Lost up north

Living with China by Wendy Dobson

Review of Living with China: A Middle Power Finds Its Way, by Wendy Dobson. University of Toronto Press, 2019.

China’s former premier once criticized his country’s economy as “unstable, unbalanced, uncoordinated, and unsustainable.” Regrettably, it can also serve as a succinct summary of the worldview, focus, recommendations, and implications of a new book on Canada’s relationship with China.

Wendy Dobson, a Canadian academic specializing in economic analysis and policy, writes amid a trying moment in Canada-China relations. It is not enough that Canada’s largest trading partner, the United States, is engaged in a broad-ranging economic conflict, with its second largest partner, China. Since December 2018, when Canada honored a US request and arrested Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou, China has responded with fierce political and economic retaliation. Coinciding with revelations about China’s efforts to influence and interfere with Canadian institutions and society, there has been a marked drop in favorable Canadian attitudes about Beijing.

But even before the deterioration in ties, recognition was emerging in Canada, as it was in other Western middle powers such as Australia and New Zealand, that it needed to reevaluate its relationship with China as the country’s importance grew and it appeared to no longer be on the path of liberalization.

For a book that declares boldly in its opening pages that Canada “lacks a China strategy,” it subsequently fails to deliver. Instead, all but the final chapter of this slim volume is devoted to Chinese politics in the Xi era, its economy, and growing international ambitions. None of this analysis surpasses other treatments on the topics nor offers a Canadian lens with which to appreciate their implications. 

Despite acknowledging all that has changed in the relationship, and perhaps most critically within China itself under Xi Jinping, Dobson nonetheless maintains the usual sloganeering of a strategy based on “mutual respect, accommodation, and genuine discussion of differences in values and institutions.” But what if, as all evidence suggests, China is unwilling to engage on any of those terms?

Unsurprising not because of Dobson’s background, but the book’s nominally broader ambitions, is the emphasis on trade. Specifically, now that a comprehensive free trade agreement Canada had pursued is no longer viable, she advocates for narrower sectoral agreements. But Dobson never satisfyingly explains why the appropriate response to a country to which Canada is already at risk of economic coercion is to increase opportunities for that coercion even more. In another instance, that she takes an agreement to not commit state-directed cyberattacks for something other than what it is – empty – is a stunning display of naivete given that Australia’s parliament and main political parties were subject to such an attack in May.

These failures only underscore Dobson’s motivation that middle powers need new China strategies that also take into account a relatively less powerful and, regrettably, less dependable, United States. Yet, declarations that “Canada will need to continue to find a way to live with China by carrying through its commitment to promote trade, investment, security, and other common interests, seeking to engage Communist Party officials and civil society in the pursuit of global and long-term interests, while standing up for its values” is a near exact inversion of what should be any nation’s priorities.

The rush to return to the status quo ante is one that other Canadians are rightfully reconsidering. David Mulroney, a former Canadian ambassador to China, has written that “given the undeniable evidence of China’s hostility to core Canadian interests, starting with the safety of our citizens, we urgently need to reconsider our approach.” He challenges the guiding “fictions” of Canada’s approach to China that is premised on the notion of a China that, among other things, is inherently peaceful, does not interfere in other countries’ affairs, and bestows trade as a favor on friendly nations. 

Instead of prioritizing bilateral engagement, middle powers such as Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand, ought to refocus their attention on strengthening their alliances and consider a joint approach to China. Together, they are the world’s fourth largest economy after the US, EU, and China and rank similarly in terms of defense spending. Their collective strength and values would make it harder for China to continue its coercive course.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to read in the appointment as the next Canadian ambassador to China of Dominic Barton, former managing director of the consultancy McKinsey & Company, with which this reviewer has also been affiliated, anything other than an attempt to return to doing business, whatever the costs to Canada’s values and autonomy. This book will be an all too useful guide on that mistaken mission.

September news trends

Stories about the trade war and Hong Kong protests continued to lead China-focused coverage in September, according to a China Books Review analysis of Google News data.

CNBC remained the most prolific publisher of stories about the country and this month led with the most number of stories in the top three positions of Google News results.

The stories that were featured for the most number of days included a look at how Hong Kong’s relationship with the mainland has evolved; reporting on how China justifies its oppressive tactics in Xinjiang to other Chinese; and two stories on China’s economy, one refracted through the lens of US politics.

Introduced last month, news trends takes a quantitative approach to understanding the stories and publications that are driving coverage of China. The data is based on the stories that appear during daily queries on Google News for the term “China.”

Who are the most influential China-focused tweeters?

A sample network graph produced by CBR’s analysis

Twitter, at its best, offers immediate, direct, and transparent conversation on the most important issues of the day. But it can also be a driver of polarization and misinformation. To its credit, global China-watchers maintain one of the Twitter communities that most consistently realizes the platform’s positive potential.

But who are the most influential China-focused tweeters? CBR is introducing an index to find out, weighting equally public and elite influence. The former is measured by the number of followers an account has and the latter by an account’s betweenness centrality, a measure used in network analysis that quantifies how connected an individual is to other prominent accounts. Three rankings were produced for individual accounts predominantly tweeting in English or Chinese and institutional accounts in any language.

