The Chinese regime is “outwardly strong, but inwardly weak,” says China expert Roger Garside, and it’s plagued by a brewing financial crisis, a moral vacuum in society, and the malaise of rampant corruption.
Garside predicts a coming coup will ultimately end China’s communist dictatorship. In this episode, we sit down with Garside to discuss how he came to his conclusions, detailed in his new book, “China Coup: The Great Leap to Freedom.”
Garside is a former British diplomat who served twice in the British Embassy in Beijing and witnessed the hysteria of China’s Cultural Revolution firsthand.
Jan Jekielek: Roger Garside, it’s such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.
Roger Garside: Great, pleasure to be here.
Mr. Jekielek: Roger, you have written an incredibly, incredibly fascinating book. You’re suggesting a hypothetical situation that I think is not the norm among China watchers and China experts. Yet, you seem to make a pretty compelling case.
One of the really interesting things that you mention in here is that these potential coup plotters, these are not people that are coming from outside of the system, these are very much people who would be from the highest ranks of the Communist Party.
And they would be doing this very much in their own self interest, so to speak. Again, contrary to a lot of common thinking today. Tell me a little bit about what is it that is in the self interest of these high level officials to see systemic political change in China?
Mr. Garside: Well, I think it’s in their self interest, but I think they’re not only motivated by self interest. As I read them, these real life characters—and as I portray them in that quarter of my book which is given over to the semi-fictional coup d’etat—have a concern for their country. They see their own personal self interests and those of the country joined going forward together.
They can see the problems, the deep-seated, long-standing problems in China, caused by the system of totalitarian dictatorship, which they have. They understand those problems better than the people in the outside world do.
They can see better than most people can see, that this regime is outwardly strong, but inwardly weak. And that it’s in a state of political decay. And that their best hope for preserving their own wealth and power, as well as the best hope for China, is to lead a coup d’etat to remove Xi Jinping and to launch China into a democratic transition.
Mr. Jekielek: You talk about, and this is actually the title of one of the chapters in the book, how the regime is outwardly strong, but inwardly weak. What is the greatest illustration in your mind of this? Because again, this isn’t necessarily the conventional wisdom for everyone.
Mr. Garside: All right. Well, this is a totalitarian regime, not an authoritarian regime; it’s a totalitarian regime. Like all totalitarian regimes, it depends not on trust, but on control. And the communist regime in China is extremely sophisticated, extremely adept at control.
But within that system, there is an absence of true self-confidence. They are fearful. They fear the truth. They fear democracy. They fear the truth so much that they have for 70 years wiped out, covered up, huge areas of their own history of rule.
They fear democracy so they have to smash the freedom of 7.5 million Hongkongers, only 7.5 million Hongkongers, who are attached to freedom and rule of law. Why? Because they’re afraid that the 7.5 million will infect the 1.4 billion whom they hold in political slavery in the rest of China.
They are weak inwardly, because there is a moral crisis in China. There is a system of corruption, the system is corrupt, from top to bottom, from left the right. And I could go on, but the single greatest area of weakness is, curiously enough, the economy.
Because since 2008, they have relied upon pumping billions of credit into the system in order to maintain an artificially high growth rate. And this flood of money has led to a great deal of distortion, false economic activity, un-economic activity, and fragility within the financial system.
Mr. Jekielek: You mentioned the economy, the realities of the Chinese economy are probably the single biggest issue. But before you mentioned corruption as well. And I thought you made a really interesting observation about the corruption.
I think you said, “Corruption in China is not the unfortunate byproduct of rapid economic growth, but the result of strategic choices by the Chinese Communist Party.” So now that’s very interesting, because again, that’s another potentially countervailing to conventional thought idea here.
Mr. Garside: To explain what I mean by that, we have to go back to the Tiananmen massacre of 1989, which destroyed the moral authority of the Communist Party of China. And in order to rebuild loyalty to the party, on the part of officials who were going to rule in its name, what could they use to rebuild these people’s loyalty to the top leadership? They couldn’t use ideology, nobody believed anymore in Marxism–Leninism.
