China expert David Shambaugh is claiming exactly that in a bold argument. Here is a summary of his brief:
He points to “five telling indications of the regime’s vulnerability”: an apparent lack of confidence among the country’s wealthy; intensified political repression, betraying insecurity among the leadership itself; a sense that “even many regime loyalists are just going through the motions”; corruption too pervasive and deep-rooted for Xi’s ongoing crackdown to fully address; and an economy “stuck in a series of systemic traps from which there is no easy exit.”
Shambaugh also argues “Communist rule in China is unlikely to end quietly.”
That’s pretty heady stuff and I am happy to link to material I disagree with, but disagree I do. My reasons are simple:
1. There are internal coups, which are more or less invisible to most of the world, and external coups, where a visible overthrow of a government makes the front page and is accompanied by violent conflict in public places and a change in the labeling of the regime. China already has shown its system can accommodate internal coups, for better or worse. You can argue they have such internal coups (on average) every ten to twelve years.
2. It is entirely reasonable (though very hard to call) to expect another internal coup in China.
3. Does any coup in China prefer to a) jettison the Communist brand?, or b) refurbish the Communist brand? I say b), by a long mile. The Communists drove the foreigners out of the country, built the modern nation, and delivered close to ten percent growth for almost thirty-five years running. Most of the time the Communist Party has been pretty popular, in spite of all the (justified) cynicism about the corruption.
4. Once you accept #3, and work back to rethink #1, you expect at most an internal coup in China, with external continuity and a maintenance of the Communist party brand, albeit in refurbished form.
5. The strongest version of Shambaugh’s argument is that there is no “core” to the internal coups, a’ la Gordon Tullock’s book Autocracy. You get too many internal coups, or too many incipient internal coups, and the public square is required to impose structural equilibrium on the problem. Maybe so, but that requires lots of claims about the internal dynamics of Chinese politics, and the lack of internal coup stability mechanisms. The cited evidence by Shambaugh does not seem to bear directly on this question, and so I am back to having no strong reason to expect an external coup, much less a chaotic and bloody one.