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What do China’s elites think about the country’s direction?

A new book by a USC international relations specialist looks at what China's influential voices are saying about the country's 21st-century challenges

Shanghai becomes a symbol of the recent economic boom of China. (Photo/Zhang Zhang)

The media drumbeat in the last 15 years has been that the future belongs to China. China’s economy is endlessly booming; its industries and culture are undergoing radical changes. But within the country itself, a fierce debate has been underway among the nation’s influential voices about everything from economics to freedom of speech to military expansion.

A new book, China’s Futures: PRC Elites Debates Economics, Politics and Foreign Policy, sheds light on divisions over the nation’s future that have gone largely unreported. Author Daniel Lynch, an expert on Chinese politics at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, relied on interviews and internal circulation only (neibu) policy assessments to unearth the perspectives and disagreements currently shaping China’s trajectory. Those debates include academics, think tank researchers, business leaders and others.

Lynch explains his motivations for writing the book and touches on some of the revelations that he unearthed.

It’s easy to think that the last decade belonged to a rising China. Now that you’ve completed your book, what would you say is the truth about where China is headed?

It is easy to think the last decade belonged to a rising China, but I’m convinced that was, and is, an illusion. Many influential people were insisting in the 1990s and 2000s that China’s rise was unstoppable, and that moreover, the China that would emerge from the rise would be precisely the kind of China most Americans would want to see: democratic, increasingly cooperative on issues of importance to U.S. foreign policy and even pioneering a new road to development emphasizing low pollution and social justice. Even those who worried that China might strengthen its authoritarian political system or start behaving aggressively toward other Asian countries rarely questioned whether the rise itself would succeed. It only started becoming gradually apparent to the outside world that there were serious problems with China’s economic development model after the global financial crisis.

What motivated you to write this book?

There were two main factors. First, the imagery of inevitable Chinese success as defined by popular American standards reached its zenith in about 2008-09. I had the impression that such imagery was distorting policy- and decision making, whether by governments, businesses or other organizations. For example, it was diverting the attention of businesses and investors away from the fundamental contradictions in China’s development model: This did not encourage wise decision making. Second, the imagery failed to reflect the vigorous debates inside China itself on what the country’s future should or would become. The imagery did justice to Chinese Communist Party slogans such as “peaceful rise,” but not the range of views on such concepts within the Chinese policymaking community itself.

What has Western media gotten wrong about China?

In truth, the Western media have not, in my view, gotten anything consistently wrong about China, except for briefly in the 2008-12 period when most Western journalists became super-optimistic about China’s economy. On the other hand, sometimes journalists have fueled or followed fads. For example, it became fashionable among journalists and academics alike to talk about China’s soaring soft power in Southeast Asia in the mid-2000s, even in the absence of any convincing evidence that China’s soft power was, in fact, soaring. But journalists may be less likely than academics to stick with a faddish preconception or an ideological view once the evidence starts to mount that the preconception is wrong. The restlessness of journalists and their constant tendency to question, challenge and criticize are exceptionally healthy, in my view. Western journalists in China have kept issues such as human rights alive as topics of discussion when some academics, government officials and business people have tried to make them go away.

What are the challenges in understanding a country like China? How did you confront those challenges while writing this book?

What I wanted to do in this research is outline the major points of the debates among influential Chinese people concerning the likely or desired future(s) of China’s economy, political system, public culture and foreign policy. This would be difficult enough to do for any country, but the special challenge presented by China is that the political system is still authoritarian. So how can I know whether the books and articles I’m reading reflect what influential people are really thinking?

Fortunately, there is a unique category of policy-focused journals in China (neibu) in which contributors are encouraged to present their views and recommendations candidly and forthrightly — because circulation of the journals will, in principle, be restricted to policymakers and only those Chinese specialists invited to contribute to the policy debates. These journals are labeled “for internal circulation only,” but outside analysts can, under certain circumstances, access some of the journals —they’re not “top secret” or anything like that. The debates in these journals are of exceptionally high quality. What’s more, though, even the open policy and academic journals and books have become much livelier and less predictable than 10-15 years ago — although they do still contain far too much frank propaganda for most people’s tastes.

The key is to read articles in the internal circulation only journals first and use them as a guide to what open books and journals are likely to be the most important. I did that and then confirmed that I had the debates basically right by simply asking Chinese specialists who were willing to talk with me as long as I didn’t cite them by name.

What are the biggest changes China experts should be watching for in the near future?

The biggest change China experts — or non-experts, for that matter — should be watching for in the near future is the end of China’s rise and then how Chinese society adjusts to that end. Assuming that Chinese economists and demographers are right, the PRC’s rise to superpower status cannot continue. This doesn’t mean the country will “collapse.” I’m not even sure what people mean when they say that China will collapse. PRC economists talk instead of China entering a middle-income trap in which growth stalls indefinitely — hindered further by the dire demographic situation. This would mean the end of China’s rise in comprehensive national power terms relative to the United States.

It would come as an enormous shock to China’s international relations community, many of whose members seem to believe quasi-religiously in the inevitable success of China’s rise. Indeed, this may be why Chinese foreign policy has become more assertive or aggressive in the East and South China Seas. But the arguments and evidence presented by the Chinese economists and demographers are exceedingly difficult to refute.

I expect China’s foreign policy strategists will have to scale back their ambitions between now and 2020. I additionally expect them to be displeased at this prospect, and for that and other reasons the domestic political situation to become less stable.

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