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. 

Continue reading “Lively, if not free”

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.

Continue reading “A kaleidoscopic history”

Into the dark

Review of Chinese Spies: From Chairman Mao to Xi Jinping by Roger Faligot. Hurst, 2019, and Chinese Communist Espionage: An Intelligence Primer by Peter Mattis and Matthew Brazil. Naval Institute Press, 2019. 


“What enables the wise sovereign and the good general to strike and conquer, and achieve things beyond the reach of ordinary men, is foreknowledge … hence the use of spies,” Sun Tzu observed. Two fascinating new books add to our understanding of the history and methods of China’s intelligence services. 

The Chinese Communist Party’s intelligence apparatus was heavily shaped by the civil war with the nationalist KMT for control of the country. CCP intelligence, in the form of the Special Operations Work Department, was created following the Party’s near destruction in a vicious 1927 crackdown. But within just four years, CCP intelligence had infiltrated the KMT so effectively that it was able to warn against multiple subsequent crackdowns, saving the lives of future leaders such as Zhou Enlai, and allowing the party to fight on to victory. 

Continue reading “Into the dark”

Lost up north

Living with China by Wendy Dobson

Review of Living with China: A Middle Power Finds Its Way, by Wendy Dobson. University of Toronto Press, 2019.

China’s former premier once criticized his country’s economy as “unstable, unbalanced, uncoordinated, and unsustainable.” Regrettably, it can also serve as a succinct summary of the worldview, focus, recommendations, and implications of a new book on Canada’s relationship with China.

Wendy Dobson, a Canadian academic specializing in economic analysis and policy, writes amid a trying moment in Canada-China relations. It is not enough that Canada’s largest trading partner, the United States, is engaged in a broad-ranging economic conflict, with its second largest partner, China. Since December 2018, when Canada honored a US request and arrested Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou, China has responded with fierce political and economic retaliation. Coinciding with revelations about China’s efforts to influence and interfere with Canadian institutions and society, there has been a marked drop in favorable Canadian attitudes about Beijing.

But even before the deterioration in ties, recognition was emerging in Canada, as it has in other Western middle powers such as Australia and New Zealand, that the country needed to reevaluate its relationship with China as it appeared to no longer be on the path of liberalization.

For a book that declares boldly in its opening pages that Canada “lacks a China strategy,” it subsequently fails to deliver. Instead, all but the final chapter of this slim volume is devoted to Chinese politics in the Xi era, its economy, and growing international ambitions. None of this analysis surpasses other treatments on the topics nor offers a Canadian lens with which to appreciate their implications. 

Despite acknowledging all that has changed in the relationship, and perhaps most critically within China itself under Xi Jinping, Dobson nonetheless maintains the usual sloganeering of a strategy based on “mutual respect, accommodation, and genuine discussion of differences in values and institutions.” But what if, as all evidence suggests, China is unwilling to engage on any of those terms?

Unsurprising not because of Dobson’s background, but the book’s nominally broader ambitions, is the emphasis on trade. Specifically, now that a comprehensive free trade agreement Canada had pursued is no longer viable, she advocates for narrower sectoral agreements. But Dobson never satisfyingly explains why the appropriate response to a country to which Canada is already at risk of economic coercion is to increase opportunities for that coercion even more. In another instance, that she takes an agreement to not commit state-directed cyberattacks for something other than what it is – empty – is a stunning display of naivete given that Australia’s parliament and main political parties were subject to such an attack in May.

These failures only underscore Dobson’s motivation that middle powers need new China strategies that also take into account a relatively less powerful and, regrettably, less dependable, United States. Yet, declarations that “Canada will need to continue to find a way to live with China by carrying through its commitment to promote trade, investment, security, and other common interests, seeking to engage Communist Party officials and civil society in the pursuit of global and long-term interests, while standing up for its values” is a near exact inversion of what should be any nation’s priorities.

The rush to return to the status quo ante is one that other Canadians are rightfully reconsidering. David Mulroney, a former Canadian ambassador to China, has written that “given the undeniable evidence of China’s hostility to core Canadian interests, starting with the safety of our citizens, we urgently need to reconsider our approach.” He challenges the guiding “fictions” of Canada’s approach to China that is premised on the notion of a China that, among other things, is inherently peaceful, does not interfere in other countries’ affairs, and bestows trade as a favor on friendly nations. 

Instead of prioritizing bilateral engagement, middle powers such as Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand, ought to refocus their attention on strengthening their alliances and consider a joint approach to China. Together, they are the world’s fourth largest economy after the US, EU, and China and rank similarly in terms of defense spending. Their collective strength and values would make it harder for China to continue its coercive course.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to read in the appointment as the next Canadian ambassador to China of Dominic Barton, former managing director of the consultancy McKinsey & Company, with which this reviewer has also been affiliated, anything other than an attempt to return to doing business, whatever the costs to Canada’s values and autonomy. This book will be an all too useful guide on that mistaken mission.

People’s Republic of California

Review of The Transpacific Experiment by Matt Sheehan

Review of The Transpacific Experiment: How China and California Collaborate and Compete for Our Future, by Matt Sheehan. Counterpoint, 2019.

“To see where the world’s two most powerful countries are meeting, cooperating, and competing today, we need to get outside of Washington, D.C., and Beijing.” Look instead to California. From tech to Hollywood, education to foreign investment, real estate and politics, California is the hub of reciprocal influences that affect and are affected by a rising China more than any other state.

Matt Sheehan, a self-described “journalist, analyst, consultant, and general hanger-on,” captures this “fluid ecosystem of students, entrepreneurs, investors, immigrants, and ideas” in the Transpacific Experiment. Along the way, Sheehan introduces readers to a Beijing tech start-up founded by Chinese returnees from Silicon Valley and rides along with Chinese looking to buy California real estate.

Continue reading “People’s Republic of California”

There and back again

Out of the Gobi by Weijian Shan

Review of Out of the Gobi by Weijian Shan. Wiley, 2019.

Weijian Shan is one of China’s most accomplished financiers. But like many of his generation who have led China’s renaissance of the past 40 years, his path was far from assured. His formal education was halted after elementary school, when Shan became one of the millions of young people exiled to the countryside as part of the Cultural Revolution. In his remarkable new memoir, Shan relives those years of constant hunger and crushing labor, and the historic twists that would transform his life while China reformed.

Continue reading “There and back again”

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.

Continue reading “Follow the leader”

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.”

Continue reading “BRI: Belt and Road and Islam”

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.

Continue reading “Tracking progress”

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.

Continue reading “Who are you?”