What they could use, though, was material incentive. So they embarked upon the biggest privatization campaign the world has ever seen. But they did it in such a way that the power holders at every level could get together with their friends in business and gain control of the assets, the people’s assets, which were being privatized, without declaring their ownership.
There was an absence of legal clarity in terms of ownership. And that allowed power holders at every level to become rich and powerful.
Mr. Jekielek: So you’re saying the corruption is almost by design integral to the system.
Mr. Garside: Yes. I mean, this was the biggest opportunity for corruption and kleptocracy that the world has ever seen. These assets had been owned by the state, they were therefore owned by the state on behalf of the people. And they simply transferred the ownership, effective control of these assets, whether they were banks or mines or companies, to their own officials.
And that’s the way it’s remained, and there is an absence of clarity of ownership in China today on the huge state owned companies: who controls them, who really owns them, even the private ones, who really owns and controls them. This is all very opaque, and where there is opacity in economic and financial affairs, then you’ll get corruption.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s very interesting because what precipitates this contingency plan of the coup-plotters in your hypothetical scenario is the U.S. actually taking China to task and demanding that they open their books, basically be subject to the normal regulatory controls that companies operating in America are required to do. That’s very interesting in this context.
Mr. Garside: In America and in every other well-functioning capital market. When the great awakening from complacency happened in America a few years ago, leaders of Congress, Marco Rubio and other people, introduced a bill. Trump signed it off, I think on the 18th of December 2020.
It requires that companies from whichever country in the world—but it was certainly designed to be focused on China in this case to be usable, usable against the 172 Chinese companies who are traded and listed on American securities markets—they would be required within three years to give U.S. financial regulators full access to their accounts.
None of them gave it. Now, they’re forbidden by Chinese law to do so. The law also stipulates that if the companies failed to give that access, then the stock exchanges will be obliged by law to delist those companies. This is a confrontation, which can and will happen. This is not fiction. This is the law of the United States, and it will happen. I say in my first chapter that when this happens, this creates a financial crisis in China.
Mr. Jekielek: And, of course, that makes make some sense. We’ve had multiple examples of suddenly realizing the realities of these Chinese companies don’t reflect what the prospectus in the Western market says, with the information that’s been presented to Western investors.
Another thing I thought was an interesting observation. Over the last many decades, the U.S. has been extremely active in investing in China, right? Both the government and of course the private sector, in an accelerating way until fairly recently. Now, you make this observation in here: “No people on earth are less forgiving than the Americans when they believe their trust and friendship have been betrayed.”
I think in the last, let’s say, four or five years, we’ve seen kind of an increasing awareness of this. More and more Americans and of course others also are feeling betrayed. The whole coronavirus reality and how the Chinese Communist Party responded to that was a major step.
And now as we speak—and this part isn’t in your book, because perhaps it’s just so fresh—we’re beginning to realize that the Wuhan lab leak theory is indeed something that is plausible.
Of course, at The Epoch Times, we knew about this a year ago, we’ve made a whole documentary on the topic of the possible origins, but for much of the world, people assumed it was some sort of conspiracy theory. It’s another potential nail into this whole kind of question of trust. What do you think?
Mr. Garside: Hugely important. I think this is an epoch-changing issue. I mean, already, public opinion in all free societies can see that the totalitarian regime in China covered up the origins of COVID-19 and continues to refuse to allow an international investigation into the origins. It is vitally important, if we are to prevent further outbreaks from other viruses in the future, that we understand how this one came into being.
So there has been an extraordinary breach of trust and extraordinary denial of the truth. This has taught a new generation of people what totalitarian government looks like and how it acts—not only people abroad, but people within China.
There was a moment in February 2020, when there was a tsunami of outrage and grief when people learn through social media that a doctor in Wuhan, who had tried to warn the nation and the world of the virus, was silenced.
Mr. Jekielek: China is portrayed as a rapidly rising economic power. Right? And there’s definitely some truth to that. However you’re basically saying that there’s a kind of rot inside the system and there’s more facade than integrity to the financial system. How does this compare to the U.S. and the more normal capital markets that we see?
