Unavoidable reality

Review of The Avoidable War: The Dangers of a Catastrophic Conflict between the US and Xi Jinping’s China by Kevin Rudd. Public Affairs, 2022. 

Kevin Rudd, former Australian prime minister and diplomat, takes pride in being a zhengyou, or honest friend, to both the United States and China. As with others who aspire to this role, the burden of his public truth-telling is imposed mostly upon the former.

There is a “profound sense of difference, mystery, and confusion about what China is about, what it is becoming, and what this may mean for American interests, values, and the future of US global leadership,” he writes. This is not surprising because “Americans have been asked to come to terms with a people, culture, and political system that lies way beyond traditional American frames of reference.” 

By contrast, Chinese leader Xi Jinping “is no neophyte in his understanding of America” before conceding mere sentences later that “his understanding of America has always been intermediated through official Chinese sources of translation, which are not always known for accuracy, subtlety, or nuance.” (He also incorrectly states that no American leader has ever spoken or read Chinese. In fact, Herbert Hoover and his wife, Lou, both spoke Mandarin.) 

While Rudd is animated by a belief that better American understanding of China would reduce the risk of conflict, the irony is that even Rudd’s strenuously balanced presentation does not diminish the reality of China’s challenge, but adds clarity to it.

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Never going back again

Review of The United States vs. China: The Quest for Global Economic Leadership by C. Fred Bergsten. Polity, 2022. 

Within the next few decades, assuming their current charters are followed, the IMF and World Bank will be headquartered in China as the world’s largest economy. By this time, China, which has gotten “the best of both worlds from the present international order” by gaining “hugely from the order’s openness while cheating on the rules” may well have managed to rewrite those rules in its favor. 

C. Fred Bergsten, founding director of the Peterson Institute of International Economics, seeks to “fill a critical gap in the other voluminous literature on the rise of China” by focusing on the contest for global economic leadership. Regrettably, the book breaks no new ground in its assertions that the United States must not abdicate global leadership, that it must get its domestic affairs in order, and that some compromise with China is inevitable. 

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Language lessons

Review of Kingdom of Characters by Jing Tsu. Penguin, 2022.

Language can feel simultaneously personal and monumental, in flux and inviolate. Thus, the extent to which the sheer conditionality with which the Chinese language navigated the twentieth century is a jarring realization. Imagine if, in classrooms from Beijing to Boston, students were perfecting the Cantonese exclamation “la” instead of the “er” of the Beijing Mandarin accent. And instead of committing thousands of characters to memory, students penned their essays in alphabetic script. These are among the plausible outcomes that could have become the Chinese language as China navigated its revolutionary tumult.

In this history of the Chinese language’s progression to modernity, Yale professor Jing Tsu has produced a work that transcends linguistics to encompass history and culture, politics and diplomacy, and economics and innovation with great elegance and concision. Each chapter captures the evolution of Chinese, from the push to make Mandarin the national language and the pursuit of a practical Chinese typewriter to how to render the language in the electronic age. The Chinese language “pushed to the brink every universalist claim of Western technology, from telegraphy to Unicode.” Rendering Chinese into numbers so that it could be transmitted over telegraph via Morse code required more than just an ingenious classification system so that characters could be easily referenced. It also required diplomacy to grant China an exception from international convention which made numbers costlier to send than letters.

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The year in China 2021

Rendering of most common words from news headlines on China in 2021. Sources: Google News, WordClouds.com, China Books Review

Shortly after becoming general secretary in 2012, Xi Jinping warned that the Soviet Union fell because “no one was man enough to stand up and resist” the politically destabilizing effects of liberalization. In the years since, Xi has acted with intense faithfulness to that premise in an effort to prevent the same fate from befalling China. This was no less true in 2021, as China’s political, economic, and social landscape were heavily influenced by Xi Jinping’s campaign to secure a third term as leader. But the focus of this year’s regulatory blitz appeared notably different from Xi’s first decade in power, which sought to arrest the CCP’s internal decay after years of breakneck growth. Instead, the preemptive firewall that emerged this year betrayed concerns about social instability and in the government’s calls for “common prosperity,” its cause: the specter of economic stagnation.

The Communist Party’s actions can be summarized as four preemptive strikes against instability: a renegotiation of the terms of its performance legitimacy; action, much of it potentially counterproductive, against inequality; the elimination of alternative sources of mass leadership from the business and entertainment community; and the continued usurpation of technological tools as an alternative form of governance and control. 

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Briefly noted

Review of Rethinking Chinese Politics by Joseph Fewsmith. Cambridge, 2021. 

