for a considerable period, accompanied by growing P.R.C. power. Along this path, the United States becomes the default explanation for every P.R.C. setback, whether on international issues such as the South China Sea, domestic turmoil in China itself, or Taiwan and Hong Kong. A recent video released by China’s Supreme People’s Court blames the “deep shadow of the Stars and Stripes.”

Another scenario is that the genies of socio-political pluralism, socio-economic stratification, marketization, and globalization are too far out of the bottle to be stuffed back in by old economic and political instruments. Efforts to contain these forces by clamping down and erratic economic fiat could precipitate a popular legitimacy crisis or backlash among members of the elite and broader Party who feel marginalized or in peril. The resulting disorder and uncertainty would inflict enormous costs on China, Asia, and the world.

There is a third conceivable path that, for now at least, has comparatively dim prospects—incremental moves in the reformist direction characteristic of the preceding three-plus largely successful decades under Xi’s predecessors. Such a scenario would represent a mid-course correction in which Beijing returns to more reassuring domestic and foreign policy paths.

That three such divergent paths are possible today for a system encompassing 20 percent of the world’s people is sobering. What are the roots of this uncertainty? How might the United States best respond? The latter question has particular gravity in terms of serious tensions in the South China Sea, the U.S. general election with the certainty of a new (and different) administration in Washington, and the jockeying for power in China in the run-up to the Party Congress scheduled for the fall of 2017.

In this fiftieth anniversary year of Chairman Mao Zedong’s launch of the Cultural Revolution, it is worth recalling that every major zigzag in the tumultuous 67-year history of the P.R.C. has not been predicted by most Chinese cognoscenti or by outside analysts. This includes the Great Leap Forward and its aftermath, which resulted in more than 30 million deaths in the late 1950s and early 1960s; the Sino–Soviet split; the decade-long Cultural Revolution that left in its brutal wake a “lost generation” in the 1960s and 1970s; and Deng Xiaoping’s dramatically successful “open and reform” initiative launched in the late 1970s, the most durable of all post-1949 phases of Chinese domestic and foreign policy. Enumerating these unpredicted turning points reminds observers that unforeseen developments can be either positive or negative, and are easier explained in retrospect than predicted. It is premature to say what the next big discontinuity will be, but there will be a large discontinuity in the P.R.C.’s mid-term future. Its timing and catalysts will likely surprise observers, but explanations will be readily at hand afterwards.

Read the full article on The Washington Quarterly website.

China is approaching a series of turning points on its path of dramatic national transformation. After more than three decades of successful reforms, the nation has reached critical junctures in its economic, social, political, environmental, technological, intellectual, national security, and foreign policy development. Diminishing economic returns have set in, as the main elements of the broad reform program first launched by Deng Xiaoping in 1978 can no longer spur China’s continued modernization over the next decades. The Chinese economy has transitioned from developing-country status to newly-industrialized economy (NIE) status. The challenge for the next two decades is to become a fully developed economy. To accomplish this, substantial changes are required.

Indeed, China’s own contemporary leaders have evinced this reality. In 2007, former Premier Wen Jiabao bluntly described the nation’s economy as characterized by the four “uns”: “unstable, unbalanced, uncoordinated, and unsustainable.” And this came from the man then in charge of the national economy. Wen’s successor as Premier, Li Keqiang, also offered a fairly dire assessment in 2015: “China’s economic growth model remains inefficient; our capacity for innovation is insufficient; overcapacity is a pronounced problem; and the foundation of agriculture is weak.” China’s current leader, Xi Jinping, has also lamented: “The tasks our Party faces in reform, development, and stability are more onerous than ever—and the conflicts, dangers, and challenges are more numerous than ever.”

Given that even China’s most senior leaders admit that the nation faces severe challenges, the question becomes: what are they doing about it?

The Broad Challenge

The key issue for nations like China at this stage of development is precisely the relationship between politics and economics. For economies to transition up the added-value ladder, break through the developmental ceiling, and make the kinds of qualitative transitions necessary to become truly modern and developed political institutions must be facilitative. They must cease being “extractive” states and become what scholars Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson describe in their insightful book Why Nations Fail as “inclusive states.” Such states stop extracting rents from their economies and facilitate a variety of market forces and autonomous civic actors across society.

