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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Tracking progress

Railroads and he Transformation of China by Elisabeth Köll

Review of Railroads and the Transformation of China by Elisabeth Köll. Harvard, 2019.

China’s soon to be 30,000-kilometer high speed rail network is rightly a point of pride for the country; indeed, the name of its newest line of passenger train, fuxing, speaks to Xi Jinping’s call for national “rejuvenation.” In a new book, Purdue history professor Elisabeth Köll examines the earliest history of China’s railroads.

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Who are you?

Under Red Skies by Karoline Kan

Review of Under Red Skies: Three Generations of Life, Loss and Hope in China by Karoline Kan. Hachette, 2019.

Like their counterparts elsewhere, China’s millennials are known for their individualism, even if their pursuit of identity is more aspirational than realized. Under Red Skies is a memoir of China’s Reform and Opening Up era through the eyes of one millennial and the distance the pursuit of modernity creates between her and her family.

There have been a number of books on the generation that has come of age amid China’s breakneck growth, but most have been written from the vantage point of foreigners, a point of implied frustration for Karoline Kan, the author. “I respect many of these,” she allows, “because they inspired me to write my own.” Born in a rural village outside of Tianjin in 1989, Kan is lucky to be alive at all. Her inspiringly independent mother, who had already had a son, evaded enforcement of the one-child policy to bring the daughter she longed for into the world.

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The year in China 2018

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.

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China’s feminist awakening

Betraying Big BrotherReview 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. 

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Through a glass dispassionately

Third Revolution by Elizabeth EconomyReview 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.

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Behind the Great Firewall

Censored by Margaret RobertsReview 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.Contesting Cyberspace in China

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.

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The authoritarian revival

End of an Era - MinznerReview 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”

Change management

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”