Unavoidable reality

Review of The Avoidable War: The Dangers of a Catastrophic Conflict between the US and Xi Jinping’s China by Kevin Rudd. Public Affairs, 2022. 

Kevin Rudd, former Australian prime minister and diplomat, takes pride in being a zhengyou, or honest friend, to both the United States and China. As with others who aspire to this role, the burden of his public truth-telling is imposed mostly upon the former.

There is a “profound sense of difference, mystery, and confusion about what China is about, what it is becoming, and what this may mean for American interests, values, and the future of US global leadership,” he writes. This is not surprising because “Americans have been asked to come to terms with a people, culture, and political system that lies way beyond traditional American frames of reference.” 

By contrast, Chinese leader Xi Jinping “is no neophyte in his understanding of America” before conceding mere sentences later that “his understanding of America has always been intermediated through official Chinese sources of translation, which are not always known for accuracy, subtlety, or nuance.” (He also incorrectly states that no American leader has ever spoken or read Chinese. In fact, Herbert Hoover and his wife, Lou, both spoke Mandarin.) 

While Rudd is animated by a belief that better American understanding of China would reduce the risk of conflict, the irony is that even Rudd’s strenuously balanced presentation does not diminish the reality of China’s challenge, but adds clarity to it.

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Never going back again

Review of The United States vs. China: The Quest for Global Economic Leadership by C. Fred Bergsten. Polity, 2022. 

Within the next few decades, assuming their current charters are followed, the IMF and World Bank will be headquartered in China as the world’s largest economy. By this time, China, which has gotten “the best of both worlds from the present international order” by gaining “hugely from the order’s openness while cheating on the rules” may well have managed to rewrite those rules in its favor. 

C. Fred Bergsten, founding director of the Peterson Institute of International Economics, seeks to “fill a critical gap in the other voluminous literature on the rise of China” by focusing on the contest for global economic leadership. Regrettably, the book breaks no new ground in its assertions that the United States must not abdicate global leadership, that it must get its domestic affairs in order, and that some compromise with China is inevitable. 

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Language lessons

Review of Kingdom of Characters by Jing Tsu. Penguin, 2022.

Language can feel simultaneously personal and monumental, in flux and inviolate. Thus, the extent to which the sheer conditionality with which the Chinese language navigated the twentieth century is a jarring realization. Imagine if, in classrooms from Beijing to Boston, students were perfecting the Cantonese exclamation “la” instead of the “er” of the Beijing Mandarin accent. And instead of committing thousands of characters to memory, students penned their essays in alphabetic script. These are among the plausible outcomes that could have become the Chinese language as China navigated its revolutionary tumult.

In this history of the Chinese language’s progression to modernity, Yale professor Jing Tsu has produced a work that transcends linguistics to encompass history and culture, politics and diplomacy, and economics and innovation with great elegance and concision. Each chapter captures the evolution of Chinese, from the push to make Mandarin the national language and the pursuit of a practical Chinese typewriter to how to render the language in the electronic age. The Chinese language “pushed to the brink every universalist claim of Western technology, from telegraphy to Unicode.” Rendering Chinese into numbers so that it could be transmitted over telegraph via Morse code required more than just an ingenious classification system so that characters could be easily referenced. It also required diplomacy to grant China an exception from international convention which made numbers costlier to send than letters.

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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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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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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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