China’s political system was a great facilitator of the first wave of economic reforms post-1978—spurring GDP growth 26-fold over the past 37 years—but now and into the future, it may be the greatest single impediment to further decades of reform and growth, unless it changes. China is trying to create a modern economy with a pre-modern political system. China’s economic future requires a very different kind of Chinese party-state than the past—no longer an administrative, commandist, centralized, extractive, and dictatorial state. Rather, it will require a state that is more reactive, responsive, inclusive, facilitative, compromising, tolerant, transparent, and genuinely decentralized.

This line of argument is hardly news to social scientists. Modernization theorists during the 1960s and 1970s all identified this necessity. Samuel Huntington’s Political Order in Changing Societies epitomized those who argued that authoritarian-type regimes were ill-equipped to facilitate a post-extractive economy and meet the rising demands of their newly wealthy citizenry. Buried on page 424 of his locus classicus, Huntington pithily observes, “The crucial question concerns the extent to which the system institutionalizes procedures for assimilating new groups into the system.” This is what Huntington meant by the third and final stage of development of authoritarian regimes—the “adaptation” phase; this phase follows the “transformation” and “consolidation” stages of such totalitarian/authoritarian-type mobilizational/extractive regimes. This concept of political adaptation is crucial for understanding the state of the Chinese communist regime today. Either these regimes adapt and become more inclusive, hence increasing their chances of political survival as well as facilitating socio-economic transitions and providing enhanced public goods, or they fail to do so and ultimately die.

Read the full article on The Washington Quarterly website.

One of the most remarkable developments in contemporary international affairs is the rapid shift of outsiders’ perception of China. Not too long ago, people believed the East Asian behemoth was on an inexorable path to glory and power. In the last few years, however, this view has changed dramatically; China no longer appears to be a confident great power progressing in the direction of greater openness and more reform. Instead, the country, ruled by an insecure, repressive, and inward-looking regime, has embarked on a path that is foreclosing possibilities of its evolution into a responsible great power with a more humane domestic political system.

Yet the retrograde policies pursued by the Chinese Communist Party (C.C.P.) since 2013 do not seem to have helped its fortune. Economically, the slowdown that began in 2011 has no end in sight. Weighed down by overcapacity, eroding competitiveness, and structural inefficiency, the Chinese growth rate fell from 10.6 percent per annum in 2010 to a targeted 6.7 percent for this year—a deceleration of roughly 36 percent. If anything, the country’s debt-laden economy will almost certainly get much worse before getting better. Politically, the anti-corruption campaign that began three-and-a-half years ago under Xi Jinping has destroyed the internal unity of the regime, while the worst crackdown on civil liberties and media freedom has alienated China’s most progressive forces. Externally, Beijing’s assertive foreign policy and its escalations in the South China Sea are driving China toward a dangerous confrontation with the United States.

Amid mounting worries and doubts about China’s future, it is time to re-ask the question that has been on the minds of students of Chinese politics since the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989: is the Party over?

Indeed, a vigorous discussion about China’s future has already started in the China-watching community. To be sure, there is no consensus about where China is going. Nevertheless, it seems that a much stronger case can be made today that recent developments in China augur not the rejuvenation of the one-party regime but the beginning of its end.

Given the apparent resilience of the C.C.P. and its proven track record of survival through adaptation since the end of the Cultural Revolution four decades ago, analysts should not reach such a conclusion lightly. After all, this is a one-party regime that has produced, by some measure, one of history’s greatest economic miracles and managed, through repression and co-optation, to contain threats to its power from a society transformed by modernization since 1979. Will the world’s largest one-party regime once again prove doomsayers wrong?

Uncharted Territory

Historical experience of the unraveling of autocratic regimes may help persuade those long convinced of “Chinese exceptionalism” that the C.C.P. is, indeed, encountering such a scenario. A close examination of recent developments suggests that adverse forces imperiling one-party rule in China are converging. The ruling elites in most autocracies may deal with individual threats with relative ease, but their odds of survival become much poorer when they confront a convergence of these threats. The international experience of transition from autocratic rule since the mid-1970s suggests that two primary drivers can end autocratic rule—the growth of the capabilities of social forces as a result of modernization, and the decay of the autocratic regime.

Read the full article on The Washington Quarterly website.

