Today, China clearly poses the most serious, sizeable, and multidimensional long-term challenge to U.S. interests at home and around the world. The point is highlighted in recent key documents issued by the White House and the Pentagon and regularly emphasized by analysts and commentators.
But will the China threat persist in coming decades? Is Beijing built for long-term competition with the United States? Much of the analysis of China’s fate during the past four decades has fluctuated between two extremes. At one pole is a series of predictions of a China on the verge of collapse, a view expressed by some in the immediate aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre and periodically since. At the other pole is the more widely held presumption of China on an inexorable trajectory to become the world’s most powerful state. Yet, in a post-COVID-19 world, neither “basket case Beijing” nor “unstoppable juggernaut China” seems a particularly plausible future. The more likely trajectory lies somewhere in between.
The most conceivable future is a wobbly one: a China that outlasts crises but does not surmount them and skirts difficulties but rarely resolves them. Its response to the novel coronavirus is revealing. Amid a global pandemic, where many countries were slow to respond and some governments seemed to completely botch it, China’s response appears to be competent and effective, albeit draconian. Yet upon reexamination, Beijing’s COVID-19 response in early 2020 was in fact much bumpier and more bumbled than many now recollect. One should recall that Wuhan residents and many netizens expressed considerable anger at initial official incompetence and at efforts to silence whistleblowers and cover up missteps. It is also worth recalling that paramount leader Xi Jinping — “the chairman of everything” — distanced himself from the battle against COVID-19, selecting Premier Li Keqiang to chair the small group spearheading the regime’s response to the pandemic.
Correctly estimating China’s future trajectory matters. If the United States doesn’t have a good grasp of the range and likelihood of each of China’s possible trajectories, then Washington will be ill-equipped to deal with a future Beijing. Anticipating an extreme outcome can promote either a highly alarmist siege mentality or a sense of excessive overconfidence. As I have argued elsewhere in a RAND report, neither a completely triumphant China nor an imploding China is probable, and alternative futures are more likely. While a stagnant China in which the economy stalls, producing widespread social unrest, is quite possible, the odds are better that the future will witness an ascendant China that continues to grow stronger economically and militarily while Beijing grapples with a range of problems. The difference between a triumphant and an ascendant China has considerable policy relevance to the United States and other states. In a triumphant future, Beijing would become so dominant regionally and globally that most other countries would be cowed into bandwagoning with China or at least be too intimidated to counterbalance it. In such a situation, most if not all U.S. allies and partners would probably distance themselves from Washington rather than risk Beijing’s wrath. An ascendant China, while still intimidating, would be noticeably less dominant. Hence, other countries would be more willing to ally or cooperate with the United States.
Two assumptions are often made by those who predict a strong, powerful, triumphant rise: first, that China will remain politically stable for the extended future and second, that China’s armed forces will successfully implement organizational reforms. The assumed steady state and successful defense reform trajectory implicitly accepted by most policymakers and analysts in the United States each deserves scrutiny. Of course, without enduring political stability at home, China’s continued rise will be far more difficult. In forecasting, the tendency is to assume that current trends are likely to continue while discounting the potential for future shocks and disruptions. China’s prospects for domestic instability and botched defense transformation cannot be dismissed.
In 2021, China looks increasingly from without like a bulked-up garrison state and from within like a high-tech surveillance state on steroids. Xi projects the image of an omnipotent dictator in complete control of all levers of regime power. Demanding total loyalty and obedience from his subordinates, the Chinese leader has ruthlessly quashed any hints of dissent. whether it be in Beijing, Wuhan, Xinjiang, or Hong Kong. Yet, how resilient is strongman Xi and how cohesive is the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) elite? Has Xi’s tinkering with institutionalized political succession at the apex produced a more fragile domestic system and elevated the specter of future elite instability? What of the extremely ambitious organizational restructuring of the defense establishment that remains inconclusive and incomplete as of 2021? Might these reforms fall short?
How Stable Is China?
Because the CCP has maintained itself in political power for seven decades and weathered multiple internal upheavals and external challenges, many scholars and analysts assume this will continue. Certainly, that the party survived the worldwide crisis of communism in the late 1980s and early 1990s is remarkable. Communist parties fell from power across Eastern Europe in 1989 and the ruling Communist Party of the Soviet Union could not prevent its own demise two years later.
