China may have earned its place as a global economic superpower, but its domestic political developments have the potential to undermine the country’s ability to sustain and strengthen its position on the world stage.

As the inaugural North Asia CAPE Fellow, Professor David Shambaugh of The George Washington University in Washington, DC, examined the complexities of China’s economic, social and political reforms under Xi Jinping, and offered astute analysis of China’s approach to international engagement.

A world authority on contemporary China, Professor Shambaugh posited that, under the leadership of Xi Jinping, China is in the throes of significant political – and therefore social – retrenchment not seen since the rules of Chairman Mao Zedong. Describing the return to a “patriarchal-Leninist system”, Professor Shambaugh cited Xi’s recent moves to eliminate his own term limits, move away from consensual decision-making, and centralise power in his own leadership.

In addition, Xi’s leadership has brought increased repression in the form of silencing critics, controlling the media, and restricting religious practices and ethnic minorities.

Professor David Shambaugh
Xi Jinping

Professor Shambaugh observed, “In Xi’s address at the 19th Party Congress he declared ‘The Party leads all.’ And who leads the Party? Xi Jinping.”

Professor Shambaugh said this “hard authoritarianism” approach reflects a leadership that is inherently insecure – and that insecurity will ultimately impede China’s ability to fully mature as a global power. The major challenge for the Chinese economy is structural – how to move from being a so-called middle-income country to a developed country. This will require, above all, moving up the economic value chain through innovation.

“Without the drivers of innovation, research and development, incentives to collaborate, consult and interact globally, China will experience limited economic reform, protracted political decline, and growing social frustration.”

Professor Shambaugh praised China’s increased contributions in the sphere of global governance – including contributing to UN peacekeeping efforts, helping to prevent human trafficking, limiting climate change, controlling health pandemics, and working with international institutions to provide a range of public goods. But he advised a “wait and see” approach to China’s success in leading the $1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative, the centrepiece of Xi’s foreign policy, which Professor Shambaugh predicted faces a bumpy road ahead.

Watch video interviews with Professor David Shambaugh

Need to Know: China's Future (9'15")

Need to Know: China's changing global footprint (7'59")

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