Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

China’s Future

China’s Future by David ShambaughShambaugh - China

Why does the public taxpayer fund academics? The answer is so that scholars can write books like this.

While increasing numbers of social scientists believe that we need to study the human world as we do the physical – dispassionately, microscopically, and numerically -Shambaugh’s book is an important demonstration of the public value of scholars.

In this short and easily readable book, Shambaugh argues that unless the political system of China is reformed, the economic and social systems will stagnate and ultimately collapse. He is forthright in his view that only by moving to a more open political system, will China be able to achieve the economic reform it needs, and in turn avert the social and regional crises that seem to loom.

Shambaugh identifies four possible pathways for China. These are Hard Authoritarianism (the current path since 2009), Neo-Totalitarianism (the direction many fear Xi is taking the country), Soft-Authoritarianism (the 1998-2008 path) and Semi-Democracy (think Singapore but with Chinese characteristics).

Across four major chapters, the author reviews the economic, social, political and regional position of China. As one of the Wests’ leading experts on China with dozens of books under his belt, each chapter is a strong summary of the key issues, core trends, and major debates and issues at the heart of the policy and scholarly debates.

In each chapter, Shambaugh returns to his four models and assesses how they would help or hinder China in addressing the almost overwhelming problems it faces to move from the middle income trap to a truely 21st century economy, to manage its internal harmony, declining demographics, struggle to create public institutions like the rule of law and geopolitical challenges.

While keeping the book short was a necessity, I would have liked to see more by Shambaugh on the problems a more democratic (and thus populist) China could pose. Particularly in the international sphere. No doubt the author could reply he didn’t do so because the semi-democracy path seems the most unlikely of the four today, but given it is where his sympathies most clearly lie, a reckoning with its own problems would have been welcome.

This book doesn’t separate the dependent, independent and intervening variables so as to make a specific scientific claim about China’s future. That outcome is of course unknown and unknowable. Yet so much of our public debate, policy choices, spending and prognosis for the world is based on having a sense about what the answer is. Getting the answer wrong would cost more than the total education budget for the United States this century. In providing four decades worth of experience to help inform readers, Shambaugh is proving the public have gotten value for money from their investment in scholarship.

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