In the aftermath of the Tiananmen massacre of 1989, some predicted the beginning of the end. At the turn of the century, one analyst wrote of The Coming Collapse of China. But the CCP has demonstrated considerable resilience. More recently, a prominent U.S. scholar caused a sensation when he penned a provocatively titled essay, “The Coming Chinese Crackup.” A year later, the same scholar clarified that what he forecast was the gradual decline of CCP rule rather than its imminent disintegration. Most recently, another respected scholar forecast “China’s coming upheaval.”
The resilience of the ruling CCP and its ability to maintain power are attributed to a combination of carrots and sticks. The foremost “carrot” is China’s booming economy, which has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty. The party also gets popular credit for maintaining law and order, which is partly driven by the public’s phobia of instability. Moreover, under CCP rule, China has grown in power and stature on the world stage. Chinese people take tremendous pride in the fact that their country is now considered a great power and respected by other countries. Credit for China’s rising hard and soft power goes to the CCP.
The CCP has assembled an impressive “stick”: a muscular, multilayered, and technologically sophisticated coercive apparatus or “digital authoritarianism.” Local public security bureaus and People’s Armed Police are reinforced by closed-circuit television, informants, and thugs for hire. All of this is backstopped by the regular military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Moreover, the People’s Militia has been revitalized in recent years and is mobilized to deal with emergencies, including social unrest and natural disasters. The CCP appears to be in a strong position, with an array of instruments for social control. Moreover, it has deftly handled most challenges and threats in the reform era.
The greatest irony of the People’s Republic — as I have written elsewhere — is that what the ruling CCP fears most are the people of China. The CCP is fearful that the people power opposition movements which shook countries and toppled regimes around the world will inspire Chinese crowds to take to the streets. The CCP is preoccupied with a plethora of different groups — disgruntled workers, irate farmers, unhappy veterans, disaffected religious groups, and restive ethnic minorities — each of which has registered dissatisfaction through physical demonstrations and online activism in recent years.
But the Chinese Communist Party’s greatest challenge may not come from the people. While Chinese have numerous complaints about corruption, pollution, income inequalities, and other issues, most remain supportive of the CCP.
The Enemy Within
The most insidious challenges to communist regimes have come from the political elites themselves. In 1989, Eastern European regimes collapsed in the face of popular protests without a whimper. Ruling communist parties fell almost bloodlessly without much resistance (Romania being the exception). In 1991, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union imploded. Why? Because the ruling parties and their coercive apparatuses had lost faith in its right to rule. Xi reportedly opined, “Why did the Soviet Union disintegrate? Why did the Soviet Communist Party collapse? [Because] … their ideals and convictions wavered. … In the end nobody was a real man, nobody came out to resist.”
In democracies, open and lively debate and dissent among politicians is routine. By contrast, in Leninist systems, unity and obedience are prized above all. Differences of opinion, while permissible, should take place only behind closed doors, preferably one on one or in small elite huddles. Publicly, senior leaders are expected to maintain a unified front.
The party persisted as a revolutionary armed group for almost three decades — between its founding in 1921 and its violent seizure of state power in 1949 — because of ruthlessness, secrecy, and discipline. A history full of intrigue and instances of betrayal fosters a mindset of deep-seated insecurity among CCP leaders.
The CCP has always been led by a leader ultrasensitive to dissent from or debate with other leaders. Mao Zedong, the People’s Republic of China’s founding father and dictator for almost three decades, did not take criticism well, however subtle or veiled. The supreme leader is prone to overreact. Mao lashed out with a purge in 1959 when some leaders, including one of China’s most revered heroes, Marshal Peng Dehuai, dared question the colossal disaster of the Great Leap Forward.
Nor was Deng Xiaoping immune to hypersensitivity over elite dissent. The 1989 crisis was not merely about deep-seated public discontent with the CCP. The party itself was divided and these divisions alarmed Deng. The most egregious act of elite dissent was committed by then-CCP General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, who visited students in Tiananmen Square unannounced in the early hours of May 19, one day before martial law was declared. Zhao tearfully registered his opposition to the CCP’s hardline policy, then disappeared to spend the rest of his life under house arrest.
China’s current ruler Xi, also is overly sensitive to elite dissent. He worked hard to stifle dissent from any quarter and assume the role of China’s all-powerful strongman. Like his two immediate predecessors, Xi holds a triumvirate of top posts: general secretary of the CCP, president of China, and chair of the Central Military Commission. But unlike Jiang Zemin (leadership tenure from 1989 to 2002) and Hu Jintao (tenure from 2002 to 2012), Xi has sought to concentrate all political power in his own hands. Whereas Jiang and Hu sought to govern by elite consensus with their CCP Politburo Standing Committee colleagues, Xi has deliberately set himself above other senior leaders in a manner reminiscent of Mao. His name, portrait, and words are almost ubiquitous in today’s China.
