Roger Garside twice served in the British embassy in Beijing. He is the author of Coming Alive: China After Mao and a new book China Coup: The Great Leap to Freedom.
As a young British diplomat in Beijing, I witnessed the death of Mao and the birth of the Reform Era. Over the next 30 years, as China’s Communist Party pursued a strategy of transition to a market economy, with spectacular results, I thought it reasonable to suppose that in China, as in many countries, economic liberalization and the growth of property ownership would bring political change.
When I noticed that the regime had stopped the transition, I concluded that it had done so precisely because it feared that further economic liberalization would bring political change, by undermining its political monopoly.
Recently, I watched with mounting alarm as the United States and its allies clung to the illusion that the regime led by Xi Jinping was simply an authoritarian competitor, as if we were engaged in a well-mannered game being played under rules accepted by both sides. Efforts to rouse democratic countries from their complacency went unheeded. I determined that my best contribution would be to write a book that would expose the true nature of the regime, and what is at stake in our contest with it.
As I did so, I saw increasing evidence that the Communist regime is not authoritarian, but totalitarian. Historian Robert Conquest defined a totalitarian state as one that recognizes no limits to its authority in any sphere of public or private life, and extends that authority to whatever length feasible.
China’s constitution puts the Communist Party above the law, and recognizes no limits to its authority. And, by disregarding international law in the South China Sea, tearing up an international treaty in order to extinguish political freedom in Hong Kong and committing genocide in Xinjiang, the regime has demonstrated beyond a shred of doubt that it extends its authority to whatever length feasible. In January, 2013, Mr. Xi defined his party’s goal as “a future where we will win the initiative and have the dominant position.”
Mr. Xi has also set China the aim of world leadership in artificial intelligence. We cannot risk allowing technologies of such power to be wielded by a totalitarian regime driving for global dominance. Therefore, the U.S. and its allies must make regime change in China the highest goal of their strategy toward that country. This is not a goal that governments can openly declare, but it is one they must actively pursue.
Many readers will recoil at this in disbelief. How can we suppose that the Communist Party that has transformed China from Maoist poverty to the world’s second-largest economy could be susceptible to a change of regime?
Such incredulity is testimony to the narrative of Chinese success we have been fed for decades, by the regime itself and by all those, in business or other fields, who have a stake in that story. It is only part of the true picture. Besides, our view of the future is often shaped by inertia: We are naturally inclined to think that the world will continue very much as it is. Who in January, 1991, was predicting that before the year was out the Soviet Union and its Communist Party would dissolve themselves?
But even if regime change is possible, what right have we to dictate to China how it should be governed? Such a reaction is based on a misunderstanding. Our goal should not be to dictate to China how it is governed, but to embolden and enable those Chinese who want change to achieve it.
I have been following developments in China since 1958. I had two diplomatic postings in Beijing, and spent a decade working on the frontiers on politico-economic change in Russia, Hungary, Vietnam and Tanzania. I study China for hours each day. Everything I have learned convinces me that regime change in China is not only possible, it is imperative.
I see evidence that this totalitarian regime is outwardly strong but inwardly weak, and that much of the Chinese elite is deeply opposed to the course to which Mr. Xi is committed. They recognize that economic reform without political change has created problems that damage China as a nation and pose a risk to their own interests. Paradoxically, their best hope of preserving their own wealth and power lies precisely in radical political change.
The outward strength of the party – its control over an economy that has been prodigiously successful – is obvious. Its most fundamental weakness is that it depends on control, not trust.
Events in 2020 showed that even the most successful Chinese entrepreneurs, those who have amassed vast fortunes and have built business empires in fintech or e-commerce, can have their plans for a record-breaking IPO cancelled at the last minute, or their fortunes confiscated by political diktat.
China’s dynamic private sector and big middle class, which is property-owning, educated, networked and enterprising, are denied all political rights. A Chinese entrepreneur may drive a Maserati and send his son to Harvard, but he is a political slave. The country’s economic success is due not to socialism but to the energy and enterprise of the Chinese people – and the people have no right to elect or dismiss their rulers. Such a polity breeds distrust and resentment, and is a source of weakness.
Little wonder that for the past 10 years, according to the published figures, the regime’s budget for internal security has been greater than that for defence. It fears internal discontent more than its external enemies.
If we look beyond the regime’s own narrative of success and self-confidence, we find that the supposedly all-powerful party lacks the power to tackle a whole array of deep-seated problems of long standing.
For the past decade, the impressively high rate of economic growth has depended on pumping in credit until corporate debt has reached a level that is dangerous to China and a risk to the world economy. The regime shrinks from reducing it for fear of causing widespread defaults and massive unemployment. Lacking the trust of the people and democratic legitimacy, it is afraid of the political consequences of the action it knows is essential to renew the health of the economy.
The public sector is sclerotic and loss-making, but the regime will not allow the dynamic and profitable private sector to expand, because it fears that would undermine its political monopoly. To protect unprofitable state-owned enterprises, the state retains ownership of the major banks so that it can force them to prop up those enterprises. Deprived of finance from state-owned banks, private companies have recourse to shadow banking, where practices lack transparency and risks defy calculation by the regulators.
These are just a few examples of the consequences of stopping the transition to the free market half-way for political reasons, of partial economic liberalization without any political reform. But the consequences of this inherently faulty strategy go far beyond the economy. For instance, there is an officially recognized moral crisis, largely caused by deliberately allowing party officials and their friends in business to grow rich through corruption.
Mr. Xi’s anti-corruption drive has tackled the symptoms, not the causes, because the causes are systemic, such as the reliance upon corruption to retain the loyalty of officials to an unelected regime, and they could only be rooted out by systemic reform, such as establishing an independent judiciary and a free press, which are anathema to Mr. Xi. In the absence of systemic reform, the regime can only tinker with problems, not tackle them effectively.
There is strong evidence that many members of the educated and powerful elite understand these problems, and recognize that they cannot be resolved without a change of political system.