Is the ‘Unthinkable’ Collapse of Communist China Now Thinkable?

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The November public protests across mainland China, in the aftermath of the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) last month, have been focused in a way not seen since the communists took control of the mainland in 1949.

That is not to say that the recent protests have necessarily matched the number of incidents or victims of some earlier protests. What is significant is that they are qualitatively different from the earlier outbursts.

The question is whether this is the wave that finally breaks the CCP’s grip on society because the 2022 protests are more focused and with a broadly-agreed national accord than earlier protests. A concurrent wave of protests in Iran raises similar questions as to whether “this time” the ruling clerics there would also be toppled.

The mainland China protests were given focus just before the CCP’s National Congress, when, on Oct. 13, a lone demonstrator unveiled banners across the Sitong Road Bridge in Beijing, calling for the removal of Chinese leader Xi Jinping. It presaged the anticipated reality that Xi would gain—as he did—even greater dictatorial power at the Congress. The “Bridge Man” was subsequently arrested and disappeared. Still, he gave iconic impetus to the post-Congress wave of protests that had become entrenched in key cities, such as Shanghai, Beijing, Wuhan, and Urumqi, from Nov. 15 onwards.

The protests, too, have been different from those of the past two decades, and even the 180,000 separate protests that occurred across mainland China in 2010, or the Hong Kong protests of 2014 that were seen as a more local issue, and Chinese elsewhere could, as Aldous Huxley noted, exhibit that “most human beings have an almost infinite capacity for taking things for granted.”

The late 2022 protest wave had far more focus—and a national focus—than the outbreaks of 2010 or 2014, which were generally more community-related. The current “national” issues then harvest the dissent felt over a myriad of local issues. The anti-zero-COVID campaign coalesced with the rising sense that the CCP had become responsible for a loss of hope, freedom, and wealth.

Epoch Times Photo
Protesters gather along a street with candles and bunches of flowers during a rally for the victims of a deadly fire in Xinjiang, as well as a protest against the Chinese regime’s harsh COVID-19 restrictions in Beijing on Nov. 28, 2022. (Michael Zhang/AFP via Getty Images)

There appear to have been more focused reasons for the changed nature of the 2022 protests because the CCP and Xi had ensured that the old community-oriented dissent had become more general in nature: the collapse of the housing (and savings) markets, for example, and the COVID-related health lockdowns which had finally breached any sense of credibility.

The 2022 wave of protests was also not surprising because this was the first occasion in which widespread public hopes had first been raised in the 73 years of communist control and then comprehensively dashed. Societies can be suppressed almost indefinitely until hope and progress are introduced into the populace. At that point, public demand will always outstrip the capacity of a government to satisfy it.

The Shah of Iran discovered this when, despite an unprecedented era of growth in public wealth and benefits, the growth of demand by 1979 overwhelmed the capacity of the state to satisfy the cravings.

It is at that point, then, that the “social contract” is broken between the governed and the governors. Or at least the social contract has changed to the point where it has become dysfunctional and must either be reestablished or lost altogether.

The social contract exists in all societies. It is only in so-called “democracies”—and perhaps it is a hallmark of them—that the social contract is made explicit in the form of constitutions drawn on an initial public consensus and then modified through legal and social practices. The “social contracts” of unapologetically autocratic states exist, but these are implicit. In autocratic states, the implicit social contract is that disobedience within the populace is met with punishment.

Given that the autocratic “social contract” is essentially unilateral—it was never given willing consent by the governed—the point comes when the governed determines that the rulers’ enforcement mechanism has collapsed, or lacks will or capability.

Epoch Times Photo
Protesters shout slogans during a protest against the Chinese Communist Party’s strict ‘zero-COVID’ measures in Beijing, China, on Nov. 28, 2022. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

The breakdown in the social contracts in societies with consensus-driven constitutions and those that do not vary only in the pace and firmness of the suppression of protests against the government.

In societies that began and function to some degree as democratic polities, and which were seen to have moved from the public acceptance of their social contract, the breakdown begins with legal and constitutional challenges, seeking to reassert the social contract, and only moves toward the realm of physical protest when it becomes clear that the spirit of the social contract itself has been irretrievably violated.

