The skeleton in the cupboard
Superpower by Susan L Shirk
Reviewed by Dmitry
A photograph of Susan Shirk shaking hands with Zhou Enlai,
the Chinese premier almost 30 years ago, illustrates that the author has had a
long career studying China. This is an important book from several other
Shirk has been close to the heart of United States
engagement with China. As a former State Department official responsible for
engagement with China in the Bill Clinton era, she mentions in the book how,
during one of China's crises with the US, she rushed to her government office in
Washington to participate in war games.
Most importantly, she avoids, at
least in some cases, common Western
stereotypes in dealing with China.
Shirk's approach to China's internal
development is the most interesting part of the book. She notes that not only
has the nation achieved steady economic growth for the past generation, this
could continue until by the 2020s-2030s, and China could surpass the US as the
world's biggest economy.
that China could be a superpower in a generation, the author's view is that
China's ruling Communist Party is and will continue to be in danger. The regime
feels extremely fragile and is afraid of being toppled by a variety of forces,
from peasants to unemployed students. Its
fear is heightened by a history in which several Chinese dynasties were
overthrown. And the regime is mindful of recent events: the collapse of the
socialist regimes in the Soviet Union and
East Europe, the "Orange" revolution in Ukraine and the "Rose" revolution in
The authoritarian framework of the regime is what has created
the real problems and China could be more stable with greater democracy,
particularly of the Western variety, Shirk asserts.
How can the author's
statements and conclusions be assessed? One advantage of the book, at least what
makes it different from others on China, is the author's understanding - which
is plain from the narrative - of the duality of China's development. Most
Westerners who deal with China choose only one alternative path for the country.
Some, and this was especially the case in the 1990s, saw China as a
totalitarian dinosaur standing alone among the ex-socialist states of East
Europe and the former Soviet Union, which were engaged in a transition to the
"end of history", according to Francis
Fukuyama's much-quoted book. 
While East Europeans and the republics
of the former Soviet Union were moving to prosperity because they had embraced
democracy and a market economy, China's
totalitarian dinosaur would experience a horrific shake-up and collapse, Western
pundits said. Their vision of Red China was similar to their views of the Soviet
regime in the first years of its existence.
Here, scores of Western observers and an array of Russian emigres
intoned that Soviet Russia - viewed as an aberration from all perspectives - was
moving from one disaster to another and was doomed to collapse. As they saw it,
the artificiality and monstrosities of the Soviet regime also made it a weakling
that would not survive a serious military challenge.
A similar vision of
the regime in China has become increasingly unpopular in the past decade. The
reasons for this included the increasing economic problems of the former
socialist Eastern European countries and the Soviet Union, which had followed
the models of American experts, and
increasing troubles in the US itself.
Western pundits, mostly from the
US, who so recently prophesized the inevitable doom of China's communist regime
due to the rejection of the "self-evident truths" of Western democracy and
unbridled market economies, now look at China from an entirely different
perspective. They proclaim that China is engaged in a march towards global
This vision of the inevitable triumph of totalitarian China
mirrors the views of conservative pundits in the 1970s who prophesized the
inevitable doom of the weak, over-moralized US - and the West in general - in
confrontation with the tough, totalitarian Soviet Union.
avoids this rather simplistic vision of China. Shirk actually sees the
possibility of polar-opposite scenarios. While the first, indeed, implies
China's move to global dominance, the other implies, in the author's view, a
Shirk is essentially right in seeing these two vastly
different scenarios. Still, there is a problem here, at least in the opinion of
the reviewer. To start with, the alternative to an abrupt end of the present
regime would not be a decline in the quality or number of democratic
institutions. It would be anarchy and the disintegration of the country.
This is a likely scenario, not only because similar events have taken
place in China in the past, but also because of the experience of the Soviet
The second problem, and this is the most serious, is that Shirk
fails to demonstrate that China has made such a great economic leap not only
because it engaged in market reform - the former Soviet Union and East European
countries did the same and with disastrous results for their economies - but
because China has preserved the totalitarian skeleton of its past.
is what has allowed China to produce real goods instead of resorting to the
service bubbles of the US and those East European and post-Soviet countries
which followed the advice of American experts. It is the totalitarian aspects of
China that make it possible for the leaders to pursue policies that benefit the
country in the long run; they do not think about quick profits that enrich the
few - which is what has pushed the US into an economic abyss.
author fails to understand that the totalitarian framework of China - as was the
case with the Soviet Union - was both a dangerous poison and an elixir of life
at the same time.
On one hand, totalitarianism makes the country and
regime fragile; on the other hand the very same qualities could well propel the
country to global dominance. The Soviet Union could have done the same if it had
not been beset by what Russians called "katastroika" (a play on the word in which "perestroika" is blended
with the word "catastrophe") launched by Mikhail Gorbachev.
author did not elaborate on the positive implications of totalitarian rule in
China (and elsewhere) is understandable. A person expressing this view would be
unlikely to be employed by the US government,
and major academic publishers would hardly accept such a manuscript.
this reason, Shirk should be excused and her book should definitely be read. It
provides not just a new and basically sound view of China but also gives a
glimpse into the minds of the American elite's view of China at a time when the
"Yes, we can'' rallying call of America's elite and public is increasingly being
replaced by "No we cannot".
1. The End of
History and the Last Man is a 1992 book by Francis Fukuyama, expanding on
his 1989 essay ``The End of History?", published in the international affairs
journal The National Interest. In the book, Fukuyama argues that the advent of
Western liberal democracy may signal the end point of humanity's sociocultural
evolution and the final form of human government.
Superpower: How China's Internal Politics Could Derail Its Peaceful Rise by
Susan L Shirk. Oxford University Press, USA;
1st edition (April 16, 2007). ISBN-10: 0195306090. Price US$27, 336 pages.
Dmitry Shlapentokh, PhD, is associate professor of history,
College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Indiana
University South Bend. He is author of East Against West: The First
Encounter - The Life of Themistocles, 2005.