In probing a country’s future prospects, one can do worse than contemplate its past. And nowhere is history more relevant to the future than in China, a nation that has for millennia seen its destiny inextricably connected to the dynastic record of what has preceded. And yet, today the People’s Republic of China’s official national narrative—that elusive composite of principles, prejudices, hopes, fears, and dreams that cast the die for how leaders will attempt to project their country in the future—has become so filled with lacunae, biases, and untruths that it reads more like a didactic script than a real historical record. To understand the magnitude of these distortions is beyond the scope of this article. Instead, my purpose is to understand how China’s progress may be harmed by the Party’s fear of allowing this official narrative to be challenged by a free flow of information.

To understand the shroud the Party has thrown over China’s history, one has only to turn to the now rather infamous and secret Document No. 9. Bearing a bleak Communist title, “Communique on the Current State of the Ideological Sphere,” it was issued by the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (C.C.P.) and came to light in 2013 just as Party General Secretary Xi Jinping was assuming office. It said, “The goal of historical nihilism in the guise of ‘reassessing history,’ is to distort Party history and the history of New China by rejecting the revolution, claiming that the revolution led by the C.C.P. resulted only in destruction; denying the historical inevitability of China’s choice of the Socialist road; calling it the wrong path and the Party’s and new China’s history ‘a continuous series of mistakes’; rejecting the accepted conclusions on historical events and figures; disparaging Revolutionary precursor, and vilifying the Party’s leaders.”

Document No. 9 goes on to warn, “By rejecting C.C.P. history and the history of New China, historical nihilism seeks fundamentally to undermine the C.C.P.’s historical purpose, which is tantamount to denying the legitimacy of the C.C.P.’s long-term political dominance.” It concludes by directing censors “…not to permit the dissemination of opinions that oppose the Party’s theory or political line, the publication of views contrary to decisions that represent the central leadership’s views, or the spread of political rumors that defame the image of the Party.”

While such prohibitions against open discourse are designed to create a unified Party line, they unfortunately also pervert the information feedback loops on which Party officials and policymakers themselves depend as they seek to understand why China has evolved as it has and how it can best move forward in the future. And here history matters. For how a country and society chooses to remember its past helps determine not only its national narrative, but its future progress.

Needless to say, errant ideologies can easily infect such narratives, or political interests can hijack them. But when they become linked to powerful government or Party-run propaganda organs, it is all too easy for even the greatest nation to become prisoner of its own narrative in ways that are both delusional and dangerous because they become impervious to correction. And the C.C.P. has so effectively manipulated its country’s historical memory and narrative through controls over the media, education, and propaganda that its decision-makers (like “the people”) are forced to peer through a distorting lens. Too often, this compromises their ability to see and think clearly about their past, present, and the future. Thus, China has put itself at risk.

Read the full article on The Washington Quarterly website.

What can we learn about China’s future from reflecting on the country’s past? If you are looking for firm predictions, history does not repeat itself, which means that even the best historical analogies only very occasionally prove reliable guides for events to come. It is tempting to say that knowledge of the past can tell us what will happen in the future, but things just do not work that way.

What toggling between different eras can help us do is clarify some things about the present, in turn helping us prepare better for possible futures, even if all we get is a sense of possibilities, not even probabilities. I will make just one firm three-part prediction about the years to come based on my study of periods in the past: in future years and decades, there will always be people ready to step forward and predict with confidence that something is about to happen in China; some of them will root their arguments in analogies between present Chinese situations and past ones in China or somewhere else; and most of them will ultimately be proven wrong.

In the pages that follow, I move between two periods: the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912) and the era since the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. When it comes to the former, I am particularly interested in two years. One is 1793, when George Macartney, a British Earl, tried to establish full diplomatic relations between London and Beijing and found himself rebuffed by the Qianlong Emperor (1711–1799, reign dates 1735–1796). The other is 1900, the year when the Boxer Uprising triggered an invasion by an international fighting force, made up of soldiers marching behind the flags of eight different powers, who came to China to free foreigners held captive in Tianjin and Beijing but stayed on to carry out campaigns of reprisal and revenge. Heading the Qing dynasty at the time was the Empress Dowager Cixi (1835–1908), whose power far outstripped that of her younger male relation who held the formal title of Emperor. Due to her fateful decision to back the anti-Christian Boxers, treating them as a loyalist militia to be supported rather than as troublemakers to be suppressed, she was driven into exile in Xi’an in mid-1900.