Under the auspices of Xi, the CCP has launched a much-hyped national rejuvenation project known as the “China Dream.” The vision articulated is to build a strong and powerful China under the capable direction of the communist party, guided by wise patriarch Xi. Under this overarching rubric are a range of flashy and grandiose megaprojects. By far the most ambitious and audacious of these are the Belt and Road Initiative, almost certainly the most ambitious scheme ever launched in China’s history, and the most sweeping defense reforms in 30 years.
It is conventional wisdom that the highest priority of CCP leaders is “regime survival.” However, this phrasing is very misleading, as I have written elsewhere. A more appropriate term is “regime perpetuation.” Although CCP elites are deeply insecure, they are not particularly worried about its imminent collapse or overthrow. Xi and colleagues are more concerned about the regime enduring in the medium to long term. While they do keep a watchful eye on the near term, their planning extends further into the future — in five, 10, 15, and 20-year increments. CCP leaders are ambitious alarmists: Their long-term schemes are big and bold. These publicized goals aim to inspire the Chinese people and sustain the commitment of party members. China’s rulers work to ensure the regime will be around to celebrate a set of momentous anniversaries beyond the centenary of the CCP in July 2021 and on to the centenary of the PLA in August 2027 and the 100th birthday of Communist China in October 2049.
Strongman Xi: The Weakest Link?
A major stumbling block for the longevity of many authoritarian regimes has been leadership succession. In 1985, two prominent scholars noted, “With a few rare exceptions, … authoritarian regimes do not have formal mechanisms for regular turnover of their top leadership.” If the death of a dictator does not trigger instability or chaos, then it often gives rise to considerable political uncertainty. Post-Mao China seemed to have solved this problem: One of the most underappreciated achievements of Deng’s political reforms was the establishment of retirement norms and term limits for elites. By fixing upper age limits and providing retirement benefits, the reforms allowed younger officials to gain regular promotions and made possible routine and orderly successions at the highest echelons. Impressively, smooth transitions occurred from Deng to Jiang, from Jiang to Hu, and from Hu to Xi. Moreover, each supreme leader since Jiang had a maximum tenure of 10 years (over two five-year terms) and then retirement. Until Xi.
In 2018, Xi engineered a sweeping change to the institution of regular leadership turnover at the apex of power. During the March session of the National People’s Congress, delegates voted to amend the Chinese constitution and abolish the two-term limit for China’s head of state. With the compliant legislature’s action, there is no longer any obstacle to Xi seeking one or more additional five-year terms beyond the conclusion of his second term as president in March 2023.
This does not necessarily mean that Xi will extend his tenure as China’s top leader after 2023, but there is every reason to expect this will happen. Xi is extremely ambitious, perceives that China is facing an array of daunting problems with no short-term solutions, and appears to believe that he is the only leader capable of addressing them. Furthermore, there is no indication of a successor emerging. The two prior heirs apparent were appointed civilian vice-chairs of the Central Military Commission to signal their selection, but eight years into Xi’s tenure, no civilian vice-chair to the Commission has been appointed.
China’s most serious political crises have arisen over the issue of leadership succession. This is not to dismiss the devastating famine produced in the late 1950s and early 1960s by the Great Leap or the upheaval in the late 1960s at the height of the Cultural Revolution. Tens of millions of people starved to death in the former and some half a million persons were persecuted to death in the latter. Despite the horrific human toll of each, neither cataclysm brought China to its knees. Nevertheless, both traumas produced significant intra-elite conflict that spilled over into leadership succession arrangements. The Cultural Revolution escalated into systemic crisis and in 1971, Mao accused his publicly designated heir of attempting to topple him in a failed coup d’état. Defense Minister Lin Biao reportedly died in an airplane crash while fleeing the country in its aftermath.
But the most acute moment of political uncertainty in Communist China’s existence, and the one with highest potential for instability, occurred in 1976 upon the death of the incumbent paramount leader. Mao’s passing produced a sense of unprecedented systemic crisis because he was the only top leader the party-state had ever known. Without a formal succession mechanism or elite consensus on the identity of Mao’s legitimate successor, multiple leadership factions possessed plausible claims to Mao’s mantle. The impasse was only resolved when elderly leaders from the coercive apparatus stepped in to arrest the radical so-called “Gang of Four” and throw their support behind a younger, lesser-known figure — Hua Guofeng — whom Mao had reportedly designated as his successor. This decisive action served to stabilize the situation and ultimately paved the way for the rise of Deng in 1978.
