China: Fragile Superpower
New Book by UCSD Political Scientist Takes a Look
at the New China
|Professor Susan Shirk, UCSD China scholar
Susan Shirk, director of the University of California
system-wide Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation,
first traveled to China in 1971 and has been doing
research there ever since. She served as Deputy Assistant
Secretary of State for relations with China during
1997-2000. Now, Shirk has published a new book entitled
"China: Fragile Superpower" that looks at
how the country's internal politics could derail its
peaceful rise. The book is published by Oxford University
Press. Shirk is a a professor in the Graduate School
of International Relations and Pacific Studies. Here,
Barry Jagoda sits down to talk with Shirk about her
views on the political challenges China faces.
This Week (TW): You write of a paradoxical China, one that is “strong abroad but fragile at home.”
China has a very large economy and it will be the
largest economy of the world by the middle of this
century, but in per capita income terms it is still
a very poor country. It is near the bottom of the
rankings in terms of the living standards of its 1.3
The domestic political challenge is really what my
book is about. In 1989, when pro-democracy demonstrations
occurred in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and 132
other cities, the Communist Party almost fell but
remained standing only because the military stayed
with the Party. At almost the same time,
the communist parties in the Soviet Union and Eastern
Europe fell. So, ever since then, the leaders have
felt that their days were numbered. They
have felt a tremendous sense of insecurity. They
could see that economic reform had turned society
upside down. The Communist Party does not control
what people see and do very much anymore. You
have the same authoritarian rule but now people are
living in a society which is open to the world and
very much changed. The fragility is the political
fragility of the government and of the Communist Party.
TW: You describe China’s governing process as less than a dictatorship but what is meant by this term of yours, “reciprocal accountability” referring to the Communist Party process?
kind of like the Catholic Church in the Vatican. The
Pope appoints the cardinals but when its time for
a new Pope, the College of Cardinals choose the Pope.
The relationship between China’s leaders and
the Communist Party Central Committee is like that. The
300 officials in the Central Committee are appointed
by and accountable to the top leaders, but the Central
Committee also has the power to choose the top leaders.
TW: How would you compare the current leaders with Mao, Zhou Enlai and the revolutionary founders?
of what you think of what a tyrant Mao was, or what
you think of Deng Xiaoping, who succeeded him and
was the architect of China’s economic reform
but still focused on keeping the Communist Party in
power, they were the founding fathers, members of
what is called “the Long March generation. They
were like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James
Madison. They had tremendous personal authority as
a result of that history. But today’s
leaders did not go on the Long March, did not fight
in the revolution. These are people who joined the
Party when it was already in power. They are technocrats,
organization men. They don’t have a personal
following throughout the country. They rule by virtue
of the posts they hold and people don’t have
the same personal feeling for them or the same respect
|Left to right: Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao
TW: Are there term limits now?
are. It’s a non-democracy, an authoritarian
regime, but it has more rules and regulations than
before and one of those rules is that you can only
serve in a senior government position for two five
year terms. Also, there are retirement ages in order
to move the next generation up. The previous president,
Jiang Zemin, actually stepped down in 2002 and that
was the first time a leader of a large Communist Party
had actually walked away from his office and retired,
bringing in the country’s current party leader
and president, Hu Jintao.
TW: You have suggested some
main considerations for survival of the Party and
There are some precepts they follow to stay in power.
Much of this comes from the close call of the Tiananmen
demonstrations of 1989. First, they have to forestall
large scale popular protests. The second rule is to
keep the leadership publicly united so there is no
opening for people to mobilize popular opinion to
oppose the party. And the third thing is to keep the
army loyal so if push comes to shove there is no gun
to back up opposition.
TW: Why does nationalism play such a large role in today’s China?
occurs for two reasons. Chinese was an historically
important country for 2000 years, but from the mid-19th
century on until just recently, for about 150 years,
the country was weak, internally divided, and on the
sidelines internationally Now that the country’s
power is reviving, people naturally feel very proud
and also have a sense of resentment of the countries
that kicked them when they were down, particularly
of Japan. But nationalism is also being engineered
by the Communist Party because nobody believes in
Marx and Lenin and Mao Zedong ideology anymore. So,
the Party has had to find a substitute source of legitimacy
and they’ve turned to nationalism.
TW: What steps can American leaders take to make China a more stable society?
is not much we can do related to China’s domestic
politics, but what we can do is to be sure that the
fragility of China’s domestic situation does
not lead to aggressive behavior internationally. We
have to worry that in distracting their people from
domestic problems, or in response to provocations
from Taiwan and Japan, China’s leaders might
make threats that their domestic situation makes them
feel that they are compelled to follow through on. I
have focused on what can be done to prevent a war
with China and these issues are discussed in the book
TW: Is it true that as a student you met Premier Zhou Enlai?
|Susan Shirk and Prime Minister Zhou Enlai, July, 1971
had the opportunity to visit China in 1971 as part
of a group of American PhD students. We were
doing research in Hong Kong because we couldn’t
get into China. At that point, ping-pong diplomacy
came along, with the planned visit of President Nixon,
and we were a handy group to also invite in. We
met with Zhou Enlai for four hours one evening.
TW: You dedicate this book to your husband and children. Where are the three of them now and why do you refer to your son as the newest China hand in the family?
husband, Sam Popkin, is a political science professor
at UCSD, he’s my colleague. My daughter
is a lawyer in New York. She went to kindergarten
in China during one of my research trips there.
My son, after years of my suggesting, decided to study
Chinese. He finally succumbed not because of
me but because his girlfriend decided to go to China
and he followed her and now, of course, he’s
hooked and he loves it and he’s studying Chinese
TW: Congratulations on publication and thank you for this introduction.
Shirk: My pleasure.