The China Questions

Cover of The China QuestionsReview of The China Questions: Critical Insights into a Rising Power, edited by Jennifer Rudolph and Michael Szonyi. Harvard, 2018. 


The China Questions is a collection of thirty-six essays, all written by experts affiliated with Harvard’s Fairbanks Center for Chinese Studies in honor of the institution’s sixtieth anniversary. As a project, it is an impressive demonstration of expertise on China commanded by a single institution and a strong challenge to other institutions to continue investing in their own study of China. As a book, both the questions asked and answers offered fall short of its potential.

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You can’t escape the past

Asia's Reckoning by Richard McGregorReview of Asia’s Reckoning: China, Japan, and the Future of US Power in the Pacific Century by Richard McGregor. Viking, 2017. 


“What once seemed impossible and then merely unlikely is no longer unimaginable: that China and Japan could, within coming decades, go to war.” That is the frank assessment with which Richard McGregor opens his new book, “Asia’s Reckoning,” a workmanline telling of the complicated dance between the United States, Japan, and China from the end of World War II through the early days of the Trump administration.

Bringing Japan back into the conversation about the United States and China, McGregor warns, is vitally important. “If China is the key to Asia, then Japan is the key to China, and the United States the key to Japan.” To neglect Japan, he writes, is to ignore the ways in which the American hysteria prompted by Japan’s post-war resurgence served as a “a practical and psychological dress rehearsal” for the rivalry to come with China.

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A polar great power?

Review of China as a Polar Great Power by Anne-Marie Brady. Cambridge, 2017.


Climate change is normally seen as a global threat, yet melting ice in the Arctic and Antarctic regions for better or worse opens new passageways for shipping and access to tremendous natural resources. It is not just those who border these regions that are taking notice. China has announced to the world that it too will be a polar power.

As the closest thing there is to a blank slate in geopolitics, China’s polar activities are also closely examined for what they might reveal about the future of global governance. Anne-Marie Brady, professor at New Zealand’s University of Canterbury, has a new book on China’s growing involvement in the poles, in which she guides readers through the principles of polar governance, the region’s strategic attractions, how China is positioning itself to take advantage, and what it means for the rest of the world.

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Cold War rivals

Winning the Third World, Gregg BrazinskyReview of Winning the Third World: Sino-American Rivalry During the Cold War, by Gregg Brazinsky. University of North Carolina Press, 2017. Also referenced is Shadow Cold War: The Sino-Soviet Competition for the Third World, by Jeremy Friedman. University of North Carolina Press, 2015.


Shadow Cold War, Jeremy FriedmanWhen China announced plans to launch an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in 2015, the United States chose a response reminiscent of its Cold War playbook. It cast doubt on China’s intentions and leaned on other nations not to get involved. The result was no different from the Cold War era too—nations, including close allies of the United States, signed on to the initiative—awarding China a significant symbolic victory before any tangible work had even been accomplished.

A new book places China at the center of an underexplored aspect of the Cold War: the competition for influence in the “third world” between China and United States. Written by Gregg Brazinsky at George Washington University, Winning the Third World relies on previously unpublished archive materials from both countries. Far from last century’s history, the book illuminates the remarkable continuities in both countries’ foreign policies.

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Flipping through the Nikkei Asian Review

Until publication ceased in 2009, the Far Eastern Economic Review reigned as the Economist of the Pacific. For its devoted fans, no other English language publication better covered the sweep of the region’s politics, business, and culture. In the years since, other publications have stepped up their Asian coverage, mostly focused on China’s rise. That country’s state media in particular has increased the volume of information it produces, slanted but nonetheless useful. New media and newsletters have simultaneously sought to make sense of the cacophony while also adding to it.

Japan’s English-language Nikkei Asian Review has quietly worked to change that since it began publication in 2013. It professes to be a “global publication with a uniquely Asian perspective,” leveraging the 24 bureaux and 1300 reporters of Japan’s leading business newspaper. In 2015, its parent acquired the Financial Times. Despite its prominent sister publications, the magazine has attracted a modest audience of 25 thousand print subscribers and 2 million unique monthly page views. Are the rest of us missing out?

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God with Chinese characteristics

The Souls of China by Ian Johnson Review of The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao, by Ian Johnson. Pantheon, 2017.


There are limits to New Journalism.  At its best, by rendering the author as a fully formed presence, it makes difficult or distant subject matter more approachable.  Often, it is essentially an extended illuminating anecdote. But it can also, instead of rendering a larger phenomenon understandable, compound the reader’s disorientation. In these instances, the curiosity of the author can come at the expense of the analysis deserved by the reader. Such is the tension with Ian Johnson’s The Souls of China, an exploration of the return of religion after Mao. Continue reading “God with Chinese characteristics”

What to read on your first trip to China

Best books about ChinaAs we enter high summer, another cohort of students are preparing to spend their summer or fall semester in China. In the past few years a flurry of books have been published that provide nuanced and up-to-date perspectives on the country for general readers. Here are those CBR most recommends for the best possible sweep of how China’s history, politics, economics, and society interact.

Wealth and Power by Orville Schell and John Delury provides the historical context that has shaped modern China through eleven profiles of leaders and thinkers including Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. Readers will find in the nationalistic pride, humiliation, and conflicted feelings about the West captured in these pages a clear path to Xi Jinping’s “China Dream.”

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Dark horizon

Review of Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power, by Howard French. Knopf, 2017.


National myths and obsessions have long and consequential half-lives. In the 1590s, Japan’s feudal ruler, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, envisioned his country’s conquest of all of Asia. Its fateful decision to embrace modernity fueled Japanese economic and military power and reinforced its sense of racial superiority. On the other side of the world, as Yale’s Timothy Snyder writes in Black Earth (2015), Hitler conjured a dark ideology mixing distorted history, a radical interpretation of Darwinism, eugenics, and age-old anti-Semitism. These visions enabled the destructive reality of World War II and its enduring consequences.

It is now China that is succumbing to the dangers of national mythmaking, according to Howard French’s new book, Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power. In a breathless opening chapter, French, a former bureau chief for the New York Times, abandons the cool observation that marked his last book on China’s growing influence in Africa, to warn that the risk of conflict in Asia is high and potentially unavoidable.

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Meritocracy with Chinese characteristics

Review of The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy, by Daniel Bell. Princeton University Press, 2015.


As natural as it may seem for the more than three billion people in countries where it has taken root, in the grand sweep of history the idea that ordinary people should choose their own leaders is still revolutionary. Nonetheless, a kind of ideological hegemony has taken hold wherever democracy flourishes. Defenders habitually quote Churchill’s quip that democracy is “the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried.” Others have heralded democracy as “the end of history”; in other words, the form of government that is most morally legitimate, stable, and likely to secure peace and prosperity.

China, according to Daniel Bell’s book, The China Model¸ ought to challenge this hypothesis. Bell, a professor and political theorist at Tsinghua University in Beijing, makes the case for what he terms “political meritocracy,” the selection of leaders “in accordance with ability and virtue” (6) and not by the ballot. Political meritocracy, he argues, is a distinct form of government separate from a despotic authoritarianism in which power is held by the threat of force, not merit. The book is as thought-provoking as it is frustrating, earning The China Model a place on as many “best of” lists last year as it did strident rebuttals.

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