Those two moments of the Qing dynasty are important for several reasons. Note that the Qing were an ethnically Manchu ruling family that would end up being the last dynasty to rule since the revolutions of 1911 and 1949 created, respectively, the Republic of China, which now exists only on Taiwan, and the People’s Republic of China. Additionally, the lives of Qianlong and Cixi have been compared to two unusually powerful post-Mao leaders. During the 1989 Tiananmen protest, Deng Xiaoping (1904–1997), then an elderly figure who wielded enormous power without formally being in charge, was sometimes mocked as a latter-day Cixi. Turning to Qianlong, in May 2013, The Economist published an issue whose cover carried the headline “Let’s Party Like It’s 1793,” and showed Xi Jinping decked out in Qing regalia. This image is open to multiple interpretations, but was designed partly to flag that, thanks to China’s return to global economic importance, Xi is more able to set the terms by which his government engages with those of other countries than did most of Qianlong’s Qing successors and the men who led China from 1911 until the early 21st century (with the possible exception of Mao).

Read the full article on The Washington Quarterly website.

Since 1989, the Chinese Communist Party (C.C.P.) has surprised foreign commentators by floating over crises of credit, bubbles, fraud, currency, corruption, or popular opposition. Is it optimistic or pessimistic to predict that it might continue to do so?

The Xi government gives evidence of identifying two major challenges to the continued domination of the economy and the society by the families of the C.C.P. One is the Party itself, which is brittle inside and losing credibility and prestige in the greater society. Xi’s anti-corruption campaigns destroy his rivals while raising Party credibility and cleaning up some corroded lines of decision-making. Combined with nostalgia-draped revivals of Mao-style campaigns to rectify education, the professions, government administration, social expectations, and cultural attitudes, and well-publicized repression of writers, lawyers, and academics who oppose government policies, it could afford Xi himself an extended period of dominance and the Party an extra decade of playing the role it has played since the early 1980s.

The second great challenge confronting the C.C.P. class is harder to manage. Globalization, which has provided China with unprecedented opportunities for development, is reaching a plateau, and China’s rates of economic increase are leveling along with it. Resistance to globalization is coming from many quarters of the world, and is often accompanied by specific complaints against China’s impact on the natural environment, credit stability, employment rates, and political independence of nations throughout the world, as well as proliferation of space junk. Part of Xi’s reaction to China’s rise from the developing to the developed tier has been to push aggressively into global financial governance and to military domination of the South China Sea. But some strategies are too brusque or too simplistic to succeed. The renminbi has not become accepted in practice as a reserve currency, China will not make the 2017 prediction of becoming the world’s largest economy, and the People’s Liberation Army Navy can not make a serious challenge to the U.S. Navy anywhere in the world. If Xi underplays the international hand, he will suffer the bite of the chauvinism he has incited; if he overplays it, he will discredit his regime.

This is playing for time while China’s environmental problems persist, public health declines, censorship of the Internet is hit or miss, and unemployment becomes troubling. I would be optimistic if Xi were buying time for the China that innovates, makes wealth circulate, saves endangered species, contributes to the stability and security of Asia, and leads exploration of the solar system. But he is buying time for the socio-political class of the C.C.P. families, who are transferring their wealth abroad as an expression of their own pessimism. He may find that the floating Party has floated away.

What will the U.S. do as the C.C.P. class is displaced peacefully or violently (surely nobody thinks it will survive a hundred years in power)? Optimism: Respect the boundaries of China’s interests and allow a new system to mature. Pessimism: Exploit the situation and incite the rise of a hardline regime.

Certainly, the future for China is uncertain; now more so than at any time since the end of Cultural Revolution in 1976. In the past 40 years, I always have been optimistic about China’s prospects, while many in and out of the country were not, and yet presently I am not too sure about how things will go. Many problems are clouding the air, internally and externally, of which our colleagues have spoken eloquently above. For other countries, in normal circumstances, it would be reasonable to be totally pessimistic and skeptical.

For China, it might be different. Since the end of the last empire in 1911, modern Chinese have survived decades of civil war; a massive foreign invasion, by the Japanese in 1937; the worst man-made famine in human history, during the Great Leap Forward in the early 1960s; and one of the worst persecution of intellectuals in modern history, during the cultural revolution. The past 40 years have been one of the best periods, with the greatest and best distribution of wealth in Chinese history. Trained survivors, the Chinese have bounced back from the brink of several political disasters that would have sunk many other countries. I witnessed firsthand China’s fall then rise again after the student protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989, the Falun Gong movement in 1999, the SARS epidemic in 2003, and the Bo Xilai affair in 2012. Each of these events would have killed any other country, especially in such quick succession. Yet none of them, singularly or together, managed significantly to wound the huge white whale that is China.

