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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Let shareholders have a say on decoupling

The proxy statement is an annual rite of shareholder democracy. Votes to elect directors and, in recent years, approve executive pay routinely receive support greater than 90%. In addition to the matters put before investors by companies, investors too have the opportunity to put issues up for a vote. These proposals run the gamut of environmental, social, and governance matters. With rare exceptions, these shareholder proposals fail. One proposal that ought to be put before investors – and pass – is the extent to which companies are exposed to China.

Until recently, American corporations have been one of the most consistent advocates for engagement with China. This was driven largely by genuine enthusiasm about the potential of the country’s market. Even as corporations privately complained about theft of intellectual property or unfair competition, they justified their continued presence in China because they believed conditions would improve and also because investors expected them to be there.

But if corporations looked beyond the next quarter of their Excel spreadsheets, many might find that the net present value of their continued presence in China’s market is negative. This is not only because western corporations are confronting declining market share in a slowing Chinese economy. Indeed, the decision would be justified even if deteriorating US-China relations were not putting them at risk of being collateral damage.

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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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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. 

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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.

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The year in China 2019

The People’s Republic of China recorded its 70th anniversary at its strongest and most prosperous, but also amid a slowing economy, increased international wariness of its ambitions, and deepening repression. President Xi Jinping maintained a largely non-confrontational approach to the Trump administration’s provocations; official rhetoric instead galvanized China to take advantage of a period of strategic opportunity on the global stage.  


Hong Kong experienced unprecedented protests, initially prompted by the government’s plan to adopt an extradition law, since withdrawn, that opponents feared would allow mainland China to erode the territory’s freedoms. The territory’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, through her own political misjudgment and constraints imposed by Beijing, proceeded to compound the public’s disaffection, dismissing demands such as an independent inquiry into police brutality, despite their broad public support. The protesters, a leaderless movement organized via the internet, employed shifting tactics and creative appeals to attract local and global support. Throughout the summer large, peaceful daytime protests alternated with sometimes fierce evening clashes with police; violence continued to escalate through the fall. 

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China’s interference remains largely unchecked

It has been one year since the release of “China’s Influence and American Interests,” a report produced and endorsed by many of America’s leading China experts, which warned of a coordinated effort to co-opt and coerce the political, academic, and economic institutions of the United States and other open societies in directions more favorable to Beijing. The anniversary of the report is an opportunity to assess what new information has been learned and whether any of the vulnerabilities flagged by the report have been addressed.

The report emphasized the distinction between legitimate public diplomacy efforts, which includes state-run media outlets such as CGTN, and illegitimate efforts at interference, defined by former Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull as activities that are “covert, coercive, or corrupting.” The report also stressed that because China often targets Chinese communities abroad, regardless of their citizenship, more should be done to protect and defend the rights of Chinese-Americans and nationals in the United States against encroachment by Beijing. 

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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. 

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