Smoke and mirrors

Reviews of The Cashless Revolution by Martin Chorzempa. PublicAffairs, 2022; Influence Empire by Lulu Chen. Hodder & Stoughton, 2022; Surveillance State by Josh Chin and Liza Lin. St. Martin’s Press, 2022; Trafficking Data by Aynne Kokas. Oxford, 2022. 

So completely have Tencent’s WeChat and digital payments taken over life in modern China that it is difficult to remember what it was like to live without them. But they are just the surface manifestations of more sweeping technological change affecting how China’s people live, how its economy operates, and how the country is governed. As multiple new books underscore, the implications of these changes matter not just to China, but to the world. 

Unlike the flamboyant founder — until his recent troubles — of Alibaba, Jack Ma, Tencent’s founder, the unrelated Pony Ma, has always maintained a lower profile. In Influence Empire, Bloomberg reporter Lulu Yilun Chen chronicles Pony and his company’s rise to the heights of China’s technology industry. Today, Tencent is not just the keeper of WeChat, with its more than one billion users, or WeChat Pay, which facilitates staggering volumes in annual transactions, but also a vast gaming, media, cloud, and artificial intelligence enterprise with a host of investments ranging from Chinese food delivery service Meituan to Tesla.

Pony, like most entrepreneurs who define an age, is a product of talent and timing. A prodigious student, Pony came of age in the booming special economic zone of Shenzhen, graduating with a degree in computer science shortly before China joined the world wide web. Pony, as Chen reveals, also possesses something rarer which may explain his enduring success: sound judgment. In Tencent’s early days as developer of the QQ instant messaging service, for example, he was sensitive to avoid the government “red lines” that other competitors were willing to flout for short-lived growth. Thanks to his low-key temperament, he has refused to court the spotlight that in China almost invariably invites a comeuppance by the Communist Party. 

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Briefly noted

Review of Never Turn Back: China and the Forbidden History of the 1980s by Julian Gewirtz. Harvard, 2022.

In China’s official history of the 1980s, political reform was never on the table. The Party was and would always remain in command of a modernized China. In fact, Julian Gewirtz writes, it was a “period of extraordinary open-ended debate, contestation, and imagination. Chinese elites argued fiercely about the future, and official ideology, economic policy, technological transformation, and political reforms all expanded in bold new directions.” Whether supportive of or opposed to what became known as China’s reform and opening, China’s elite acknowledged, much as the West once hoped, that economic and political reform could not be decoupled.

On the economic track, officials debated how open China’s economy ought to be, how fast it would be allowed to get there, and whether the country was prepared for the social and environmental consequences. Politically, elites disagreed whether it was the efficiency, effectiveness, or efficacy of China’s system that was at fault. Those who sought a more efficient Party focused on rooting out corruption and ineffectual leadership. Those who wished for a more effective government pushed for greater separation between Party and state. The boldest envisioned empowering alternative power centers, including independent labor unions and minority political parties, as a supervisory check, but not threat, to Party rule.

While the open advocacy of alternative paths for China may have receded, their adherents remain within and beyond the Party. As Cai Xia, a former professor at the CCP’s Central Party School, has recently written in Foreign Affairs, “although Chinese politics are largely personalistic, there are real differences over the direction of national policy.” Outside the Party, a vastly more educated and connected population than the 1980s is generally aware of and engaged in these debates. Their diverse imaginations of their individual and collective possibilities are undoubtedly greater than that era, enriched by the tens of millions who have experienced other systems directly, as is their choice in how and where they realize those possibilities for their lives.

The wisdom and tragedy of Zhao Ziyang, the liberal general secretary who would be deposed amid the Tiananmen protests, weighs heavily on this book. Arguing in favor of the resilience inherent to political pluralism, Zhao remarked that “if there is no small chaos, there will be big chaos. Society needs ‘safety valves.'” Today, that safety valve is principally emigration. Gewirtz writes that Deng Xiaoping, contrary to popular understanding, “was not regularly and actively engaged in policymaking throughout the 1980s.” It was only due to the erasure of Zhao that Deng was manufactured into the personification of the official history of reform and opening in which China could grow rich, but not free.

Zhao presciently warned that “if [political system reform] lags too far behind, continuing with the reform of the economic system will be very difficult and various social and political contradictions will ensue.” Xi evidently agrees, having reasserted the Party’s control over the country’s economy and arrested the country’s social flourishing. Xi’s lack of political vision is understandable. In the 1980s, China’s future was easy to envision: it was to catch up with the West. Now it has and, in some technical respects, even surpassed the West. And yet, the Communist Party’s rule is no more secure. It is because it has nothing more to offer.

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Review of The China Questions 2: Critical Insights into US-China Relations edited by Maria Adele Carrai, Jennifer Rudolph, and Michael Szonyi. Harvard, 2022. 

