Are the tea leaves still good?

Reading the tea leaves in old-school Kremlin- or Sinology has often meant paying close attention to newspapers – what is said and what isn’t, who is mentioned and who isn’t. The approach may still have its uses for understanding Chinese foreign affairs.

An analysis of recent years of China Daily’s coverage may suggest important insights about how China sees the world. Over the past decade, articles mentioning a basket of regions or specific countries has exploded. This reflects China’s growing global presence and its deepening, if unbalanced international expertise.

Tellingly, Japan, the United States, and Russia, account for a majority of countries/regions mentioned. Africa and Latin America, where Chinese involvement attracts significant scrutiny, are almost non-existent. Global Times, which tends to be more nationalist, devotes a significantly higher share of its articles to the United States and Asia in general.

As the primary government-controlled newspaper meant for foreign consumption, this indicates more than just the paper’s targeted audience. It also suggests the “mindshare” that each country and region commands among the Chinese leadership. Japan remains top of mind.

What does Asian rap mean?

Asian rappers (counterclockwise from top left): Rich Chigga, Dumbfoundead, Awkwafina, Higher Brothers, and Jay Park (center)

It’s been a breakout year of sorts for Asian and Asian-American rappers alike. New York City rapper and television personality, Awkwafina, née Nora Lum, is co-starring in the all-female Ocean’s Eight remake alongside marquee names such as Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett. In the spring, a group of Chinese rappers dropped a diss track against America’s antimissile system in South Korea, which, despite the laughter it triggered, was a win for the propaganda apparatus simply by being noticed. And earlier this week, Korean-American rapper Jay Park signed with Roc Nation, the label founded by Jay-Z and home to artists including Rihanna. “This is a win for Korea,” he wrote on Instagram. “This is a win for Asian Americans. This is a win for the overlooked and underappreciated.”

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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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Fear and faith in Beijing

The first election in which I was old enough to vote, I found myself in Shanghai. When the absentee ballot arrived, I passed it flippantly to my language tutor, telling her to vote. “It may be the only time you get to do it,” I teased. I remember her fascination with my state’s ballot initiatives and her delight in my being one small vote in favor of gay marriage, in-state tuition for undocumented migrants – which I explained by use of China’s hukou system as metaphor – and against gambling.

Throughout the campaign, I remember being grateful for the objective remove – away from the negative advertisements and talk shows and with only the certain words of the New York Times. When Obama won reelection in 2012, I felt pride in my country, relief that his first victory had not been a fluke, that this was truth of America’s hopefulness and confidence in the future. This time was different.

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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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Banking on China

Review of Dealing with China: An Insider Unmasks the New Economic Superpower, by Henry M. Paulson, Jr. Twelve, 2015.


Years after the conversation happened, a senior Western executive still relished telling me how much the compliment meant to him when a high Communist Party official told him “the words that all of us who have worked in China long to hear: that I was ‘a friend of China.'” That friendship is not without a certain price. Sometimes, the longer one knows someone, the less one truly understands him at all.

Count possibly among these blinded friends Hank Paulson, former chief of Goldman Sachs and U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, who has recently published his account of more than three decades Dealing With China. The China Paulson knows is a deeply pragmatic one, committed to economic reform. But the China Paulson professes to know is an incomplete one, one that excludes the undercurrents of nationalism and ideology that so many other China watchers consider grave risks. For Paulson, they are little more than impediments to the next deal.

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A divided China

Understanding the dynamics of Chinese politics has always been part science, part art, and part mystery. At the heart of these discussions are the factions around which Chinese politics is conceptualized. A recent paper has challenged many of these assumptions, simultaneously clarifying how power is distributed in China while raising new questions for where Chinese politics are headed.

In “The Trouble With Factions,” Alice Miller, a fellow at the Hoover Institution and lecturer in East Asian Studies at Stanford, argues that much of what passes for analysis of China’s factions is ill-defined, arbitrary, and with little in the way of real predictive or interpretative value for those assessing China’s leaders.

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Were last week’s US-China breakthroughs a step back?

