The year in China 2020

Most common China-related headline topics in 2020 via Google News

There is nothing that requires the event that defines a year to happen within it. So it was with this year when, in the waning days of 2019, a then-unknown virus began to spread rapidly from individuals who had frequented a wet market in Wuhan, China. Local officials, nearly two decades after SARS, defaulted to their usual approach to bad news: a cover-up. But, as citizens and leaders the world over would confront in manifold ways this year, a virus is impervious to political imperatives. 

Soon, in part thanks to the heroic efforts of Li Wenliang, a doctor whom local police sought to silence and ultimately succumbed to the virus, the central government took notice, but waited to act, allowing the virus to further spread during the largest annual human migration that surrounds the Chinese New Year. 

As reports from Wuhan grew more grave, the world looked on, many simultaneously doubting the statistics reported by Beijing and taking false comfort in the suggestion that human transmission was limited, guidance repeated unquestioningly by the World Health Organization. They saw China’s rush to build entirely new hospitals as emblematic of the failures of a development model that sees in every problem an engineering solution. They bristled at the sharply enforced lockdowns intended to slow the virus’s spread. They mistakenly saw the virus as a Chinese problem. 

But China is vastly more connected to the rest of the world than it was when SARS broke out. Foreign executives, suddenly made aware that some critical component for which no ready alternative existed was fabricated in Wuhan, began to panic. But it is not just supply chains, but human connections that touch every corner of the globe. The virus exploited them. 

In another 2020, free governments would have heeded the warnings of their scientists and begun to prepare for the virus’ inevitable arrival on their shores. Their citizens, trusting in their institutions and united in common cause with each other, would have begun to act decisively to prevent hundreds of thousands of deaths. In another 2020, popular anger at the CCP’s handling of the virus and subsequent economic fallout might have forced a chastened Xi Jinping to roll back his autocratic consolidation of power. 

But this was not that 2020. While many nations, including China, succeeded in rallying their institutions and citizens to contain the virus, America, misled by Donald Trump, was chief among those which made a mockery of itself. Meanwhile, China made bold moves in nearly every domain. In one view, China acted boldly to assert its interests while the world was distracted; in another, recognizing that the virus eviscerated what little tailwinds remained of its destined incomplete rise, the country acted to seize as much as it could while it could.

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Nation and narration

Review of Why Fiction Matters in Contemporary China by David Der-wei Wang. Brandeis, 2020. 

Fiction has been integral to China’s pursuit of reinvention since the waning days of the Qing dynasty. In fiction, revolutionary-era thinkers such as Liang Qichao saw it as a means to “transform the mentality and morale of the Chinese people.” While one’s nation is a galvanizing lodestar for writers everywhere, in China there remains no subject as important as the country itself. There, Harvard’s David Der-wei Wang explains, fiction takes on relatively greater weight as an act of fabulation as opposed to fabrication. This allows it to serve as a vehicle for “both a continuation of and an intervention in history.” 

Mao, and his Party, recognized that in the mastery of narrative there is the basis for a claim to legitimacy. Such mastery presents an opportunity not only to articulate but realize world-making ambitions. Thus, when Xi Jinping in 2013 exhorted his nation to “tell the good China story,” Wang sees more than propaganda at work, arguing it “deserves a serious inquiry into its cultural logic and political potential.” The “China Dream” and “community of common destiny” constitute the arc of a narrative Xi is inviting, and at times coercing, the world to fulfill. They are a belated recognition of the limits of technocratic targets to inspire.

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Mixed legacy

Review of The Last Kings of Shanghai: The Rival Jewish Dynasties that Helped Create Modern China by Jonathan Kaufman. Viking, 2020.

Whatever else may give them cause for dispute, China and the world will always have the majesty of Shanghai to agree upon. Two families, the Sassoons and Kadoories, would be as instrumental as any in delivering Shanghai’s destiny “as the permanent emporium of trade between [China] and all nations of the world,” that a colonial newspaper once foresaw. From a role in the founding of banking giant HSBC to building the legendary Cathay Hotel on the Bund, their legacy is palpable.

So too is the sense of moral ambiguity that pervades this history. While in some ways progressive for their era towards Chinese, the families were complicit in the ravages of the opium trade.  At the same time that the two clans kept the Chinese at the periphery of their world, the British elite kept the families (if not their largesse) at a remove from theirs on account of their faith. The families’ role in saving thousands of Jews who sought refuge from Nazi persecution would be among their greatest legacy.

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Buying time

Review of Welfare for Autocrats: How Social Assistance in China Cares for its Rulers by Jennifer Pan. Oxford, 2020.

Mixing qualitative and novel quantitative methods, Stanford’s Jennifer Pan offers an illuminating case study of the logic governing China’s party-state and its people’s relationship to it. The focus of her study is Dibao, a minimum income program, which has been partially coopted in the interests of the government’s obsession with “stability maintenance.”

Contrary to perceptions of China as unforgiving to those guilty of “obstructing social order” – the euphemistic and largest annual category of prosecutions –  the state is often willing to bargain with those who threaten small-scale challenges to its authority. One means of doing so is prioritizing the provision of benefits to individuals who have run afoul of the government. The intent is to both inculcate a dependence on the government that may temper future disruptions and create a pretext for surveillance in the guise of welfare calls. In one experiment, Pan finds that governments are more likely to respond to online requests for assistance that include a vague allusion to collective action than those which do not.

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Competitive coexistence

Review of Where Great Powers Meet: America and China in Southeast Asia by David Shambaugh. Oxford, 2020.

Southeast Asia is framed as the front line of America and China’s global competition. That is, to some degree, self-serving for the region, whose countries seek to balance China’s economic opportunities with American security guarantees. But why this dynamic must be framed as a competition at all, for reasons other than for the sake of competition itself, is an elusive subject in a new survey of the region. 

