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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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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The year in China 2020

Most common China-related headline topics in 2020 via Google News

There is nothing that requires the event that defines a year to happen within it. So it was with this year when, in the waning days of 2019, a then-unknown virus began to spread rapidly from individuals who had frequented a wet market in Wuhan, China. Local officials, nearly two decades after SARS, defaulted to their usual approach to bad news: a cover-up. But, as citizens and leaders the world over would confront in manifold ways this year, a virus is impervious to political imperatives. 

Soon, in part thanks to the heroic efforts of Li Wenliang, a doctor whom local police sought to silence and ultimately succumbed to the virus, the central government took notice, but waited to act, allowing the virus to further spread during the largest annual human migration that surrounds the Chinese New Year. 

As reports from Wuhan grew more grave, the world looked on, many simultaneously doubting the statistics reported by Beijing and taking false comfort in the suggestion that human transmission was limited, guidance repeated unquestioningly by the World Health Organization. They saw China’s rush to build entirely new hospitals as emblematic of the failures of a development model that sees in every problem an engineering solution. They bristled at the sharply enforced lockdowns intended to slow the virus’s spread. They mistakenly saw the virus as a Chinese problem. 

But China is vastly more connected to the rest of the world than it was when SARS broke out. Foreign executives, suddenly made aware that some critical component for which no ready alternative existed was fabricated in Wuhan, began to panic. But it is not just supply chains, but human connections that touch every corner of the globe. The virus exploited them. 

In another 2020, free governments would have heeded the warnings of their scientists and begun to prepare for the virus’ inevitable arrival on their shores. Their citizens, trusting in their institutions and united in common cause with each other, would have begun to act decisively to prevent hundreds of thousands of deaths. In another 2020, popular anger at the CCP’s handling of the virus and subsequent economic fallout might have forced a chastened Xi Jinping to roll back his autocratic consolidation of power. 

But this was not that 2020. While many nations, including China, succeeded in rallying their institutions and citizens to contain the virus, America, misled by Donald Trump, was chief among those which made a mockery of itself. Meanwhile, China made bold moves in nearly every domain. In one view, China acted boldly to assert its interests while the world was distracted; in another, recognizing that the virus eviscerated what little tailwinds remained of its destined incomplete rise, the country acted to seize as much as it could while it could.

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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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