In order to be good stewards of the resources and opportunities given us to serve in this country, China workers are always on the lookout for insights into China’s current condition and how it might affect our prospects for ministry. For the last three or four years scholars and pundits have been especially puzzled by the eternal China question: where is China headed? Under Xi Jinping’s leadership, the art of “reading the tea leaves” has proved particularly challenging as the assumptions of the previous few decades regarding China’s political and economic development have begun to crumble. No one seems to know what tomorrow will bring, making it difficult to plan and function in the present.
In 2016 fall edition of The Washington Quarterly five eminent China hands contributed their perspectives on China’s future path. These outstanding essays analyze the possible future from a range of perspectives and disciplines. David Lampton sees two possible futures, both troubling, and assesses them in terms of their potential impact on relations with China’s biggest partner, the United States. David Shambaugh analyzes China’s current political environment, discounting the possibility of “China’s collapse” and instead outlining a range of possible variations on the current authoritarian moment. Minxin Pei examines recent economic and demographic statistics arguing that China is experiencing the beginnings of regime decay. Orville Schell reflects on the Chinese Communist Party’s unwillingness to confront its historical sins, questioning whether or not it is possible for China to advance as a nation without a full reckoning. Finally, Jeffrey Wasserstrom looks at the history of China prognostication, arguing that while it is useful to look for historical parallels as a means for understanding the current moment, they are in fact unreliable indicators of future outcomes.
While I commend all the articles to anyone seeking to understand contemporary China, I especially want to draw attention to one clear fact that all five authors agreed on. While no one really knows where China will be tomorrow, everyone acknowledges the discouraging nature of current conditions. As David Shambaugh writes on pages 125–126 of his article mentioned above,
Xi Jinping has proven to be a very anti-liberal leader. He has overseen a personalization and centralization of control, and has intensified the repression evident since 2009. There has been an unremitting crackdown on all forms of dissent and social activists; the internet and social media have been subjected to extremely tight controls; Christian crosses and churches are being demolished; Uighurs and Tibetans have been subject to ever greater persecution; hundreds of rights lawyers have been detained and put on trial; public gatherings are restricted; a wide range of publications are censored; foreign textbooks have been officially banned from university classrooms; intellectuals are under tight scrutiny; foreign and domestic NGOs have been subjected to unprecedented governmental regulatory pressures, with many forced to leave China; attacks on “foreign hostile forces” occur with regularity; and the “stability maintenance” security apparatchiks have blanketed the country. A swath of intrusive new regulations and laws concerning national security, cyber security, terrorism, and non-governmental organizations have been enacted. Xi has also unleashed an unprecedented anti-corruption campaign, which has draped a blanket of fear over the party, state, and military. China is today more repressive than at any time since the post-Tiananmen (1989–1992) period.
This present reality, readily corroborated by anyone who has lived in the country for a decade or more, takes on a more threatening pallor when combined with a rumor that is gaining increasing traction: Xi Jinping may be maneuvering to avoid handing over authority at the end of his two terms.
For those of us working in China—and eager to remain working in China—have we reviewed our policies and practices in light of this more hostile “new normal?” The things we said and did in past years may not be appropriate for this new context. Make sure your field personnel are being wise as serpents and innocent as doves, and don’t forget to make sure that your home boards are aware of our new context for ministry. Use articles like these, as well as resources such as this available here at ChinaSource, to help your community in China and back home stay informed.