Another crisis, in 1989, was the Tiananmen Square massacre. As noted above, while the optics focused on brave young protestors confronting tanks in China’s capital, there was a less visible but significant intra-elite dimension to the crisis. The most senior CCP leader sympathetic to the protestors was party chief Zhao. Further complicating matters was that Deng had designated Zhao as his heir apparent. Hence, this crisis was exacerbated by the reality that it was also a pre-succession crisis since Deng was forced to designate and groom another successor in late 1989 — Jiang.
In sum, the simple act of removing constitutionally defined term limits for the Chinese head of state reopened a can of worms that threatens to upset the post-Mao rules of the political game. The new amendment turns the health and longevity of Xi into matters of paramount importance for regime stability. This “lack of clarity” over succession arrangements fueled concern in 2019 when Xi appeared to be walking unsteadily during a visit to Europe.
Defense Overhaul: Coming Together or Coming Undone?
Heightened alarm over stepped-up Chinese military activity around the country’s periphery and a flurry of militant provocations from the Himalayas to the South China Sea, East China Sea, and Taiwan Strait, should not be conflated with accelerated progress in the PLA’s much-hyped 21st-century warfighting capabilities. It is far too early for China’s armed forces to be reaping the fruits of Xi’s massive defense overhaul initiated in 2015. Commander-in-Chief Xi’s admonitions to the military to “fight and win informatized wars” remain aspirational. Indeed, the PLA candidly acknowledges that it is still in the process of mechanization, with informatization as the next challenge. According to China’s armed forces, informatized wars (xinxihua zhanzheng) are conflicts in which information plays the leading role in “all aspects of military operations” and not merely as a new domain in warfare. The ongoing organizational restructuring is necessary but insufficient to realize this goal: More inputs must be incorporated and more time needs to elapse.
China’s military has embraced a “systems of systems approach” as it plans for a future of conducting “integrated joint operations” whereby, as I have noted elsewhere, the PLA will master “very complex combinations of systems and subsystems to [be able to] kinetically or non-kinetically defeat or paralyze key point nodes in enemy operational systems all within the enemy’s decision cycle.”
If these changes succeed, then China will be better postured to defend itself as well as to project power beyond its land and sea borders. The organizational restructuring concentrates authority in the Central Military Commission and eliminates rival power centers. Replacing the four bloated general departments are 15 slimmed-down offices, departments, and commissions reporting directly to the Commission. Hence, the reorganization has shrunk or eliminated bureaucratic layers and headquarters staff: The seven military regions have been reduced to five theater commands. The changes are also supposed to strengthen jointness, meaning better coordination and cooperation between different services, to produce a PLA better postured to wage informatized war.
Yet the success of the reorganization is not guaranteed, and considerable obstacles remain. First, the PLA is severely stovepiped. Moreover, achieving jointness will be insufficient for operational success in the Chinese context. Attaining at least modest levels of interagency coordination will also be important, especially for operational success at or just beyond China’s borders. For example, in the South China Sea and the East China Sea, it is not just the PLA Navy but also the Coast Guard and Maritime Militia whose operations must be coordinated. Interagency coordination can work: The May 2014 placement of the Haiyang Shiyou 981 oil rig off the coast of Vietnam involved dozens of fishing boats and Coast Guard vessels working with seven PLA Navy warships.
But jointness and interagency coordination do not simply become institutionalized in a matter of months or even years. The reforms have been dubbed “China’s Goldwater-Nichols” and this is an apt analogy which holds relevant lessons for implementation in the Chinese context. This landmark U.S. act passed in 1986 but was not fully implemented for many years because of entrenched service cultures. PLA service cultures are likely to be even more stubborn. Chinese officers tend to serve their entire career in their home service as joint appointments remain almost unheard of in China. Bureaucracies tend to resist change and this is especially true of military bureaucracies, and today China has one of the world’s largest defense establishments.
Nonetheless, bureaucratic change is occurring. A prime example is the newly established Strategic Support Force, a grab bag of miscellaneous military components. The Strategic Support Force constitutes a “massive merger between elements of the former GAD [General Armaments Department] and elements of the GSD [General Staff Department],” including space, cyber, and electromagnetic warfare components as well as psychological and political warfare entities. Whether parking them within a single bureaucratic structure will enhance the effectiveness of each element remains unclear. Success for this force could prove elusive, and problems would have a devastating impact on the PLA’s ability to wage future war effectively: This new bureaucratic behemoth is supposed to play a critical role in a “unique and unproven model of strategic support” for warfighting.