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Who’s searching about the trade war? Not Trump states.

The trade war took another of its many turns this week as the United States and China agreed to resume talks in October, sending markets higher. The news is presumably a fillip for Trump-leaning states, which have been disproportionately and purposefully targeted by China’s retaliatory tariffs. That is, if they’re paying attention. A new analysis for China Books Review finds that the states that most strongly supported Donald Trump in the 2016 election are the least likely to search Google for information about the trade war.

States that voted for Trump in 2016 are least likely to search Google for info about the "trade war"
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August news trends

Hong Kong was the most frequent topic of articles aggregated by Google News related to China in August, according to a quantitative news analysis by China Books Review. The analysis, which will be published monthly, uses daily Google News results for stories related to China to identify key trends.

Google News is an important aggregator and, for many publishers, it and the Google search engine account for the plurality of their web traffic. Thus, the stories that Google News elevates plays an important role in shaping popular understanding of China. In August, the data set included 1,575 unique articles from some 200 publications. Article titles mentioning Hong Kong constituted 10% of those aggregated, closely followed by the trade war.

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People’s Republic of California

Review of The Transpacific Experiment by Matt Sheehan

Review of The Transpacific Experiment: How China and California Collaborate and Compete for Our Future, by Matt Sheehan. Counterpoint, 2019.

“To see where the world’s two most powerful countries are meeting, cooperating, and competing today, we need to get outside of Washington, D.C., and Beijing.” Look instead to California. From tech to Hollywood, education to foreign investment, real estate and politics, California is the hub of reciprocal influences that affect and are affected by a rising China more than any other state.

Matt Sheehan, a self-described “journalist, analyst, consultant, and general hanger-on,” captures this “fluid ecosystem of students, entrepreneurs, investors, immigrants, and ideas” in the Transpacific Experiment. Along the way, Sheehan introduces readers to a Beijing tech start-up founded by Chinese returnees from Silicon Valley and rides along with Chinese looking to buy California real estate.

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Few US TikTok users know the app is Chinese, but it could matter if they did

The social media app TikTok has been downloaded more than 80 million times in the United States, as users entertain each other with an endless stream of short videos recommended by artificial intelligence. Its success makes it the most popular social media app in America produced by a Chinese company. A new survey for China Books Review finds that few Americans are aware of the app’s ownership, but if they were to learn the app was Chinese, many would be less likely to use it.

Only 24% of respondents correctly answered that the app’s owners were based in China, worse than had the respondents answered at random. 33% of respondents said they would be somewhat or significantly less likely to use the app if they knew the app was made by a Chinese company, compared to 21% if they knew it was by an American company, just within the margin of error. When asked how the country of origin would affect how they thought about the privacy of their information on the app, users were also more likely to be concerned if they knew the app was made by a Chinese company than an American one.

According to an exclusive survey for China Books Review, few US TikTok users know the app is Chinese, but it could matter to their usage and perceived privacy if they did.
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There and back again

Out of the Gobi by Weijian Shan

Review of Out of the Gobi by Weijian Shan. Wiley, 2019.

Weijian Shan is one of China’s most accomplished financiers. But like many of his generation who have led China’s renaissance of the past 40 years, his path was far from assured. His formal education was halted after elementary school, when Shan became one of the millions of young people exiled to the countryside as part of the Cultural Revolution. In his remarkable new memoir, Shan relives those years of constant hunger and crushing labor, and the historic twists that would transform his life while China reformed.

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Follow the leader

Review of Leadership and the Rise of Great Powers by Yan Xuetong. Princeton, 2019.

Howard French, the acclaimed China journalist, has spoken of a Chinese “instinct” by which any problem requires a Chinese answer even if other solutions are already in existence. In Leadership and the Rise of Great Powers, Yan Xuetong, a professor of international affairs at Tsinghua University, has tasked himself with the responsibility of articulating the Chinese answer to the biggest problem in international affairs: navigating the shift in global power prompted by the country’s rise. As a rare book-length articulation of leading Chinese thinking on international affairs in English, the book merits readership beyond what its academic prose would otherwise invite.

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BRI: Belt and Road and Islam

China and the Islamic World

Review of China and the Islamic World by Robert Bianchi. Oxford, 2019.

As China builds out its globe-spanning network of infrastructure, another commonality binds together the Southeast and Central Asian, Middle East and African nations in which it is operating: China’s key partner in each region is predominantly Muslim. This is the framing with which Robert Bianchi, a political scientist and lawyer, approaches his book on China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Centered on profiles of six nations – Pakistan, Turkey, Indonesia, Iran, Nigeria, and Egypt – Bianchi details the complicated political situations (often with sectarian or ethnic dimensions) China is simultaneously entering. Contrary to the narrative of a Chinese hegemon corrupting local societies, Bianchi finds that civil societies have often been successful in spurring their leaders and China to make substantive changes. Moreover, he underscores that the leaders of these nations have regional ambitions of their own, with plans “to influence China at least as much as China influences them.”

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