Joseph Fewsmith, a professor at Boston University, examines the leadership transitions between Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao, and Xi Jinping to conclude that the notion that Chinese politics was institutionalizing was never in fact the case. Fewsmith writes that the Communist Party “cannot be institutionalized without destroying what makes it a Leninist party” – that is, hierarchical, mobilizational, and task-oriented. Each leadership transition has been circumstantially contingent and not without systemic risk as the outgoing leader seeks to preserve their influence, factions pursue a favorable realignment of the balance of power, and the new leader endeavors to establish their own autonomy. One wishes for more guidance on the extent to which Xi’s strength has come at the Party’s expense and, when Xi does ultimately seek to designate a successor, how the West should be prepared to respond. 

The Party’s response to the coronavirus pandemic is outside Fewsmith’s scope, but is nonetheless an apt illustration of the tradeoffs of Xi’s centralization of power. In pursuing a post-vaccination Covid-zero policy, the country has avoided a still considerable number of likely deaths, but at the cost of isolation unbecoming of a global power, a growing sense of frustration among those disrupted by the stringent controls, an economic recovery hindered by repeated lockdowns, the forgoing of the productivity gains experienced by other societies which have responded to the pandemic with a reimagination of work and life, and the likely inability to reverse course without damage to its perceived authority. Studies have suggested that China’s people tend to have greater confidence in the central as opposed to local government. One seeming consequence of greater centralization is that this gap will close, most likely in the direction that is unfavorable to the Party’s long-run control.

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Shanghai dreaming

Review of Middle Class Shanghai: Reshaping US-China Engagement by Cheng Li. Brookings, 2021. 

Cover after fictional cover of The Shanghairen, a recent collaborative art project styled after The New Yorker, captures what has long captivated the world about Shanghai. In its sophistication and self-assuredness, the breathtaking grandness of its skyline and the unexpected intimacy of its shikumen, Shanghai reigns as mainland China’s only true global city. A source of nostalgia and inspiration for many, Shanghai is also the focal point of the illusion, to which many Chinese and Westerners alike have professed belief, in both the city’s semi-colonial and reform eras, that Shanghai constitutes a vision of China’s future. Cheng Li, based at the Brookings Institution, continues this tradition in Middle Class Shanghai: Reshaping US-China Engagement, a thought-provoking, but ultimately unconvincing work. 

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In search of China’s Ohio

The state of Ohio is an American bellwether. In politics, the path to power is a narrow one without it: President Biden is the first since Kennedy to capture the White House without winning the state. But the wisdom of “so goes Ohio, so goes the nation” extends beyond politics; the state’s capital, Columbus, has long been known as a test market that determines the national and even global fate of consumer concepts. While the state’s demographics increasingly diverge from the United States overall, it remains a potent synecdoche for America.

Geographic analogies of Chinese cities are common: Macau is China’s Las Vegas, Shanghai its New York, Shenzhen its Silicon Valley, and so on. But which province is China’s Ohio? To answer, in the demographic, but not political, sense, China Books Review constructed a similarity index based on six measures: each province’s urban ethnicity mix, age breakdown, educational attainment, and overall consumption, how that consumption is split among various categories, and the split of regional GDP among primary, secondary, and tertiary sectors. Ethnicity, age and educational data are based on the 2010 census (equivalent data from China’s 2020 census are not yet readily available) while the remaining items are sourced from the 2019 statistical yearbook, based on 2018 data. 

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Stop playing

Review of The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order by Rush Doshi. Oxford, 2021. 

One of the more horrifying realizations of your correspondent’s undergraduate years came when an international classmate expressed their intention to join their country’s security services and participate in its forever conflict, not with the aim of contributing to a durable resolution, but to partake in the great game of its perpetuation. 

Perhaps the horror arose from an American idealist’s predisposition towards a teleological interpretation of history confronting a darker, cyclical understanding. But, more likely, it was the realization that careerism was not just an affliction of certain classmates destined for Wall Street, with consequences potentially far more grave. 

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Undiplomatic

Review of China’s Civilian Army: The Making of Wolf Warrior Diplomacy by Peter Martin. Oxford, 2021

Diplomacy, it has been said, is “the art of telling people to go to hell in such a way that they ask for directions.” China’s diplomats are considerate enough to share directions without waiting to be asked, having become notorious in recent years for their increasingly strident tone. The cause has less to do with China’s hubris, although it is certainly a factor, than it does with the insecurity of China’s diplomats in a political system that does not trust the world and, by extension, them. 

Peter Martin, a reporter for Bloomberg, writes in his new history of the People’s Republic of China’s diplomats that this dynamic has been inherent from the very beginning. The book’s title comes from a still-invoked mission that China’s diplomats are to be “the People’s Liberation Army in civilian clothing.” That aspiration was literal: the PRC’s first diplomats as a new nation were senior PLA officers prized for their loyalty but who had little to no experience with foreigners, let alone command of languages or diplomacy. 

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