Four years ago, Harvard’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies released a volume of essays in honor of its sixtieth anniversary. More restrained than the original’s flights to esoterica, the new edition better anticipates what generalist readers will want to know on topics spanning international relations and security to technology and culture. 

The first edition lacked critical examination of how the fundamental assumptions about engagement with China were changing. In the new volume, the authors almost uniformly acknowledge, with varying degrees of regret, that relations have entered a more confrontational paradigm. 

Do any see a way out short of conflict? Alastair Ian Johnston suggests a redefining of how such conflict is framed. Rebutting the prevailing narrative that China is undermining the rules-based international order, he argues that a single such order does not exist. Instead multiple orders do, encompassing state sovereignty, political development, trade, and military domains. China’s challenge to each is more nuanced than what American political debate permits.

A number of other essays stand out. Bonnie Glaser inhabits Chinese strategic thinking on the South China Sea with authoritative concision. Victor Shih explores whether a demographically unrepresentative Communist Party (composed predominantly of college-educated northern Han Chinese men) will invite stagnation or worse. And Ian Johnson insightfully captures what America misunderstands about faith in China and why it matters. The editors should be applauded for inviting a number of emerging voices, such as Elsa Kania and Naima Green-Riley, to join established names such as Elizabeth Economy and John Pomfret. 

While most contributors gamely calibrate their writing for a generalist audience, few cede the limited space to acknowledge divergent viewpoints, let alone Chinese discourse, on their assigned topics. Contextualizing chapters on China’s governance model and Xi Jinping would have been welcome. Japan too merited a chapter of its own. The economics section would have benefited from a more expansive view of US-China commercial relations beyond the trade war as well as a chapter on the drivers and sustainability of China’s growth. The repeated citation of a Pew study reporting record lows in American sentiment towards China underscored the need for essays on how public opinion influences American and Chinese foreign policy. 

Better execution overall only makes the flaws inherent to The China Questions’ concept more apparent: a book about what to think about China is less useful – to generalist and specialist readers alike – than a book about how to think about China. Prospective readers limited to this year’s book stack will be better served by Kevin Rudd’s hierarchy of China’s policy priorities in The Avoidable War or Bates Gill’s synthesis of the country’s thematic objectives in Daring to Struggle.

The intractable nations

Review of China’s Next Act: How Sustainability and Technology are Reshaping China’s Rise and the World’s Future by Scott Moore. Oxford, 2022. 

America was once proclaimed to be the indispensable nation, without which no problem of consequence could be solved. Today, it and China are seemingly competing to be the intractable nation, core to both the causes of and potential solutions to global challenges such as climate change, yet stymied by systems that thwart ready resolution. 

In China’s Next Act, Scott Moore, who is affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania, surveys the public health, environmental, science, and technology frontiers in search of opportunities for bilateral collaboration. Written with an admirable commitment to nuance, Moore nonetheless concludes that “if liberal societies fail to lead” in these areas, “the illiberal values Beijing increasingly relies on are more likely to hold sway.”  

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Briefly noted

Reviews of America’s Great Power Opportunity: Revitalizing U.S. Foreign Policy to Meet the Challenges of Strategic Competition by Ali Wyne. Polity, 2022; The Subplot: What China is Reading and Why It Matters by Megan Walsh. Columbia Global Reports, 2022; and Daring to Struggle: China’s Global Ambitions Under Xi Jinping by Bates Gill. Oxford, 2022.

Ali Wyne, an analyst with the Eurasia Group, questions “great power competition” as the guidepost of American foreign policy, warning that it risks lulling the United States into an “increasingly expansive, yet poorly defined struggle” that would place the country perpetually on the defensive and ignore critical transnational challenges.

China and Russia, “while significant competitors, are not overwhelming ones, either individually or in concert,” Wyne writes. While greater American self-confidence and commitment to self-renewal is merited, one wishes that Wyne detailed a circumscribed list of areas in which competition is warranted; when absolute vs. relative or selective leadership is needed; and when outperformance versus obstruction of America’s adversaries makes sense. Mastery of artificial intelligence; countering China’s efforts at territorial denial, including in the South Pacific; and winning global public opinion are varied examples of priorities that should make this list.

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Unavoidable reality

Review of The Avoidable War: The Dangers of a Catastrophic Conflict between the US and Xi Jinping’s China by Kevin Rudd. Public Affairs, 2022. 

Kevin Rudd, former Australian prime minister and diplomat, takes pride in being a zhengyou, or honest friend, to both the United States and China. As with others who aspire to this role, the burden of his public truth-telling is imposed mostly upon the former.

There is a “profound sense of difference, mystery, and confusion about what China is about, what it is becoming, and what this may mean for American interests, values, and the future of US global leadership,” he writes. This is not surprising because “Americans have been asked to come to terms with a people, culture, and political system that lies way beyond traditional American frames of reference.” 