The present difficulties with President Xi Jinping are qualitatively different and thus more risky, but China is also a whale like no other.

This, I realize, is not a fully rational explanation. But China’s development in the past 40 years has defied logic and it can be explained, I believe, only by thinking that Deng Xiaoping managed to unleash some enormous animal spirit and that the Chinese people are great survivors. These animal and survivor spirits could help China to find a way to overcome the present problems and open up to the great reforms necessary.

It is not mere hope. In the past months, we have seen something unprecedented. China and the Holy See are registering important progress in their bilateral dialogue. For decades, Beijing refused to engage the Vatican because it considered Rome an ideological archenemy and because it didn’t understand the importance of the Catholic Church in the world. Now, Xi is radically changing the approach. If Xi is doing it with the Vatican, after almost 70 years of freeze, maybe he also can take other less radical steps, such as preparing for drastic political and economic reforms. It is a “maybe,” but it seems not impossible and there could be reasons to be cautiously optimistic.

Rising as the most powerful leader after Mao Zedong, President Xi Jinping has launched the largest campaign in post-Mao China to champion an official ideology with the mixture of communism, nationalism, and Leninism to strengthen his China dream of great national rejuvenation.

Communism has always been the official ideology of the Chinese Communist Party (C.C.P.). But post-Mao economic reform resulted in the widespread demise of communist ideology. The near-total collapse of public faith in communism not only weakened mass support for the Party and threatened to erode its basis for legitimacy but also gave rise to the advancement of alternative visions when some intellectuals turned to Western liberal ideas and called for Western-style democracy. In response, the ideological campaign is determined to restore communism as an official ideology and reestablish the faith of the Chinese people in the Party’s leadership.

Nationalism is included in the ideological campaign not only because Xi is a strong nationalist but also because nationalism has been a most reliable claim to the Chinese people’s loyalty and the value shared both by the regime and its critics. Coming to the renewed realization of the power of nationalism after communist ideology crumbled, the communist regime has tried to focus the nation-state-centered loyalty of the Chinese people on the drive to modernize. By identifying the communist party-state with the Chinese nation, the regime would make criticism of the Party an unpatriotic act. Young people, usually cynical about creeds pushed by the regime, are particularly vulnerable to the renaissance of nationalism. They have always rallied behind the communist state that positioned itself as the defender of China’s national interests, pride, and territorial integrity. The campaign, therefore, redefined the legitimacy of the communist regime on the basis of providing political stability and economic prosperity.

But nationalism is a double-edged sword: both a means to mobilize Chinese people behind the state and a means for the Chinese people to judge the performance of the state. If Chinese leaders cannot deliver on their nationalist promise, they become vulnerable to nationalistic criticism. This criticism is particularly difficult to control in the cyber age, with the result that the regime has to play catch-up with the outpouring of nationalist emotions. The function of Leninism, therefore, comes in as a normative code of conduct, guiding the behavior of the Party members and Chinese people and making them comply with Party policy and discipline. The Leninist Party discipline therefore has become the coalescing force keeping the Party and country together and inspiring people to bear hardship for the sake of a better future after decades of phenomenal, double-digit growth comes to an end and the Chinese economy slows significantly and persistently to challenge the Party’s leadership.

The ideological campaign has drawn criticisms from liberal intellectuals as the contours of the resurrection of a Mao-style leader are seen in Xi as the new emperor, wielding the knife to stifle Western ideas and to impose orthodoxy. Indeed, the campaign represents a disheartening turn backward for those who had hoped a period of greater relaxation was on the horizon. But President Xi is not in the position to make a full return to the Mao era, when political legitimacy rested in the hands of a charismatic leader. China’s rulers moves backward toward Mao and his ideologically-driven repression offer no long-term solution. Drawing on elements of Mao’s legacy, including the centralization of political power and ideological control, Xi is trying to rebuild the regime’s legitimacy at a time when it is increasingly vulnerable to economic slowdown, to public anger about corruption, income disparity, and pollution, and to challenges from liberals impatient for political change, all embarrassing signs of the fragility of the regime.

