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China: Fragile Superpower
New Book by UCSD Political Scientist Takes a Look at the New China

Susan Shirk
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.”
Shirk:  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 billion people.

China: Fragile Superpower

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?

Shirk:  It’s 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?

Shirk:  Regardless 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 for them.

Communist Political Leaders of China
Left to right: Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao

TW:  Are there term limits now?

Shirk:  There 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 its leadership?

Shirk:  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?

Shirk:  This 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?

Shirk:  There 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 Zhou Enlai
Susan Shirk and Prime Minister Zhou Enlai, July, 1971

Shirk:  I 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?

Shirk:  My 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 at Duke.

TW:  Congratulations on publication and thank you for this introduction. 

Shirk:  My pleasure.

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