The Washington Post Sunday
Unrealistic expectations about change in China
Western fantasies about China are rich and varied and have deep historical roots. But a new book called “China Coup: The Great Leap to Freedom” stands out as a pipe dream of mindboggling implausibility.
In it, author Roger Garside lays out his belief that there will be a coup d’etat in Beijing in which rivals within the Chinese Communist Party will overthrow the current leader, Xi Jinping — and that this will happen within the next 18 months or so.
Unlikely as that sounds, this is merely the second-most far-fetched idea in “China Coup.” It is topped by what comes next: The book argues that the supposed new leaders, having overthrown Xi, will then promptly open the way for democracy, the rule of law and economic liberalization in China.
Such dubious predictions are all the more surprising if you know that the author previously wrote one of the most informative books about modern China. Garside was a British diplomat in Beijing in the 1970s, and his book “Coming Alive” (1981) is the best historical account of the events (the politics, the emerging dissent) in the years before and after the 1976 death of Mao Zedong, leading up to Deng Xiaoping’s rise to power.
In the four decades since then, Garside has worked for the World Bank and in the fields of banking, development and capital markets. This is significant, because his later experiences seem to have shaped how he came to the conclusions in “China Coup”: He has imbued the book with many of the international financial community’s dreams about China. Garfield believes that democratic change is coming to China in large part because economic necessities will require it.
During the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, a fantasy took hold that China was bound to open up its repressive one-party system to political liberalization or even democracy. The notion was that with growing trade and investment, and with increasing prosperity, the Chinese people, notably the middle classes, would become the driving force for political change. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof caught the spirit of those times when he wrote in 2004, following the opening of Starbucks stores in China: “No middle class is content with more choices of coffees than of candidates on a ballot.”
Political liberalization didn’t happen, of course. But at the same time, a second fantasy also took shape in the West: that after China’s entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001, it would inevitably move toward economic liberalization. To compete globally, this thinking went, China would be compelled by the rules of the international economy to take definitive steps toward a market economy, privatize its mammoth state industries, phase out subsidies and other protections for Chinese products, lift barriers to imports, and end the theft of intellectual property.
This second fantasy still lingers, and Garfield reflects this viewpoint. As he summarizes in “China Coup,” “Radical restructuring is needed to put the economy on a sounder footing.” That, fact, is what many bankers and economists at places like the World Bank have been saying about China for close to a quarter-century. The optimism that such political and economic changes are all but inevitable is a legacy of the end of the Cold War, when Francis Fukuyama famously spoke of “the end of history.” (Indeed, Clinton told then-Chinese President Jiang Zemin directly that Chinese policy was “on the wrong side of history.”)
It is worth noting that “China Coup” offers a new variant on the old fantasies. Earlier, it was said that the Chinese regime would move toward liberalization because of pressure from below: That is, the emerging middle classes would demand it. Now, Garfield suggests that liberalization will be imposed from the top down, through a coup carried out by Chinese leaders such as Premier Li Keqiang and Vice President Wang Qishan.
Of course, none of us from the outside can know what’s going on inside the top ranks of the Chinese Communist Party. So what’s so implausible about Garfield’s scenario?
Well, for starters, there is not the slightest indication that Chinese leaders have either the desire or the ability to stage a coup. And if, hypothetically, any of them ever expressed interest in doing so — even to a close Chinese friend, much less a British author — China’s formidable Ministry of State Security would probably know about it and report it to Xi. So, in a sense, the coup scenario underestimates both the ability of China’s pervasive security apparatus and the ruthlessness of China’s leader.
“China Coup” further argues that one of the reasons other Chinese leaders might seek to seize power would be a desire to improve relations with the United States. “Xi’s rivals understand that trust between China and the
United States cannot be rebuilt without the removal of Xi from power, as a prelude to changing China’s political system,” Garside writes.
But if China’s leaders really wanted better ties with America, they would almost certainly try to get them (and probably succeed in doing so) through lesser means, such as by making specific changes in security and trade policies, rather than by taking the mortal risks of a coup.
Whatever Chinese leaders may suggest to visitors to Beijing from places like Wall Street or the institutions of international finance, there is no concrete sign that any of them favor far-reaching liberalization, political or economic. And this points to the biggest flaw in Garside’s book: It ignores the developments in China over the past few decades, namely the emergence of strong vested financial interests in the repressive status quo, which has enriched quite a few of the country’s leaders; a pervasive, technologically advanced security apparatus; and intense populist nationalism, whipped up by Chinese leaders.
While “China Coup” represents a new Western dream about China, another book, “The Gate to China: A New History of the People’s Republic and Hong Kong” by the journalist Michael Sheridan, a veteran foreign correspondent, returns us to the unhappy realities we face today. Sheridan traces the story of Hong Kong from its last years under British rule in the 1970s and 1980s, through the handover to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, to China’s recent abandonment of its pledge to let Hong Kong have “a high degree of autonomy” until 2047.
Sheridan’s narrative has quite a few flaws. He spends the first half of the book bogged down in the weeds of Britain’s diplomatic negotiations with China over Hong Kong’s future, struggling to find ways to make the account colorful within out adding much new perspective. The final parts of the book, which cover the past decade of upheavals in Hong Kong, read like a long, repeatedly updated news story. Overall, for an American reader, the book seems written too much for a British audience: It dwells on intraBritish debates, and senior British officials are regularly identified not merely by their universities (Oxford, Cambridge) but by which colleges they attended there (Balliol, St. John’s), and sometimes by their boarding schools as well.
Still, Sheridan’s account testifies to the Western dreams about China and to the ways they are shattered. Then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair, he writes, “was ushered away for his first meeting with Jiang Zemin, who, he seems to have decided on the spot, was a reformer.”
Sheridan describes how China crushed Hong Kong’s democracy movement and its street protests — and now, after he finished the book, its once-lively free press as well. “The Gate to China” details the regime’s use of its cyber-capabilities to monitor dissent, block communications and even interfere with efforts to measure public sentiment in Hong Kong.
Garfield, ever hopeful for democratic change, tells us in “China Coup” that “political modernization is the great unfinished business of contemporary China.” But what if the advanced surveillance state that China has been developing is, in fact, its unique contribution to political modernization?
James Mann, a resident fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced international Studies, is the author of three books about the United States and China, including “the China Fantasy: How Our leaders Explain Away Chinese Repression” and “About Face: A History of America’s Curious Relationship With China, From Nixon to Clinton.”