Mr. Garside: There has been great economic growth; there is dynamism in the Chinese economy. It’s in the private sector. But in 2008, the Communist Party concluded, had come to the conclusion, that if it continued the transition from the command economy to the market economy—which had brought great liberation of enterprise and energy in the Chinese people and great prosperity—if they continue that transition to the private market economy, that would undermine their political monopoly.
So they stopped it. And that’s when they had to start pumping in the credit, and when you got a whole lot of opacity in the financial systems increasing. You do not have a full market economy in China.
Contrast to the U.S. or the UK, where the commanding heights of the economy are open to the private sector, under regulation by the government. We have an open, transparent system, which doesn’t protect us from great fraud and corruption from time to time, but at least it is a self-regulating system.
We have, as a result of that, the strongest, deepest capital markets in the world. We have the deepest pool, biggest pool of free capital, which is mobile and can move around the world. We have the biggest banks, and we have control over the international banking system. And we have between us, the world’s major reserve currencies.
These things are great assets in the struggle for power with the Communist Party of China. This gives U.S. great economic superiority, we have got to use it with greater activism, with greater ambition, and with greater imagination.
We have made a beginning, particularly the U.S. has made a beginning, with the law about capital markets, the holding foreign companies to account law passed under the Trump administration. That made a beginning with the controls on export of technology for military purposes, possible military purposes, dual-use technologies to China.
The controls on investment to stop the communist regime from buying up our most advanced and sensitive technologies. That is a lead, which Europe has and the Japan have got to now follow. And we are beginning to do so.
Mr. Jekielek: A number of China observers, China experts that I know, have expressed deep concern about the strong lobby within America to support the Chinese, effectively the Chinese Communist Party, economically, which is Wall Street. The people have argued that Wall Street is the number one champion of basically pushing this capital into China.
Mr. Garside: Yes, I agree. And I see an alarming parallel with what happened under the Clinton administration. You may remember the Clinton administration came to power determined to use the most favored nation trading relationship’s annual renewal to demand improvement in human rights in China.
But corporate America was so keen to get into the Chinese market and to start investing in the Chinese labor force. They overwhelmed the Clinton administration on that. Yes, it is now a great challenge for the Biden administration to deal with Wall Street’s ambitions in China, which the Chinese Communist Party has been extremely adept at fostering.
They are machiavellian, realpolitik players par excellence, and so they have taken big steps to open up opportunities in China to our financial institutions and to attract more and more fund managers monies, to put money into China. And I don’t pretend that it’s going to be easy to deal with this.
But the reality is, the medium term reality is that, if we sell our freedom and our values in exchange for investment opportunities and trading opportunities, we will lose the system which has made Wall Street great and made the City of London great. We will lose that freedom; we will lose our rule of law.
And it won’t take very long, these things can be abolished with breathtaking speed. I think perhaps the biggest political challenge that our leaders face is dealing with our financial service industry.
Mr. Jekielek: Roger, I really appreciated in the book, how you make this interesting hypothetical scenario about how coup in China might come about. But you actually dedicate the bulk of the book to the realities in China that you feel contribute to such a scenario. And in fact your endnotes are a huge part of the book. You have a lot of references, which frankly I really appreciated looking up.
Mr. Garside: Well, it’s true. I devote three-quarters of the book to nonfictional analysis of what the real state of China is, and why I believe that the totalitarian regime is doomed, provided we work with those who want change in China. And one-quarter of it to how we might bring that about.
The three quarters is nonfiction; one quarter is semi-fiction: real people with real names, real histories in a real world context, but a storyline that is a marriage of imagination and prediction.
I developed that device because I thought it would be a challenge to people’s intellect and awaken their imagination in a way that conventional China-watching books don’t. Take the reader inside the minds of communist leaders, which is not been done by anybody else. But also ask the big “what if” America and it’s allies were going to do this, and the Chinese were going to respond in a certain way.
