The Big Ideas

'China Inside Out: A Conversation with Susan Shirk & Tony Saich'

Harvard Kennedy School

Tony Saich

Professor, Harvard Kennedy School of Government

'China Inside Out: A Conversation with Susan Shirk & Tony Saich'
'China Inside Out: A Conversation with Susan Shirk & Tony Saich'
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April 26, 2021
BIG IDEA | ‘The centralization of power, quite predictably, leads to this kind of echo chamber effect, which is really quite dangerous. And it's something that we should be factoring in when we think about how to deal with China now.’

Tony Saich: ‘You have talked officials being dissatisfied with Xi Jinping.’

'One aspect of that. If you’re an ambitious senior official you must be pretty frustrated.’

  • ‘With the plans he's putting forward, Xi Jinping seems to want to stay in power ‘til 2035, whether that's directly in control or whether it's like Deng Xiaoping behind the scenes.’
  • ‘That’s basically telling you your upward mobility is gone.’
  • ‘Would you like to elaborate just a little bit on that for us?’

Susan Shirk: ‘Well, I think as you just said, the dissatisfaction comes from the fact that your career is no longer predictable and safe.’

‘Let's say you're really an ambitious politician and of the suitable age. And you've gotten up to central committee and either/or politburo level.’

  • ‘You see that Xi’s basically stopped all career mobility for someone like you.’

‘And it's not just that your chances of promotion have been reduced. It’s even worse than that.’

  • ‘Xi could come at you any moment accusing you of corruption or some other crime because he feels that you are a threat to him.’
  • ‘You don't feel safe. Your whole career and your family's welfare could be wiped out in one stroke by Xi Jinping.’
  • ‘And for quite a few politicians that actually has happened.’

‘So there is tremendous pressure to demonstrate loyalty in the Xi Jinping system.’

  • ‘Everybody has to show their loyalty.’

‘And this creates a kind of bandwagon effect.’

  • ‘Everybody has to try to read the cues on what does Xi Jinping actually want? What's he about to tell us the policy will be? And how can we try to get there earlier?’

‘This contributes to overreach because of this pressure of loyalty and the bandwagon effect.’

  • ‘And, Chinese politicians don't like this.'

Tony Saich: ‘Certainly the overreach goes well beyond that, doesn't it?’

  • ‘Both externally and internally, the concentration of power with Xi.’

Susan Shirk: ‘Well, yes. And then the whole question of information.’

  • ‘In this type of highly centralized system, and because of the pressure to prove your loyalty, nobody really wants to tell Xi Jinping what is the potential or actual downside to decisions he's making.’
  • ‘So he lives in an echo chamber of praise and loyalty.’

‘I think he may not be getting accurate information. For example, now, is he getting good information about the backlash to China's recent actions internationally?’

  • ‘The Wolf Warrior diplomacy over vaccines; the punishing of Australia for asking for international investigation of the origins of COVID; the international reactions to the Xinjiang crackdown; or to the extreme kind of Beijing's takeover of Hong Kong essentially.’

‘Is Xi getting accurate information about the price that China is paying in terms of its foreign relations and its international image as a responsible rising power?’

  • ‘I'm not sure.’

Tony Saich: ‘We've had our own experience of that with the recent president in the US who may not have been entirely well-informed about global perceptions and others.’

Susan Shirk: ‘Right. And a lot of pressure to prove loyalty.’

  • ‘There were many times over the last four or five years in which I was horrified to see the American political system resembling the Chinese political system in that respect.’

Tony Saich: ‘Just in the last week we've seen countries representing about 50% of global GDP, all taking actions that can be considered negative to China.’

  • ‘Australia dropping the Belt and Road Initiative; the US of course, signing on for this new strategic competition report; Japan saying it's going to cooperate with the U.S. on 6G development; the German IT law, which is effectively going to cut out Huawei from development there.’
  • ‘So you're right. This big backlash is taking place and one does wonder if that information is getting through to Xi Jinping.’

Susan Shirk: ‘The centralization of power, quite predictably, leads to this kind of echo chamber effect, which is really quite dangerous.’

  • ‘And it's something that we should be factoring in when we think about how to deal with China now.’

Watch the terrific 58m interview