The year in China 2021

Rendering of most common words from news headlines on China in 2021. Sources: Google News,, China Books Review

Shortly after becoming general secretary in 2012, Xi Jinping warned that the Soviet Union fell because “no one was man enough to stand up and resist” the politically destabilizing effects of liberalization. In the years since, Xi has acted with intense faithfulness to that premise in an effort to prevent the same fate from befalling China. This was no less true in 2021, as China’s political, economic, and social landscape were heavily influenced by Xi Jinping’s campaign to secure a third term as leader. But the focus of this year’s regulatory blitz appeared notably different from Xi’s first decade in power, which sought to arrest the CCP’s internal decay after years of breakneck growth. Instead, the preemptive firewall that emerged this year betrayed concerns about social instability and in the government’s calls for “common prosperity,” its cause: the specter of economic stagnation.

The Communist Party’s actions can be summarized as four preemptive strikes against instability: a renegotiation of the terms of its performance legitimacy; action, much of it potentially counterproductive, against inequality; the elimination of alternative sources of mass leadership from the business and entertainment community; and the continued usurpation of technological tools as an alternative form of governance and control. 

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In search of China’s Ohio

The state of Ohio is an American bellwether. In politics, the path to power is a narrow one without it: President Biden is the first since Kennedy to capture the White House without winning the state. But the wisdom of “so goes Ohio, so goes the nation” extends beyond politics; the state’s capital, Columbus, has long been known as a test market that determines the national and even global fate of consumer concepts. While the state’s demographics increasingly diverge from the United States overall, it remains a potent synecdoche for America.

Geographic analogies of Chinese cities are common: Macau is China’s Las Vegas, Shanghai its New York, Shenzhen its Silicon Valley, and so on. But which province is China’s Ohio? To answer, in the demographic, but not political, sense, China Books Review constructed a similarity index based on six measures: each province’s urban ethnicity mix, age breakdown, educational attainment, and overall consumption, how that consumption is split among various categories, and the split of regional GDP among primary, secondary, and tertiary sectors. Ethnicity, age and educational data are based on the 2010 census (equivalent data from China’s 2020 census are not yet readily available) while the remaining items are sourced from the 2019 statistical yearbook, based on 2018 data. 

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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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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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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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Few US TikTok users know the app is Chinese, but it could matter if they did

The social media app TikTok has been downloaded more than 80 million times in the United States, as users entertain each other with an endless stream of short videos recommended by artificial intelligence. Its success makes it the most popular social media app in America produced by a Chinese company. A new survey for China Books Review finds that few Americans are aware of the app’s ownership, but if they were to learn the app was Chinese, many would be less likely to use it.

Only 24% of respondents correctly answered that the app’s owners were based in China, worse than had the respondents answered at random. 33% of respondents said they would be somewhat or significantly less likely to use the app if they knew the app was made by a Chinese company, compared to 21% if they knew it was by an American company, just within the margin of error. When asked how the country of origin would affect how they thought about the privacy of their information on the app, users were also more likely to be concerned if they knew the app was made by a Chinese company than an American one.

According to an exclusive survey for China Books Review, few US TikTok users know the app is Chinese, but it could matter to their usage and perceived privacy if they did.
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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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