Mr. Jekielek: You’re not advocating for any country to be advocating top-down regime change or something like this. You’re basically encouraging the West to create a scenario where that change can happen internally in China.
Mr. Garside: Precisely, precisely. We cannot dictate how China is governed. What we can do is to help those Chinese who want to achieve democracy to achieve it.
Mr. Jekielek: In your mind, what are the key best things that can be done? You mentioned, of course, some of these laws that have been passed recently, and successful implementation of these. But what else do you have in mind?
Mr. Garside: Something else which is enormously important is to find ways to break down and break through the Great Firewall of China. In China today, we have a brainwashed population, we have millions of people who’ve never been taught the truth, denied the truth about our own country and about the world.
We have to find a way of breaking through the extremely efficient system of censorship. Because I believe that when the Chinese people know the truth, they will be outraged to learn the lies they have been fed, generation after generation and the tragedies which have been covered up generation after generation.
Mr. Jekielek: You’ve actually been a China watcher, I think you said, since 1958. Can you give me like a brief sketch of how? You’ve been a diplomat in China as well and in many other capacities. Tell me a little bit about your history, so our viewers can understand where you’re coming from.
Mr. Garside: Yes, you’re quite right. I first watched China in 1958, through a pair of army binoculars, when I spent 10 days in an observation post up on the Hong Kong-China border overlooking a peaceful valley, through which the border fence, the wire fence ran.
And on the hills across the valley, no doubt there were soldiers of the PLA watching us. That valley was peaceful by day. But by night, men and women from Mainland China were crawling through and under the wire to escape from the starvation, disease, and deaths that had been visited upon China by Mao’s Great Leap Forward.
That fascinated me, awakened the fascination with that huge, closed country that lay in front of me, which has stayed with me for the subsequent 63 years.
When I finished army, I went to university, and then I joined the Foreign Service. I volunteered to study Mandarin Chinese, I did that for two years. I was sent to Beijing during the Cultural Revolution. So I saw firsthand anarchy and violence. I resigned from the diplomatic service after that posting, because I was frustrated. I couldn’t see what use I could put my knowledge to in China. It was just stuck. And I went off to join the World Bank. That was a great learning experience.
But then I rejoined the diplomatic service, came back to China for a second tour of duty there. I’d moved from a country in total anarchy, violence, and anarchy of cultural revolution. I had moved through the United States, time of the Pentagon Papers, etc, a country which was ruled by law. So that was a great political education for me.
Then back to China in 1976. I was there for the death of Zhou Enlai, death of Mao Zedong, and the struggle for succession, won by Deng Xiaoping. Then I took two years of unpaid leave, went off to California, and wrote a book about how Deng Xiaoping had won that struggle for the succession and what he was going to do with his power.
I didn’t go back to China after that diplomatic event, after that. I did other things in my life. The last 10 years of my economically gainful life were not as a diplomat, but running a small but very international advisory company, advising countries that were making a transition from the command economy to the market economy on how to create capital markets.
I started that up as the Berlin Wall fell. Months after the Berlin Wall fell, I had my company up and running and we were working in Hungary and Russia and the Czech Republic or wherever. I saw social, political, economic change on the frontline in these countries which were undergoing the great transition.
So when in my retirement I decided to write about China again, I brought with me a baggage of knowledge and experience, which is unique amongst people who write books about China, actually. And I guess it gave me a kind of confidence in judging and making up my mind about the realities in China and enabled me to look a bit behind that facade that we talked about earlier.
Mr. Jekielek: We talked a little bit earlier about this pervasive lack of trust under the Chinese Communist Party and how it’s systemic and to some extent, unavoidable in the way the system works right now.
One of the things that you really tackle in the book is this moral dimension. Because this trust is connected with this idea that the party is supposed to become the decider around morality and so forth. But you also mentioned that there isn’t this belief in Marxism anymore, leaving a moral vacuum, which I guess the Communist Party had no hope of filling.
Mr. Garside: There certainly is moral decay and a moral vacuum: no trust, no truth. People have spent 70 years under a regime which lies to them, day in and day out. There’s a saying on the internet in China: if they’ve [the CCP has] denied something, that probably means it’s true.
