Chengdu J-20 Chinese peoples liberation army air force

The Geopolitical Reading List: End of an Era – How China’s Authoritarian Revival Is Undermining Its Rise

As a follow-on from our 2018 Geopolitical Reading List, in this piece we review Carl Minzner’s “End of an Era: How China’s Authoritarian Revival is Undermining Its Rise“; an insightful look into the limits of China’s rise.

The inexorable rise of China has become a familiar refrain for commentators of international relations. Whether it is China increasingly taking action on the world stage, its military modernisation or headline-grabbing infrastructure on a scale rarely seen in the West, the growth of China into a global superpower challenging the established world order has become a compelling narrative of our times. Carl Minzner’s “End of an Era: How China’s Authoritarian Revival is Undermining Its Rise” provides a compelling and extremely timely counterpoint to this view, looking beyond the military capabilities and impressive GDP growth figures to the fabric of Chinese society and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that sits atop it all.

Doomsayers on the fringes are a familiar feature in world affairs commentary, and those who predict the imminent collapse of the CCP are seldom taken too seriously. Minzner however avoids this trap. Rather, he draws on a number of well-argued examples to illustrate how CCP social, legal and economic policies in what he calls the post-reform era since the mid 2000s have resulted in an ossified political structure and a society lacking any meaningful outlet for their grievances. Minzner shows how declines in the rule of law, reduced political representation and even a lack of spiritual freedom are pushing China towards a future more likely to be characterised by greater authoritarianism, social control and toxic nationalism than political liberalisation.

Using historical examples, Minzner counters the argument that China is merely going through a period of necessary authoritarianism and that, like Taiwan and South Korea, its prosperity will soon lead to liberalisation and a vibrant democracy. However, he wisely avoids making concrete predictions for China’s future and does not tie any of the possible scenarios he outlines to a specific time period. Instead, he gives us an idea of where China could be heading if the trends established in the mid-2000s and accelerated under Xi Jinping continue. Finally, Minzner also refrains from the detailed and idealistic recommendations of an academic policy wonk in favour of a set of broad principles on how the U.S. should govern not just its future relationship with China, but also itself, instead advocating a patience and strategic consideration towards regime change and political liberalisation in China that the U.S. has failed to exhibit in recent decades.

Some of Minzner’s arguments are no doubt open to be challenged, and some aspects of his analysis – such as the influence of organisations like the Falun Gong – are very difficult to accurately quantify. However, End of an Era is an extremely engaging, accessible and thought-provoking work that comes at a time when the world is struggling to understand the changes taking place in China. While we should probably hope that Minzner is wrong about a whole range of things, it would be foolish for any observer of international affairs to ignore the arguments in this book.

End of an Era: How China’s Authoritarian Revival is Undermining Its Rise” is available for purchase from Oxford University Press. 

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Alexander Stafford is a geopolitical and defence affairs writer specialising in naval and maritime issues, insurgencies, military history and strategy. He is a graduate of King’s College London’s War Studies programme who has spent several years based in the Asia Pacific region, where he now focuses on South China Sea maritime issues.

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