In addition, as I have written elsewhere, China’s defense establishment tends to emphasize control over command. The organizational overhaul has also strengthened Xi’s power over the PLA. In what has become known as the “chairman responsibility system,” Xi, as Central Military Commission chair, has accumulated considerable power in his person. Other analysis emphasizes that the changes have strengthened party control over the military. But this has never been in doubt. The Commission’s lines of command and control have become clearer and more streamlined, yet the CCP Politburo does not directly control the Commission. As of 2021, the Commission is composed of seven members and six of these are uniformed personnel who are also party members. However, at the apex, CCP hands-on control over the PLA is exercised through the one civilian member — Commission chair Xi Jinping. The Commission also has assumed control of China’s Coast Guard since it has become a component of the People’s Armed Police, which has now been placed under the sole authority of the Commission. On the face of it, these changes have contributed toward a more streamlined and more centralized chain of command conducive to prompt decision-making and swift operational action. Yet these changes are also a recipe for greater top-down micromanagement and considerable command paralysis, without solving stovepiping at lower echelons.
Moreover, within the PLA a pervasive culture of tight control hobbles innovation. Superiors keep subordinates on a tight leash and individual initiative is not encouraged or rewarded. In part, this is due to a culture of risk aversion and low levels of trust. On one hand, advances in information technology and high-tech military weaponry provide the PLA with unprecedent potential in operational capabilities and evolving doctrine can enable military forces to execute more complex maneuvers. On the other, operational commanders are restrained by superiors who insist on making tactical-level decisions.
The PLA will continue to receive double-digit increases in annual defense spending for the foreseeable future and China’s armed forces will continue to modernize. But whether these funds will be well spent and whether modernization will translate into a significantly more capable military are open questions. Enhanced power projection and competent warfighting ability are outcomes that will not be fully evident until the PLA engages in combat.
Success in a future conflict will depend upon an array of different elements coming together, not just the integration of new weapon systems and institutionalization of restructured organs and chains of command. As recent cutting-edge research on China’s armed forces suggests, ultimate success depends on how well separate processes and components all come together. As one security expert notes, “military capability is a function of more than just weapons and numbers of soldiers.”
Yet even if Xi’s military reforms do turn out to produce colossal snafus, the PLA is likely to have multiple operational elements more capable of projecting power and equipped with more modern weaponry. This outcome will still enable China’s defense establishment to put U.S. and allied forces stationed and operating in the Indo-Pacific at considerable risk.
Can China Go the Distance?
China remains politically stable for the time being and China’s rise — military and economic — seems likely to continue at least in the near term. But this does not mean that assumptions about stability and growing Chinese hard power will hold in the medium or long term.
The CCP’s hold on power is steady but its leaders remain deeply insecure. While most Chinese citizens continue to be supportive of communist rule, this does not reassure CCP leaders who perceive multiple internal threats. A muscular coercive apparatus and firmly pro-regime popular sentiment provide little consolation to rulers who feel they must work extra hard to maintain social order, incessantly fighting to hold the hearts and minds of the Chinese masses. The most straightforward challenge to anticipate is political instability or at least significant uncertainty surrounding the succession to Xi, whether that comes in 2023 or later. Moreover, a crisis could easily entail Xi’s death or incapacitation, and the probability of significant instability increases the longer his tenure. Of course, Xi could put a succession plan in place, but this would not guarantee a smooth transition since an established norm of leadership succession has been undermined and its constitutional basis revoked.
The prospect of a wobbly China and disjointed military is not a recipe for reassurance in the United States. A weaker or more insecure Beijing will present different challenges to that of a stronger and overconfident Beijing. But these will not be any easier and they are likely to be far more complicated. A less potent China may be disposed to act more erratically, possess heightened sensitivity to perceived threats, and be more prone to overreact. While China may not turn out to be the unstoppable juggernaut it is often made out to be, a wobbly Beijing will present a different set of challenges.
The Joe Biden-Kamala Harris administration should look past China’s stable present and heighten vigilance to detect harbingers of future upheaval. Priorities ought to include continuous efforts to engage with a wide array of elites. This increases the chances that Washington is attuned to emerging trends, alert to future shocks, and acquainted with China’s post-COVID-19 leadership. Another priority should be crafting a purposeful military-to-military relationship to enhance U.S. ability to monitor the progress of China’s defense transformation and engage with rising PLA leaders. The likely persistence of bumpy bilateral ties underscores the importance of maintaining open channels of communication between the two defense establishments.