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China: Fragile Superpower Revisited

Susan Shirkdirector emeritus of the UC Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation (IGCC) and leading U.S.-China relations expert, revisits her book, China: Fragile Superpower, discusses the prospects for U.S.-China relations, and shares how she became interested in Asia. The interview has been edited for length.

June 1, 2020 | Interview with Lindsay Morgan

news_susan-shirk-igcc2.jpgYou are one of the most influential experts working on U.S.-China relations and Chinese politics. How did you become interested in Asia and China?

I went to Nagano Japan as an exchange student right after I graduated from high school and lived with a Japanese family above their small grocery store, and that just opened my eyes to Asia. I had no high school education about Asia but then I started taking college courses and got interested in China. Pure serendipity.

Your book “China: Fragile Superpower” helped frame the policy debate on China and the U.S. How has the world and China changed since you wrote that book? Do you still consider it a fragile superpower?

Yeah, I do actually. China’s economy, its military and its global influence have all grown, but the fragility that comes from this deep insecurity of the Communist Party leadership is still there. They’re even more insecure because the more affluent, open to the world, and better educated the Chinese public is, the more pressing is the question: can an autocratic, communist party rule a vibrant open market economy?

The Chinese leaders saw the fall of the Soviet Union, which happened very suddenly, and of course they also experienced the Tiananmen protests, which was quite a trauma. Under Xi Jinping, not only do they have to worry about a bottom-up upheaval, but also a possible split in the leadership. I think the split in the leadership, even though there’s no sign of it, is the greatest potential risk, even more than some bottom up opposition.

Are we at the low point in U.S.-China relations? 

We are definitely at a low point in the post-Mao period. This is as bad as it’s ever been. During the time I’ve been studying China, life for Chinese people has improved. It’s not a straight line—it hasn’t improved as fast politically as many people in China would like—but still. There’s a lot more individual freedom, living standards have increased dramatically, opportunities to move, travel, pick your job, all that. U.S.-China relations have also been managed pretty well. 

That all ends in the mid-2000s, even before Xi Jinping. The global financial crisis tainted the image of the United States in the eyes of many people in China. It’s been a downward spiral ever since. Compared with his predecessors, Xi Jinping is a much more ambitious leader internationally, and also more focused on Chinese Marxist ideology, party rule, party discipline, and social control. Under Xi Jinping, it no longer looks like China is gradually converging to global norms. And of course, the pandemic has revealed how hostile relations have become. Previously, the U.S. and China have coordinated very well on public health threats. This time they did not.

It’s interesting to see how the leadership in China recast the pandemic as a win for a centralized system. Do people in China buy that?

Yes, it looks like they do. We’ve been doing some polls, and it looks like they do despite their earlier anger at the cover up when the disease first emerged.

Is there anything that gives you a glimmer of hope in China-U.S. relations, or are you feeling bleak these days?

I am hoping that after the election here in the United States, the new administration might take a more practical approach to China. That’s what I would say—a practical approach—because our approach has become highly ideological. Both Xi Jinping and the Trump administration are stoking a Cold War type contest of systems and values.

What was it like to go from academia to government and back again? Many students have ambitions to be relevant in a policy space. What advice would you give them? 

Going into the policy world, in a job in the State Department, was extremely challenging. I didn’t know how to play the game at all. I got a lot of good advice from people, but it was a pretty steep learning curve.

There are some academics who just really love being academics. They love being the lonely monk sitting in their office and writing books. I like research and writing too.  But if you have other skills like working well in teams with people, it’s really great to have the opportunity to do it and use the parts of your personality that are not used that much as an academic. Teaching is a social activity but you’re not working collectively with people in order to achieve something. I really liked doing that. I liked managing things. I liked being entrepreneurial, I liked to start new things. So being in policy was a great opportunity to use parts of me that weren’t getting used in academia.

I also think that what you learn in academic life substantively and theoretically helps you think about policy in a more sophisticated and rigorous way. You just have to communicate it to others without jargon. And then when you go back to academia, you have to produce good work in order to prove to people you aren’t totally braindead.

Susan Shirk is research professor and chair of the 21st Century China Center at the School of Global Policy and Strategy at UC San Diego. She served as director of the University of California Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation 1991-1997 and 2006-2010. Shirk first visited China in 1971, and has been teaching, researching and engaging China diplomatically ever since. From 1997-2000, Shirk served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of East Asia and Pacific Affairs, with responsibility for China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Mongolia. Shirk's publications include China: Fragile Superpower; The Political Logic of Economic Reform in China; Competitive Comrades: Career Incentives and Student Strategies in China; and her edited bookChanging Media, Changing China. She co-chairs a task force of China experts that issued its second report Smart Competition: Toward an Effective and Sustainable China Policy in February 2019. She also co-chairs the UC San Diego Forum on U.S.-China Relations.