At some point—perhaps the tipping point—the prestige of the governing authority (system and/or individual) vitiates to the point, not just of hatred, but of outrage and ridicule. What was becoming apparent to many protesters in mainland China in late 2022 was that Xi had made himself the clear author of all of the policies that had led to the collapse of social well-being. In so doing, he made himself a more significant target of opposition than the CCP.

We have just begun to see many indirect messages—and a few direct ones—of ridicule and contempt targeting Xi.

As with all such societal collapses through history, and even all societal social trends, the process is determined by minority groups. As I have noted for decades, the majority of all populations fear change and will accept any form of repression to avoid it.

By Nov. 29, there was clear recognition within the CCP leadership that either crowd suppression must occur at a major symbolic level and form, or that the focus of dissent—largely now Xi—must be removed.

Xi’s major function in the years leading up to the 20th Party Congress had been the removal of all potential internal challengers (a function which is largely, but not completely, done). So there may be, in late 2022, insufficient strength within the CCP structure to remove Xi and make him a public scapegoat, which would leave only the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to achieve that task.

But first, the suppression of entire cities was being attempted, and the “zero-COVID” lockdowns—crowd control mechanisms—were being tested to the full. As noted before, “zero-COVID” has little or nothing to do with the COVID-19 medical disaster but everything to do with removing hope, mobility, and assets from the broad elements of society that threaten Xi’s absolute control.

The question arises as to whether the mainland China protests are giving an example and impetus to the Iranian protests, and/or vice-versa. The potential exists, then, for a near-simultaneous collapse of the governing structures of the Chinese regime, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and even Turkey (where parallels exist in what has now become only a nominally-democratic society).

This set of sympathetic disruptions would have a profound impact on the stability and capability of Russia, given that it is under severe containment and strain from external forces. And it would see a significant release of pressure against the five major Central Asian states, India, and the South East Asian states.

Epoch Times Photo
A caricature of Chinese leader Xi Jinping as the emperor wearing no clothes. (Hong Kong Indigenous Defence Force)

But a collapse of power by Xi—who, in order to gain total control, eviscerated the absorptive power of a multi-faction CCP—could lead to a sudden power vacuum in mainland China’s regions. The only response capable of restoring order in the short term would come from PLA elements coupled with domestic security forces.

A return to the warlordism of the 20th century and the Maoist period must be considered probable.

All of this brings the potential for rash decisions as the structures collapse, including attempts to seek distractions for the public. The “Galtieri syndrome” must be the most significant option for a collapsing Xi administration, mirroring the 1982 last-minute decision by Argentina’s last ruling general, Lt. Gen. Leopoldo Galtieri, to invade and capture Britain’s Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic.

A Xi “Galtieri moment” could well include a punitive expedition against Taiwan, even absent any real chance of military success. A similar set of prospects also exists for the besieged presidents/power holders in Iran and Turkey, and to a lesser extent Russia. This entire process makes the broad canvas of East, South East, and South Asia unstable, and clearly would disrupt the global economy profoundly.

That would have immediate ramifications for Australasia—Australia, New Zealand, and the South Pacific—as well as Indonesia. Such a scenario, assuming that it comes with relative speed as is likely if the protests gain momentum and effectiveness (and this is certainly not guaranteed), would cause massive dislocation of societies throughout the Indo-Pacific and elsewhere, and each society should, at this point, be looking for local containment measures.

I have advocated for some years for societies to plan for the post-China world, but that has not been happening. All focus has been on managing, or planning on, the continued growth of China as a market and as a threat.

Now, we are almost guaranteed that a post-China collapse era would be almost entirely reactive on the part of the world’s governments, which do not wish to contemplate the extent of disaster management that will be necessary.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Gregory Copley


Gregory Copley is president of the International Strategic Studies Association based in Washington. Born in Australia, Copley is a Member of the Order of Australia, entrepreneur, writer, government adviser, and defense publication editor. His latest book is “The New Total War of the 21st Century and the Trigger of the Fear Pandemic.”

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