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.
Here I will cite only two pieces of evidence. First, in 2011-12, Li Keqiang, then Vice-Premier, now Premier, played a decisive role in the biggest-ever collaborative project between the Chinese government and the World Bank. This resulted in China 2030, a wide-ranging, far-reaching report that indicated, in suitably veiled language, that the regime would have to embrace pluralism and relax its suffocating grip on society if China was to avoid the “middle-income trap” that had ensnared Latin America and North Africa.
Second, in February, 2020, as the coronavirus broke upon China, one of the country’s leading scholars of constitutional law, Xu Zhangrun, published a long essay in which he asserted that China’s current polity suffers from “systemic impotence” and concluded that the only way for the country to flourish is “to pursue a politics that embraces constitutional democracy and fosters a true people’s republic.”
The damaging consequences of the lack of political reform are increasingly evident in China’s international relations. Under Mr. Xi, the regime has pursued strategies, such as massive cybertheft of industrial property, disregard for international law and the flouting of its international treaty commitments that have caused a sea-change in attitudes toward it.
The blame for this falls in part on Mr. Xi’s overconfidence, but there is also a systemic dimension to it: A totalitarian regime is institutionally incapable of anticipating and understanding the response to it of democratic societies and the strength inherent in their values and institutions. The most damaging example of this for the Chinese Communists is the way they have turned the world’s strongest country, the U.S., from benign partner into suspicious opponent. But it is also ominous for them that public opinion in a country as pacific and measured in its outlook as Canada should have evolved as it has.
When two Canadian citizens, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, were detained in China after the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, I was reminded of the case of the British journalist Anthony Grey, who was held hostage in Beijing from 1967 to 1969. I shall never forget the brief consular visit I was allowed to make to him as he endured two years of solitary confinement.
It was shocking that China’s then-ambassador to Canada Lu Shaye should refer to the detention of the two Michaels as “retaliation for Canada’s detention of Meng.” But all of China’s “wolf warrior” diplomacy manifests the same reckless disregard for norms of international behaviour that were displayed during the Cultural Revolution, and it does not suggest self-confidence. Xu Zhangrun, quoted above, is not alone in believing that to end its “global and historical isolation” and “to re-establish its image as a responsible major power” China must embrace constitutional democracy.
I contend that many in the elite not only recognize that China’s problems cannot be resolved without a change of political system, but they are convinced that paradoxically their best hope of defending their own wealth and power, is to lead the country into systemic change.
How can the U.S. and its allies engineer conditions to facilitate regime change in China?
The continued growth of the Chinese economy depends crucially upon continued access to the world’s reserve currencies, the international banking system, its deepest capital markets, its biggest pools of capital, and the greatest centres of scientific and technological discovery, all of which are controlled by the U.S. and its allies. This gives us geopolitical superiority, which we can use to create the conditions for change. We must exploit this power in a graduated way that incentivizes change and imposes a price on the present course.
The U.S. has made a start by its legislation that will deny access to the U.S. capital markets to companies that fail to disclose to investors financial information required by law (as all Chinese companies fail to do), and by denying access to U.S. technology for many companies that are linked to the Chinese military. The EU must now make a start by abandoning ratification of its Comprehensive Agreement on Investment with China.
In my new book, I illustrate how regime change could come to China through a coup d’état followed by the launch of a transition to democracy. I tell how Premier Li Keqiang, Vice-Premier Wang Yang and Vice-President Wang Qishan conspire together to remove Mr. Xi from office, opening the way to systemic change.
The conspirators are real-life characters, but the storyline is a marriage of prediction and imagination. The coup is not the product only of the internal dynamics of Chinese politics: The U.S. plays a crucial role by engineering a Sino-American confrontation, which leads to a crisis in China’s financial markets. That crisis prompts the conspirators to activate a well-prepared contingency plan to depose Mr. Xi.
A coup is one way in which change can come. Another possibility is that Mr. Xi’s opponents will prevent his reappointment as general secretary of the Communist Party at its next national congress in November, 2022, and will use that occasion to launch China onto the path of change. That congress is a crucial point on China’s timeline to the future, because the reappointment of Mr. Xi would raise the prospect of him remaining leader for life and make his removal thereafter much more difficult.
The potential benefits of an orderly transition from dictatorship to democracy in China test the limits of the imagination. They include peace based on trust; a great extension of the domain of democracy and the rule of law; and a liberation of the creative genius of the Chinese people in the arts and sciences to match that which has already occurred in the field of economic activity. To achieve this outcome will require a degree of skill and courage on the part of all those engaged in shaping our future seldom seen in history. But my faith in humanity is strong enough to allow me to believe it is within our grasp.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.