In 2018, the outlook for China regarding its politics, economy, and relationship with the United States darkened considerably. The removal of presidential term limits and Xi Jinping’s interactions with the Trump administration prompted rare instances of internal Chinese dissent in a year marked by deepening repression. U.S. policies toward China gained in cohesion and assertiveness, demonstrated by an expansive levying of tariffs. China’s global influence continued to grow in the wake of U.S. withdrawal. But China, which in recent years has been masterful in playing geopolitical offense abroad, appears to lack the same sure-footedness now that the United States and other nations are finally making it play defense too. In an era of great power competition, China and the United States are testing the resiliency and adaptiveness of their respective systems.Continue reading “The year in China 2018”
Review of Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China by Leta Hong Fincher. Verso, 2018.
The MeToo movement has arguably had greater impact in China than in any other nation outside of the United States. It is all the more surprising given the tight controls that China places on online discourse and the punishing pressure it can impose on those who stir up social unrest. Despite these pressures, in a movement largely concentrated on university campuses, several professors at prominent universities have resigned due to misconduct.
China’s MeToo movement is just one of the most recent manifestations of a broader, years-long surge in activism for gender equality in the country. In the years prior to MeToo, China’s women had already begun to more determinedly criticize discrimination at work, inadequate protections against sexual harassment and assault, and even inequalities in the provision of public toilets. These are but the concrete demands of a broader push against a patriarchal society that mixes Confucian tradition and Communist dogma. Leading the charge in this movement are five activists who skyrocketed in international renown when they were all arrested in 2015. In Betraying Big Brother, author Leta Hong Fincher uses their story to frame China’s feminist awakening.
Review of The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State by Elizabeth Economy. Oxford, 2018.
If the role of journalists is to write the first draft of history, books like Elizabeth Economy’s The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State are the essential next draft. In just 250 pages, the Council on Foreign Relation’s China expert guides readers through Xi Jinping’s sweeping reshaping of Chinese politics, society, and foreign relations.
Economy focuses on five main themes: Xi’s consolidation of power; the closing off of avenues for dissent, especially online; the government’s uneven economic management and its push for innovation; the country’s battle against pollution; and the country’s growing overseas assertiveness. In each context, Economy illustrates how the pursuit of control is superficially succeeding while undermining the country’s longer-term ambitions. For example, China seeks world-class universities but places more emphasis on political education than quality teaching and actively inhibits the engagement with the rest of the world on which academic progress depends.
Review of Censored: Distraction and Diversion Inside China’s Great Firewall by Margaret Roberts. Princeton, 2018, and Contesting Cyberspace in China: Online Expression and Authoritarian Resilience by Rongbin Han. Columbia, 2018.
The internet was supposed to have delivered China into freedom by now. But that optimistic consensus has been proven wrong so far. In their books, academics Rongbin Han and Margaret Roberts, attempt to explain why.
Han, an assistant professor at the University of Georgia, was a student at Peking University when the internet’s impact first began to be felt on campus and in broader society. But the vibrant discussions the internet initially spurred would prove too much for the ruling Communist Party, which, over time, has become more sophisticated in reasserting information control.
Review of End of an Era: How China’s Authoritarian Revival is Undermining its Rise by Carl Minzner. Oxford, 2018.
One by one, Western scholars and policymakers who once hoped that China would transform itself in the West’s image have come forward in recent months to say they now believe themselves to have been wrong. Now the debate is whether China’s authoritarian revival will help the country supplant the West or hasten the Communist Party’s demise. In his new book, Carl Minzner argues why he believes a China that is unwilling to accommodate loyal reformers, let alone alternative sources of social legitimacy and power, is increasing the risk of extremism and the likelihood of an unstable transition to whatever comes next for the country. Continue reading “The authoritarian revival”
It has been a momentous two weeks for Chinese politics. The elimination of term limits from the country’s constitution, long-rumored though it may have been, still sent shockwaves around the world. Xi Jinping also promoted a number of trusted figures into prominent roles, further securing his hold on power and demonstrating that it was possible to further marginalize the country’s premier, Li Keqiang. The third major announcement, of sweeping changes to the Party’s and state’s bureaucracy, has not captured anywhere near the attention of the other two. But, in time, it may prove to be just as consequential. To understand why that is so requires that these changes be seen not from the perspective of a sinologist, but that of a humble MBA. Continue reading “Change management”
Review of China’s Great Wall of Debt: Shadow Banks, Ghost Cities, Massive Loans, and the End of the Chinese Miracle by Dinny McMahon. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018.
A year before the financial crisis struck in 2008, A Demon of Our Own Design was published. Its author, a former Wall Street insider, wrote a vivid and damning account of an industry whose fetishization of complexity and incentive structure, instead of managing risk, was amplifying it. Reading Dinny McMahon’s China’s Great Wall of Debt provokes the same uneasy recognition as Demon did that the jig is up.
Review of The China Questions: Critical Insights into a Rising Power, edited by Jennifer Rudolph and Michael Szonyi. Harvard, 2018.
The China Questions is a collection of thirty-six essays, all written by experts affiliated with Harvard’s Fairbanks Center for Chinese Studies in honor of the institution’s sixtieth anniversary. As a project, it is an impressive demonstration of expertise on China commanded by a single institution and a strong challenge to other institutions to continue investing in their own study of China. As a book, both the questions asked and answers offered fall short of its potential.
In 2017, Xi Jinping moved China closer to one-man rule while most of the world maintained an uneasy holding pattern in light of a diminished American presence. Many of China’s developments center on the theme of control. Domestically, the subordination of all corners of society to the Party continued. Abroad, what some consider an ethnonationalist foreign policy gained greater definition. China is no longer “hiding its light” and is unapologetic about the prerogatives to which it believes itself to be entitled.
Under collectivist rule, the Party allowed a degree of purposeful incoherence to accommodate the great ideological differences on its path from Mao to the market. This created a modest space for debate and afforded those who sought change a place within the system. Xi is signaling that it is now decisiveness that is needed, even though the ideological differences have in many ways only become more pronounced. There are two interpretations of Xi’s push for decisiveness. One is of a country moving triumphantly towards supremacy. The other is of a country racing against time to seize what it can before growth, the basis of its strength, is exhausted.
In tying the Party closer to his person, one can no longer disagree without doing so with Xi personally, risking the alienation of those who sought change within the system. Xi has, perhaps fatefully, greatly linked the survival of the Party to his own mortality.
“What once seemed impossible and then merely unlikely is no longer unimaginable: that China and Japan could, within coming decades, go to war.” That is the frank assessment with which Richard McGregor opens his new book, “Asia’s Reckoning,” a workmanline telling of the complicated dance between the United States, Japan, and China from the end of World War II through the early days of the Trump administration.
Bringing Japan back into the conversation about the United States and China, McGregor warns, is vitally important. “If China is the key to Asia, then Japan is the key to China, and the United States the key to Japan.” To neglect Japan, he writes, is to ignore the ways in which the American hysteria prompted by Japan’s post-war resurgence served as a “a practical and psychological dress rehearsal” for the rivalry to come with China.