The ten nations of Southeast Asia, which collectively possess a population of more than 600 million and an economy comparable to France, are highly diverse, encompassing archipelagos and a city-state, the very rich and very poor, secular states as well as the world’s largest Muslim nation. Geographically, Southeast Asia bestrides a crucial choke point in global trade. Considerable naval resources have been devoted to ensuring freedom of navigation and preventing the denial of access should conflict arise; China has also invested aggressively in infrastructure in the region that allow it to bypass the strait.

It would be one thing if American and Chinese competition were limited to the sea; but it extends well inland, taking on a wide array of economic and diplomatic dimensions whose rationale, at least for the United States, merits scrutiny. For Beijing, the desire to assure the stability of its immediate region is clear and the region’s economic potential an added bonus. But for the United States, which does not share China’s mercantilist outlook, and which could conceivably achieve its strategic objectives with a far narrower commitment of resources, why need this be a competition at all?

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Red before green

Review of China Goes Green: Coercive Environmentalism for a Troubled Planet by Yifei Li and Judith Shapiro. Polity, 2020. 

One can fault China’s leaders for many things, but rarely for lack of a plan. Xi Jinping’s declaration before a virtual convening of the UN General Assembly this fall that the country would aim for carbon neutrality by 2060 is a case in point. While the target’s ambition was matched by the absence of meaningful detail about how it would be reached, China’s commitment nonetheless raised global hopes that the world may yet avert environmental catastrophe. That is because of the perception that China’s authoritarian political system is uniquely able to take decisive and effective action. 

But as the environmental researchers Judith Shapiro and Yifei Li explain in their new book, China Goes Green, this perception is largely unwarranted. Yes, the Party has nominally embraced environmentalism, but often as a means to “strengthen the authority and reach of the state” and, frequently, with negative environmental consequences. 

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Let shareholders have a say on decoupling

The proxy statement is an annual rite of shareholder democracy. Votes to elect directors and, in recent years, approve executive pay routinely receive support greater than 90%. In addition to the matters put before investors by companies, investors too have the opportunity to put issues up for a vote. These proposals run the gamut of environmental, social, and governance matters. With rare exceptions, these shareholder proposals fail. One proposal that ought to be put before investors – and pass – is the extent to which companies are exposed to China.

Until recently, American corporations have been one of the most consistent advocates for engagement with China. This was driven largely by genuine enthusiasm about the potential of the country’s market. Even as corporations privately complained about theft of intellectual property or unfair competition, they justified their continued presence in China because they believed conditions would improve and also because investors expected them to be there.

But if corporations looked beyond the next quarter of their Excel spreadsheets, many might find that the net present value of their continued presence in China’s market is negative. This is not only because western corporations are confronting declining market share in a slowing Chinese economy. Indeed, the decision would be justified even if deteriorating US-China relations were not putting them at risk of being collateral damage.

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Not yet, possibly never

Has China Won  by Kishore Mahbubani

Review of Has China Won: the Chinese Challenge to American Primacy by Kishore Mahbubani. Public Affairs, 2020.

“Singapore has to take the world as it is; it is too small to change it,” the city-state’s late founding father Lee Kuan Yew wrote. But that belies how Singapore’s geostrategic and symbolic importance, reputation for strong governance, and clear-eyed diplomacy have long earned it the respect and ability to play truth-teller to both Washington and Beijing. 

Its status as a majority ethnic Chinese democracy, security partner with the United States, and its position along the most important strait in the global economy, assure it an important role in the US-China contest. In that capacity, Singapore is consistently principled, fiercely insistent on its own autonomy, an advocate for a rules-based order on which its status as an economic hub is built, and a masterful balancer between the United States and China. 

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Lively, if not free

Review of Voices from the Chinese Century, edited by Timothy Cheek, David Ownby, and Joshua Fogel. Columbia, 2019. 

Perhaps what is most telling about this anthology of contemporary Chinese intellectuals is how preoccupied its writers are with the ghosts of China’s past, and less with the future the title of Voices from the Chinese Century would suggest. Indeed, the writer whose insights are most incisive is not a contributor at all, but Lu Xun via quotation.

“Whatever kind of citizen you have,” one contributor paraphrases Xun, “that will be the kind of government you have.” The observation also functions as an implicit criticism of this anthology, largely removed from the country’s people and social transformations. The anthology’s editors acknowledge that “academic public intellectuals … hardly describe the entire population of China’s lively, if not free, public sphere.” But the great divergence in perspectives nonetheless captured within its pages do reflect the many possible trajectories for China’s future. And the one conclusion the authors implicitly share, that the status quo cannot hold, affirms that for all its progress, China’s future remains fragile. 

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A kaleidoscopic history

Shenzhen Experiment by Juan Du

Review of The Shenzhen Experiment: the Story of China’s Instant City by Juan Du. Harvard University Press, 2020. 

What is a great city without an audacious myth, a myth that shapes the ethos of its people, beckons newcomers to it, and keeps its inhabitants in its thrall? While outside of China, Shenzhen, among its many superlatives, may be the world’s most important yet least known city, within contemporary China, the power of its myth rivals that of Beijing or Shanghai. 

The myth of Shenzhen, a city of twelve million just north of Hong Kong, arises not from its positioning as China’s Silicon Valley. Indeed, the world-shaping influence of companies such as telecommunications company Huawei, web giant Tencent, or electric car manufacturer BYD is very much real. Instead, the myth of Shenzhen arises from its role as a special economic zone, the symbol of China’s Reform and Opening Up and swift development. From nothing more than a fishing village, the myth goes, Shenzhen became an instant city and a validation of the Communist Party’s vision and authoritarian political model.

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