A lot of people in China, millions, tens of millions, hundreds of millions of people, have found that the prosperity which has come is not enough to make sense of life, to give meaning to life. And they have looked to religion for that. All five major religions, as they are classified by the Communist Party, which exist in China have enjoyed explosive growth in the era since 1979.
Christianity is particularly noteworthy in this, because it has attracted many of the brightest, best-educated, socially and economically successful people in … China.
So, alongside this loss of public ethics, you see a private search for meaning and for morality. China, before communism was a land which for much of its history was ruled by ethics, not law, rule by ethics. So it feels, the people of China instinctively feel the loss of public ethics. Very deep.
Mr. Jekielek: Just the other day, I had breakfast with Johnnie Moore, who was one of the USCIRF (U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom) commissioners. Recently the State Department sanctioned one of the leaders of the 610 Office, which was the organization that was created—actually on the day we’re recording this interview, June 10, 1999—to basically destroy the Falun Gong spiritual movement. The day that this sanction was put out, Johnnie Moore was sanctioned by the Chinese Communist Party in retaliation.
Of course, he’s an evangelical pastor and fairly prominent figure in those circles. I asked him, “Why do you think that they sanctioned you after this specifically?” And he said, “I think they fear Falun Gong practitioners and evangelicals working together.”
And this makes me think of—and you talk about this in your book—the biggest enemy of the Chinese Communist Party, at least if you look at the spending they do on security, is actually inside China. They fear the Chinese people, a lot more than they fear any external enemy.
Mr. Garside: This is true. Since 2011, the budget for internal security has been greater than the budget for the military. One can only conclude that they are more afraid of internal dissent than they are their foreign enemies.
Religion and spiritual practices such as Falun Gong strike at the heart of communist self-faith. Because they say there is no higher authority than the Communist Party. And yet, every religion says, “Yes, there is. There is God who is the supreme authority.” So I have a chapter: “Who rules: God or the Party?”
There’s a political dimension to it, of course, which is tremendously important. That is a totalitarian regime cannot tolerate autonomous civil organizations, non-governmental organizations. They allow them in name to exist in China, but they have to be controlled. But it’s true in religion. In a sense, Falun Gong is a non-governmental organization, which spread like wildfire.
And it was a terrifying experience for the leaders of the Communist Party. Something beyond their understanding, something beyond their control, something which strikes at the heart of their materialist philosophy, to the extent that they believe in any philosophy.
Mr. Jekielek: I’d like you to clarify this very specifically. I don’t think it’s generally understood that China under the Chinese Communist Party is in fact totalitarian, versus authoritarian. What is that distinction?
Mr. Garside: As defined by the great historian of the Soviet Union, Robert Conquest, and other American historians, a totalitarian state is one which extends its authority and control into every sphere where that is feasible. And if you look at the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China, it is spelt out that the highest authority is the Communist Party of China in every sphere.
Now, as a practical matter, Deng Xiaoping, when he came to power, in ‘78 or ‘79, recognized that the Communist Party had been unable to eliminate religion in China, and that it would be wise to tolerate it under control. And for decades, until Xi Jinping, there was a kind of modus vivendi negotiated at a local level, under which there was a considerable measure of political toleration.
But Xi Jinping coming to power put a stop to that. Because Xi Jinping is, I think, a convinced totalitarian, and he wants to put the Party’s authority into every sphere of life. So, not only religion has been persecuted, but private sector companies now are obliged to have Party cells, which can pull the shots on anything, any decision in that company, in its governance.
An authoritarian government—such as we see successful ones in places like Singapore—keep themselves out of, do not dictate to, religions for instance, as a sphere. But under Xi Jinping, every sphere has to be under the control of the Party. And he is enforcing that to the extent that he can or that they can under his leadership.
Mr. Jekielek: Basically you lay out in your book how that sort of a structure ultimately is doomed to fail.
