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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More than a game

Review of Mahjong: A Chinese Game and the Making of Modern American Culture, by Annelise Heinz. Oxford, 2021. 

Review of Mahjong A Chinese Game and the Making of Modern American Culture by Annelise Heinz

There are many ways to ingratiate oneself in China. In many settings, passable Mandarin, an appreciation for Chinese cuisine, or tolerance for baijiu will suffice. In your correspondent’s experience, there has been no surer bridge than an ability to play mahjong. But for many Americans, the game commands a devoted following among those with only the most tangential or no connection to China at all. In her new book, Mahjong: A Chinese Game and the Making of Modern American Culture, Annelise Heinz presents a fascinating history of a game that is less a source of cross-cultural connection than it is a complex reflection of American cultural transmutation and racial, gender, and consumer ideologies at work. 

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Visualizing China’s trade dominance

China’s weaponization of trade has become a persistent and growing source of concern for its partners. After years focused primarily on the risk that China would cut off access to rare earth minerals, which are essential to electronics, or other inputs vital to the military, the Biden administration last month announced a strategic review of supply chain risk in a broader array of sectors, including healthcare.

The supply chain disruptions prompted by the coronavirus have led many nations to start or accelerate efforts to encourage their companies to diversify their geographic exposure. China too has redoubled its aspirations for self-reliance, most notably in semiconductors, whose importance goes well beyond the technology sector to other vital industrial and military applications.

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Why a ‘Collaborate, Compete, Confront’ China policy won’t work

State Department photo by Ron Przysucha/ Public Domain
State Department photo by Ron Przysucha/ Public Domain

Even as American public opinion on China reaches generational lows and political rhetoric allows for ever fewer shades of grey, most policy makers recognize the need for greater nuance in bilateral policy. This nuance increasingly takes the form of positioning the relationship as operating on three parallel paths: one in which collaboration is possible, one in which competition is necessary, and one in which confrontation is unavoidable. More than a catchphrase, framings such as these often take on lives of their own as active organizing constructs for policy. As Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security advisor Jake Sullivan engage their Chinese counterparts in Alaska, they may find the framework wanting. 

This ‘3C framing,’ which Secretary Blinken endorsed in his first speech as Secretary of State last month, should be understood more as a reaction to calls for containment or decoupling than an affirmative vision for American policy. Matters such as public health, artificial intelligence, and human rights issues are generally considered to respectively fall in the collaboration, competition, and confrontation domains. In some cases, a single issue area might involve some combination of all three; for instance: cooperation on more aggressive climate targets, competition to lead the new energy economy, and confrontation over China’s export of dirty power to developing countries. (In a similar spirit, some Chinese commentators use the term, chandou, which translates as “fighting while embracing.”)

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