I think there is a difference between pessimism and uncertainty. I am not sure that China’s path is that uncertain in the next few years, and we can make some fairly clear informed extrapolations (ok, kind of guesses) about what may happen. I also think that those (like me) who are liberal-minded have no great cause for optimism about China becoming any more liberal about issues such as independent rule of law or freer media. We can be pretty certain that China won’t be much more open in the next decade or so.

What are the fundamental threads that hold China together, or conversely, might cause it to fragment? First, economic strength or slowdown, combined with issues such as debt. China’s official growth rates are almost certainly exaggerated, but growth still seems likely to continue for some time to come. It will be hobbled by lack of state-owned enterprise reform—which likely won’t happen for reasons of internal “silo” defense by various senior leaders—but not fundamentally altered. Long-term goals such as currency convertibility and an open capital account have been put on long-term hold, by the look of it; increasing control at home is not compatible with allowing free capital flows. But in a global climate that is turning protectionist—I write from a country that has just decided to leave one of the world’s biggest single markets—having a very large, semi-closed economy may not be optimal, but I doubt that it’s crippling. Political change? Certainly not in the direction of more contested representation. But in terms of capture of the professions—media, academia, law—for those who want to play ball with the regime, I would say the Chinese Communist Party (C.C.P.) has been rather successful in securing a deal for the medium term from the middle class. We all know Chinese professional friends who are very unhappy—in private—with the lack of freedom to maneuver. But will they revolt over it? That seems less likely. Overall, it seems to me that there are plenty of factors that might lead to a crisis in China. But I’m not sure that any of them seem likely to make a major change to the development of “comprehensive national power.” There will be more political consolidation from the top, and more nationalism.

The situation bears some similarities to the previous regime, the Guomindang under Chiang Kai-shek, which also suffered from high levels of corruption (and endless anti-corruption campaigns) and ever-growing income inequality. However, Chiang’s regime also had to deal with endless wars, both civil and against Japan, and much lower national incomes (Chiang’s China never got close to being an export superpower or being the world’s second-biggest economy). The People’s Republic of China has the benefits of integration into a global economy which has allowed it to create a powerful system of social control at home combined with levels of prosperity that still provide sufficient, if often grudging, legitimacy from the wider population.

There are areas that could trigger a crisis more quickly; for instance, a confrontation in the South China Seas. But judging by China’s success at turning ASEAN in its direction (I count Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Burma, and the Philippines—that last one is a real game-changer—that now at least are willing to talk in friendly terms to Beijing), there is no immediate need to use military force to achieve its goals in the region. Economics and diplomatic pressure (Singapore) or suasion (Philippines) seem to be doing a pretty good job right now.

I’d be surprised to see any great changes in the direction of travel anytime soon.

When asked to write about the “growing international pessimism” about China’s internal and external behavior, I have to ask, why was everyone so optimistic in the first place?

The West’s engagement in China has been premised on a bet that as China rose it would become “modern,” meaning more like us. For decades, Westerners of most political stripes have approached China with what the late U.S. diplomat U. Alexis Johnson called “rapturous enchantment” and generally ignored statements by the Chinese Communist Party that it did not plan to lead its people into a Westernized future.

Chinese leaders, of course, were complicit in fostering this myopia. When Zhou Enlai met with then-National Security advisor Henry Kissinger in 1971 as the U.S. eased China’s entry into the United Nations, Kissinger politely raised the issue of anti-American propaganda in the Chinese press. Zhou said the state-run media was just “firing empty cannons” and assured Kissinger that it did not matter. Several years later, when George H.W. Bush was posted in Beijing as the Chief of the U.S. Liaison Office in Beijing, he, too, worried about the unrelentingly anti-American bent in China’s press. When Bush contacted Washington with his concerns, he was told that the State Department was confident that China’s screeds would fade away. In fact, except for a few brief interludes, they never have.

Part of the bet made by Westerners was that China’s economy was going to evolve in a far more liberal direction than it has. And like the propaganda issue, much of this wager was predicated on an inability to listen to the Chinese. When Henry Paulson, as a Goldman Sachs executive, led an army of Western investment bankers to list Chinese phone and oil companies, banks, and insurance firms on Western stock exchanges, Paulson framed the role that he and other Westerners played in mythological terms. “Western bankers,” he wrote, “were Promethean figures in this process: we jetted in and competed to show the Chinese how to kindle the fire of capital markets.” Paulson and others interpreted China’s moves as a way to privatize China’s economy. But actually, the goal was to save the state-owned sector so that it could remain the economic pillar of one-party rule, something that the Party has repeated time and again.