Mr. Garside: I believe so. But this is a matter of my faith in human nature. Though it’s not only a matter of faith, it’s a matter of pragmatic judgment too. Because as I spell out in the book, the totalitarian regime in China has created deep seated problems.
From 2008 onwards, it couldn’t continue the transition to the market economy. It had to start pumping credit into the economy to keep the level of employment up, to prevent mass unemployment, to prevent many corporate defaults.
So we’ve got artificial activity going on, a problem which would not have existed if they had been prepared to enter into political competition with other parties, submit themselves to the judgment of the people as to whether they should be reelected.
No, they are totalitarians; they are going to hold on to power. The same totalitarian system with political imperatives of corruption. Rebuilding a party, through greed and corruption, to make it pay to be an official of the Communist Party.
In the environment, we talked earlier about totalitarian regimes prohibiting any autonomous non-governmental organization from becoming vigorous and growing freely. If you want to control pollution in a country, it is essential to have non-governmental organizations which will monitor the real situation on the ground, monitor the implementation of pollution control laws, expose those businessmen or politicians, their cronies in cahoots with each other, overriding the law to control pollution.
But in China, the totalitarian regime will not permit an environmental movement. And so, in area after area of cultural life, they dare not allow freedom of expression. In area after area of life, you see problems being created which cannot be changed without a change of system.
If you’re Li Keqiang, premier of China, you know that, you grew up in this system. And you know the problems better than Roger Garside sitting in South London. The question is, will they do anything about it? And I believe they will, for reasons we discussed earlier.
Totalitarianism is a system which allows people a bit of freedom here, there, there, where it sees it as useful. But it never gives an absolute right to any freedom. There is no absolute human right to anything in China. Everything depends upon a party, which gives and can take back.
Authoritarian regimes do allow a measure of the rule of law. In Singapore, you had the rule of law inherited, if I may say so, from the British, ditto, Hong Kong.
Mr. Jekielek: Since you published the book, we’ve had these updates, for example this broader realization that coronavirus may have originated from the Wuhan lab. How do you see your prediction in light of developments since you published?
Mr. Garside: Well, I am reinforced in my belief that a crisis is coming in China. The communist regime is vulnerable. But I do not believe that the totalitarian regime will be destroyed solely by dynamics within China. I think it’s absolutely essential that the U.S. and its allies go on to the offensive.
I’m not a warmonger; I don’t believe in military control, invading across the strait of Taiwan or something. No, but we are engaged in a war for freedom. The Chinese Communist Party—not China, not the Chinese people, let’s be quite clear about the distinction—the Chinese Communist Party launched this war, and it is in Xi Jinping’s own words, aiming at global domination.
It’s no secret, he put it in his speeches. And they are spending vast amounts of money to influence our societies in many, many subtle ways that we hardly even recognize at the moment.
We have to do far more to expose what they’ve already done and are doing in our societies: cyber threat, industrial espionage, the subversion of Chinese language newspapers. I mean, they have taken control of virtually every Chinese language newspaper outside of China except The Epoch Times. Am I right?
Mr. Jekielek: Virtually, yeah.
Mr. Garside: Virtually, virtually, right. It is very frightening. We face a prospect of a China which, despite its economic problems growing, has set itself the goal of making major leaps forward in advanced technologies of control.
If we do not counterattack against this ambitious and dangerous regime, we are going to lose our freedom. We cannot just sit back and say, we have right on our side, we will make a better job of running our own countries. Yes, we’ve got to do that. But we’ve also got to find the vulnerabilities. We’ve got to educate our people of the peril which faces us.
Our leaders face the biggest challenge, a more sophisticated, more complex challenge than they ever faced with the Soviet Union. Because, our economies and societies are so deeply interwoven. We have so many vested interests now invested in China and trade with China.
But I believe that democracies have a strength of creativity, which surpasses that of totalitarian regimes. And I believe that in the next 5, 10 years, we can develop the strategy we need to win this war for freedom.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, Roger Garside, it’s such a pleasure to have you on.
Mr. Garside: It’s been a great pleasure to be asked such interesting and challenging questions. Thank you Jan.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
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