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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Buying time

Review of Welfare for Autocrats: How Social Assistance in China Cares for its Rulers by Jennifer Pan. Oxford, 2020.

Mixing qualitative and novel quantitative methods, Stanford’s Jennifer Pan offers an illuminating case study of the logic governing China’s party-state and its people’s relationship to it. The focus of her study is Dibao, a minimum income program, which has been partially coopted in the interests of the government’s obsession with “stability maintenance.”

Contrary to perceptions of China as unforgiving to those guilty of “obstructing social order” – the euphemistic and largest annual category of prosecutions –  the state is often willing to bargain with those who threaten small-scale challenges to its authority. One means of doing so is prioritizing the provision of benefits to individuals who have run afoul of the government. The intent is to both inculcate a dependence on the government that may temper future disruptions and create a pretext for surveillance in the guise of welfare calls. In one experiment, Pan finds that governments are more likely to respond to online requests for assistance that include a vague allusion to collective action than those which do not.

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Competitive coexistence

Review of Where Great Powers Meet: America and China in Southeast Asia by David Shambaugh. Oxford, 2020.

Southeast Asia is framed as the front line of America and China’s global competition. That is, to some degree, self-serving for the region, whose countries seek to balance China’s economic opportunities with American security guarantees. But why this dynamic must be framed as a competition at all, for reasons other than for the sake of competition itself, is an elusive subject in a new survey of the region. 

The ten nations of Southeast Asia, which collectively possess a population of more than 600 million and an economy comparable to France, are highly diverse, encompassing archipelagos and a city-state, the very rich and very poor, secular states as well as the world’s largest Muslim nation. Geographically, Southeast Asia bestrides a crucial choke point in global trade. Considerable naval resources have been devoted to ensuring freedom of navigation and preventing the denial of access should conflict arise; China has also invested aggressively in infrastructure in the region that allow it to bypass the strait.

It would be one thing if American and Chinese competition were limited to the sea; but it extends well inland, taking on a wide array of economic and diplomatic dimensions whose rationale, at least for the United States, merits scrutiny. For Beijing, the desire to assure the stability of its immediate region is clear and the region’s economic potential an added bonus. But for the United States, which does not share China’s mercantilist outlook, and which could conceivably achieve its strategic objectives with a far narrower commitment of resources, why need this be a competition at all?

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Red before green

Review of China Goes Green: Coercive Environmentalism for a Troubled Planet by Yifei Li and Judith Shapiro. Polity, 2020. 

One can fault China’s leaders for many things, but rarely for lack of a plan. Xi Jinping’s declaration before a virtual convening of the UN General Assembly this fall that the country would aim for carbon neutrality by 2060 is a case in point. While the target’s ambition was matched by the absence of meaningful detail about how it would be reached, China’s commitment nonetheless raised global hopes that the world may yet avert environmental catastrophe. That is because of the perception that China’s authoritarian political system is uniquely able to take decisive and effective action. 

But as the environmental researchers Judith Shapiro and Yifei Li explain in their new book, China Goes Green, this perception is largely unwarranted. Yes, the Party has nominally embraced environmentalism, but often as a means to “strengthen the authority and reach of the state” and, frequently, with negative environmental consequences. 

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Not yet, possibly never

Has China Won  by Kishore Mahbubani

Review of Has China Won: the Chinese Challenge to American Primacy by Kishore Mahbubani. Public Affairs, 2020.

“Singapore has to take the world as it is; it is too small to change it,” the city-state’s late founding father Lee Kuan Yew wrote. But that belies how Singapore’s geostrategic and symbolic importance, reputation for strong governance, and clear-eyed diplomacy have long earned it the respect and ability to play truth-teller to both Washington and Beijing. 

Its status as a majority ethnic Chinese democracy, security partner with the United States, and its position along the most important strait in the global economy, assure it an important role in the US-China contest. In that capacity, Singapore is consistently principled, fiercely insistent on its own autonomy, an advocate for a rules-based order on which its status as an economic hub is built, and a masterful balancer between the United States and China. 

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