By contrast, Chinese leader Xi Jinping “is no neophyte in his understanding of America” before conceding mere sentences later that “his understanding of America has always been intermediated through official Chinese sources of translation, which are not always known for accuracy, subtlety, or nuance.” (He also incorrectly states that no American leader has ever spoken or read Chinese. In fact, Herbert Hoover and his wife, Lou, both spoke Mandarin.) 

While Rudd is animated by a belief that better American understanding of China would reduce the risk of conflict, the irony is that even Rudd’s strenuously balanced presentation does not diminish the reality of China’s challenge, but adds clarity to it.

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Never going back again

Review of The United States vs. China: The Quest for Global Economic Leadership by C. Fred Bergsten. Polity, 2022. 

Within the next few decades, assuming their current charters are followed, the IMF and World Bank will be headquartered in China as the world’s largest economy. By this time, China, which has gotten “the best of both worlds from the present international order” by gaining “hugely from the order’s openness while cheating on the rules” may well have managed to rewrite those rules in its favor. 

C. Fred Bergsten, founding director of the Peterson Institute of International Economics, seeks to “fill a critical gap in the other voluminous literature on the rise of China” by focusing on the contest for global economic leadership. Regrettably, the book breaks no new ground in its assertions that the United States must not abdicate global leadership, that it must get its domestic affairs in order, and that some compromise with China is inevitable. 

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Language lessons

Review of Kingdom of Characters by Jing Tsu. Penguin, 2022.

Language can feel simultaneously personal and monumental, in flux and inviolate. Thus, the extent to which the sheer conditionality with which the Chinese language navigated the twentieth century is a jarring realization. Imagine if, in classrooms from Beijing to Boston, students were perfecting the Cantonese exclamation “la” instead of the “er” of the Beijing Mandarin accent. And instead of committing thousands of characters to memory, students penned their essays in alphabetic script. These are among the plausible outcomes that could have become the Chinese language as China navigated its revolutionary tumult.

In this history of the Chinese language’s progression to modernity, Yale professor Jing Tsu has produced a work that transcends linguistics to encompass history and culture, politics and diplomacy, and economics and innovation with great elegance and concision. Each chapter captures the evolution of Chinese, from the push to make Mandarin the national language and the pursuit of a practical Chinese typewriter to how to render the language in the electronic age. The Chinese language “pushed to the brink every universalist claim of Western technology, from telegraphy to Unicode.” Rendering Chinese into numbers so that it could be transmitted over telegraph via Morse code required more than just an ingenious classification system so that characters could be easily referenced. It also required diplomacy to grant China an exception from international convention which made numbers costlier to send than letters.

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Briefly noted

Review of Rethinking Chinese Politics by Joseph Fewsmith. Cambridge, 2021. 

Joseph Fewsmith, a professor at Boston University, examines the leadership transitions between Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao, and Xi Jinping to conclude that the notion that Chinese politics was institutionalizing was never in fact the case. Fewsmith writes that the Communist Party “cannot be institutionalized without destroying what makes it a Leninist party” – that is, hierarchical, mobilizational, and task-oriented. Each leadership transition has been circumstantially contingent and not without systemic risk as the outgoing leader seeks to preserve their influence, factions pursue a favorable realignment of the balance of power, and the new leader endeavors to establish their own autonomy. One wishes for more guidance on the extent to which Xi’s strength has come at the Party’s expense and, when Xi does ultimately seek to designate a successor, how the West should be prepared to respond. 

The Party’s response to the coronavirus pandemic is outside Fewsmith’s scope, but is nonetheless an apt illustration of the tradeoffs of Xi’s centralization of power. In pursuing a post-vaccination Covid-zero policy, the country has avoided a still considerable number of likely deaths, but at the cost of isolation unbecoming of a global power, a growing sense of frustration among those disrupted by the stringent controls, an economic recovery hindered by repeated lockdowns, the forgoing of the productivity gains experienced by other societies which have responded to the pandemic with a reimagination of work and life, and the likely inability to reverse course without damage to its perceived authority. Studies have suggested that China’s people tend to have greater confidence in the central as opposed to local government. One seeming consequence of greater centralization is that this gap will close, most likely in the direction that is unfavorable to the Party’s long-run control.

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Shanghai dreaming

Review of Middle Class Shanghai: Reshaping US-China Engagement by Cheng Li. Brookings, 2021. 

Cover after fictional cover of The Shanghairen, a recent collaborative art project styled after The New Yorker, captures what has long captivated the world about Shanghai. In its sophistication and self-assuredness, the breathtaking grandness of its skyline and the unexpected intimacy of its shikumen, Shanghai reigns as mainland China’s only true global city. A source of nostalgia and inspiration for many, Shanghai is also the focal point of the illusion, to which many Chinese and Westerners alike have professed belief, in both the city’s semi-colonial and reform eras, that Shanghai constitutes a vision of China’s future. Cheng Li, based at the Brookings Institution, continues this tradition in Middle Class Shanghai: Reshaping US-China Engagement, a thought-provoking, but ultimately unconvincing work. 

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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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