When it comes to China’s policies in the South China Sea and North Korea, two areas that have prompted growing neuralgia in the West, we seem to have forgotten much of what we told the Chinese as well. Both the Nixon and Carter administrations effectively promised China that it would be able to recover Taiwan soon after it normalized relations with the U.S. It’s been almost half a century now, and it hasn’t happened. For a nation hemmed in on its maritime borders by islands that belong to others, China is clearly pushing out to its south in part because it does not control Taiwan. As for North Korea, it’s easy for Americans to forget that Carter vowed that the U.S. would withdraw its forces from the Korean peninsula—ceding the Western Pacific to China. Decades later, the Chinese are still waiting for us to go.

This is not to say that I believe that the U.S. should hand Taiwan to China or pull its forces from South Korea or that China shouldn’t reform its political system or privatize its economy. Quite the opposite. My point is that our rapturous enchantment about China has prompted us to nurture expectations that China could never meet and make promises that we could never keep.

Ideology is fundamental to the entire history of Communism. Totalitarianism, i.e. Leninism/Stalinism/Maoism, was an idea before it was a fact, except in the original Soviet case. There, it emerged piecemeal as a codification of what the Bolsheviks did 1917-1928. Soviet ideology was then slavishly copied by the Comintern parties.

In 1985, the year Gorbachev arrived in power, I published a slim book on Communist ideology: Ordinary Stalinism: Democratic Centralism and the Question of Communist Political Development. It analyzed the “holy trinity” of orthodox ideology: dictatorship of the proletariat (society), proletarian internationalism (international Communism), and democratic centralism (internal structure of the Party). The first two concepts are now defunct. Democratic centralism—an obsession with Party unity and top-down control—still pervades Chinese Communist Party (C.C.P.) ideology. “Document 9” (the 2013 document Orville Shell referred to earlier) is a statement of this.

In this sense, China’s future remains part of the history of international Communism. The story is not yet entirely finished and China is the last big chapter.

Two possible exits from Communist totalitarianism were possible: collapse or evolution. The Soviet Union collapsed, whereas Deng Xiaoping set C.C.P. ideology and policy on a road of development, a hybrid combination of the old ideology with market economics and commercial society. Whether this melding of political control and market economics can stabilize is the issue in China’s future.

Let me emphasize that I’m not a China specialist. As far as I can tell, Xi Jinping’s outlook mixes the old ideology and pragmatism, resembling the later Deng Xiaoping. Realism in economics but unexpectedly reactionary ideological politics to carry through the anti-corruption campaign.

Rehabilitating the old rules (written and unwritten) of democratic centralism is the key, in particular the meaning of “Party discipline.” For example, using the concept of “violations of Party discipline” for criminal indictments; demanding show-trial confessions; reinstituting “self-criticism.”

Nevertheless, a train can go forward as well as backward. Party ideology could be reformed in a positive direction again if the leadership decides. A successful exit from Communism is still possible.

How to do it? Reverse-engineer totalitarian thinking. Change the words or at least the meanings of words to transform the vocabulary and concepts of the ideology. Use democratic centralism’s top-down control to effectively abolish the old version of democratic centralism.

Already there are significant examples. “The Chinese dream,” if the slogan takes hold, is a substitute for Socialism. “Building a moderately prosperous society by 2049” is political genius in that it not only lowers expectations, it works against utopian thinking as such.

Political pluralism is a key issue because it challenges the very idea of a ruling “vanguard” Party. A pluralist Party membership already exists (business people for example). How then to foster political competition? Creating a multi-party system, even were it possible, would be a great risk to take. Instead, pluralism could be legitimized inside the Party by lifting democratic centralism’s prohibition of factions. Devise some kind of public inner-Party competition of ideas and perhaps leaders (“socialist competition” it might be termed).

Xi and the next generation of leaders could, if they wanted, turn the C.C.P. into a pragmatic semi-authoritarian ruling party (the Singapore model) that lifts the lid on the current political pressure cooker. China would have exited successfully from the old Communist model even if the name is the same.