China’s surprise announcement of a commitment to manage its greenhouse gas emissions last week made headlines the world over. That it was made during Barack Obama’s state visit, after months-long negotiations between the two nations, and alongside other meaningful advances on issues such as trade was celebrated as a cause for optimism about a fresh start for US-Chinese relations. That optimism, however, should not go without caution. Indeed, every bit of good news coming out of last week’s landmark agreement carries with it reason to worry about the state of US-Chinese relations and the broader system of global governance.


Negotiated over a period of months by mid-level bureaucrats, the climate deal says much about the health of the bilateral relationship. For some long-time China watchers, Obama’s visit to Beijing reinforced the absence of a point person on Chinese affairs with direct access to Obama and the ear of Beijing. Those who lament this absence as a way of longing for the return of a Kissingerian figure singularly entrusted with managing the relationship are misguided. No individual can or should dominate a bilateral relationship as significant as this. The Kissingerian paradigm is a historical artifact that even China is evolving away from as their international diplomacy grows in experience and confidence. The efforts taken by the Bush and Obama administrations to institutionalize relations through the Strategic and Economic Dialogue have been a step forward. The climate deal is arguably the first significant success of the institutionalization of ties it has promoted.

Yet, there is a reason to worry about the absence of a particular kind of point man. As the bilateral relationship becomes more institutionalized, it needs an official capable of coordinating the vast apparatus of the US government and uniquely able to advise the president on how to leverage it. This internal voice is inseparable from having a clear China policy. As the “pivot to Asia” has consistently produced more disappointment than progress, it is unclear in the final two years of the Obama administration whether there ever was a comprehensive China policy at all. Last week’s agreement could be less the sign of a step forward through which breakthroughs in other spheres will follow than it is the beginning of the usual pattern of presidential legacy-building abroad.

The most important implication of this deal is its effect on global governance. Even prior to becoming president, Xi Jinping made much of a “new great power relationship.” Like most political rhetoric anywhere, its exact contours are hard to read but seems inescapable from Chinese equivalent of a G2. The Obama administration, for its part, has studiously avoided acknowledging this as a viable construct for managing US-China affairs. Its actions in bringing the climate deal to light, however, contradict this.

The US may have seen this agreement as an attempt to “divide and conquer” the big developing powers who have held out on a climate deal. From this perspective, a deal with China may make one more likely with holdouts such as India, and thus make a global deal possible. While the deal may ultimately be good for the climate, it is potentially bad for global governance. Instead of requiring China to engage constructively in a multilateral context, the US has effectively let China’s “great power relationship” come to pass. A G2 works to China’s interests because it entrenches the expectation that the world’s two dominant powers can act outside of the normal global system. When working to advance global interests, it is almost excusable; yet the true value for Beijing (and, regrettably, occasionally for Washington) is when this dynamic allows them to act contrary to it.

Even if the agreement struck last week with China were to make a global climate accord happen sooner than it otherwise would have, it is arguably a loss for the international community. Only if the international community is able to demonstrate its collective resolve on this and the ever growing list of transnational issues will global institutions earn China’s respect. The US too needs the strength of an empowered international community: in a G2-context, China can obstruct progress on global issues on the basis of the ups-and-downs of its bilateral relationship with Washington, cycles that Beijing has shown it is more than adept at manipulating. In a G2 world, Washington would be forced to choose between its commitment to human rights and the threat of Beijing derailing vital global agreements as a sign of its displeasure. Only when China is expected to act as a power within the full the community of nations can the voice of the United States be its most resolute.

The US has the unique responsibility of ensuring China’s successful integration into the global governance system. That at times may come into conflict with the more limited set of truly bilateral issues the US may have with China, either directly or in support of its allies. Part of this integration must come from Washington ceding some relative influence in global institutions like the IMF and World Bank and allowing them to evolve to meet a new era. On this count, Washington has fallen short for some time, leading China to launch parallel institutions like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Integrating China into the global system must also come from a discipline to not engage China as a de facto G2. When Washington and Beijing act outside of the community of nations, it does not genuinely deepen China’s commitment to the global system. Instead, it reinforces a world in which two powers may unilaterally set the global agenda – two powers that Beijing hopes and Washington fears will in time become one.


This essay was originally published on HuffPost