Oxford University Press, 2018, 360 pp., $27.95
The National Bureau of Asian Research, 2017, 208 pp., $34.95
Harvard University Press, 2018, 336 pp., $35.00
Chatto & Windus, 2018, 208 pp., $19.09
“There is no easy way to understand China,” the preeminent China historian Jonathan Spence wrote in 1990. Opening his comprehensive work, The Search for Modern China, Spence observed that “for a long time China was a completely unknown quantity to those living in the West.” That had changed, he suggested, but there were still enough questions to “keep us in a state of bewilderment as to China’s real nature.”
Thirty years later, the United States finds itself in the midst of a generational debate on China. Sitting at the heart of that debate are the same fundamental issues about China’s nature and direction that Spence raised three decades ago.
Seeking to answer these questions, three recent works of non-fiction and, surprisingly, one novel stand out in their ability to interpret modern China. Ranging in topic from Xi Jinping’s effect on Chinese society, to an examination of the Belt and Road Initiative, to an analysis of changes in Chinese grand strategy over the past hundred years, to the psychological effects of living under an increasingly authoritarian regime, these books were written by leading thinkers with deep knowledge of and experience in dealing with China. And while their focus and approaches vary considerably, they all seek to explain the nature of the modern Chinese state.
Elizabeth C. Economy opens her latest book, The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State, by asking the reader to consider the nature of contemporary China. She notes that China “is a country that often confounds us with contradictions.” Disentangling the contradictions and making sense of today’s China is the daunting task of this ambitious book.
Economy’s central argument is that the key to understanding contemporary China is understanding Xi Jinping. In 2012, when it first emerged that Xi Jinping had defeated his rivals and would become general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), he was “largely an unknown quantity.” Economy argues that that’s no longer the case, even if, after almost eight years have passed under his leadership, most observers are still poorly equipped to make sense of the dramatic changes he has imposed on his country.
In Economy’s telling, China’s trajectory under Xi Jinping is clear. Increased centralization of power, more governmental control of society and individuals’ lives, and a growing number of regulatory, legal, and technological barriers to contact with the outside world all characterize today’s China. But if those are internal manifestations of Xi’s China, the external implications include a deeper penetration of the outside world and a more assertive set of foreign policies. Economy posits that it is a serious mistake to focus solely on Chinese foreign policy and not pay attention to the fundamental domestic shifts now underway in China. Both derive from the same basic impulse to reassert the state in the making of China’s policies. Economy contends that China is an “illiberal state seeking leadership in a liberal world order,” and that the implications of China’s domestic political and economic system are profound, far-reaching, and little understood.
Economy systematically documents the steps Beijing has taken to exert further control in virtually every field of human endeavor, with chapters examining the political and cyber arenas, the economic realm—to include innovation, state-owned enterprises, and the environment—and Beijing’s foreign and national security policies. To research this book, Economy immersed herself in Xi Jinping thought, reading scores of his speeches, commentary, and official party documents in an attempt to understand “how Xi’s model is taking root and transforming Chinese political and economic life.”
In this wide-ranging survey, three core arguments stand out: the importance of Xi Jinping, the presence of a definitive strategy informing all aspects of Chinese policy, and the centrality of ideology. Each of these propositions respond to core questions about today’s China—and for each, she makes a compelling case.
On Xi Jinping, there is ongoing debate about both how much he represents a break from the past and whether his actions are products of a larger leadership consensus. Economy notes that not every policy decision China has pursued since his ascension is new, but argues that the turn towards more internal repression and external assertiveness have hardened and accelerated during his tenure. Xi took power determined to change China’s course, Economy writes, and his reign has born that impulse out by largely rejecting Deng Xiaoping’s previous efforts to open up the Chinese economy and reassure the rest of the world of China’s benign intentions by pursuing a low-profile foreign policy. What makes Xi distinct is his accumulation of power within the CCP—unrivaled since Mao—and the particular strategy he has set out for a CCP-led China.
Nowhere is this clearer than in Xi’s call for a China Dream of national rejuvenation. Because of the ubiquity of the phrase and its ill-defined nature, many observers have dismissed it as either purely rhetorical or inchoate. Economy believes this is an error, as under its banality lies a “number of concrete objectives,” intended to allow a CCP-led China to “reclaim the country’s ancient greatness.” There is a strong belief in Beijing that by historical right, by correction of the past 200 years of humiliation by foreign powers, and by its extraordinary economic growth, China will regain its dominant position in the region. Internally, this means that the CCP must stay in power and increase the Chinese state’s control. Externally, it means China must regain its position of prominence by steadily accruing more power than its international competitors. These objectives inform Chinese strategy and help explain decisions on tightening the control over the domestic economy, expanding propaganda and other forms of social control, investing deeply in and acquiring technology, and developing cutting-edge military weapons.
Finally, Economy highlights that Xi Jinping’s China is an increasingly ideological state that sees the CCP existentially threatened by liberal values. She quotes Xi speaking to the Chinese National Propaganda and Ideological Work Conference in 2013, when he held that “the disintegration of a regime often starts from the ideological area. . . . If the ideological defenses are breached, other defenses become very difficult to hold.”
Policy has following accordingly. Domestically, the party has ramped up its rhetoric, casting constitutional democracy, human rights, academic freedom, freedom of the press, and judicial independence as fundamental threats. It has increased its control over the media, expanded ideological training of its citizens, and winnowed the opportunities for exposure to information from the outside world. Externally, it has sought to suppress and censor speech it deems offensive while also exporting its technological tools for social control to struggling democracies and like-minded regimes. Economy warns about Beijing’s efforts to export elements of its authoritarian model, undermine democracies by taking advantage of their openness, and engage in an ideological struggle against liberal values. In so doing, she raises several challenging questions for those who dismiss ideology as a driving force behind Chinese policies.
If Economy’s work is broad survey of China under Xi Jinping, Nadège Rolland’s monograph on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a much more narrowly focused examination of Chinese aspirations. China’s Eurasian Century? Political and Strategic Implications of the Belt and Road Initiative looks at Xi Jinping’s signature policy and analyzes its origins, ambitions, and implications. Organized around transportation, energy, and telecommunications infrastructure projects, BRI is meant to connect Europe and Africa to Asia, strengthen cooperation among the nations of Eurasia, and increase political, monetary, and cultural integration. BRI has both economic and strategic components. Indeed, the two are intimately related, as deepening economic cooperation between China and its neighbors is intended not as an end, but rather as a means to promote Beijing’s political and strategic gains. This, Rolland argues, is the “core of BRI.”
Although writing almost exclusively on BRI, Rolland paints on a much broader canvas. Making extensive use of official and quasi-official documents, Rolland finds that BRI has multiple objectives, including using China’s overcapacity in construction materials, lifting the fortunes of its state-owned enterprises, boosting regional development, hedging against possible disruptions to maritime supply in the event of a conflict, and strengthening other authoritarian regimes.
To Rolland, the vision “reflects Beijing’s desire to shape Eurasia according to its own worldview.” BRI is much greater than the sum of its parts and should be understood as “a grand strategy that advances China’s goals of establishing itself as the preponderant power in Eurasia and a global power second to none.” In this reading, BRI is a key tool to return China to a dominant global position.
Rolland warns against the temptation to dismiss BRI as merely an ill-defined collection of infrastructure projects. China’s leaders take it seriously and Xi Jinping has staked his reputation on it, declaring its success a personal priority of the highest order. Mentions of BRI permeate official speeches, statements, the media, and even popular culture. Moreover, China has plowed enormous amounts of prestige, intellectual energy, and money into the initiative. Dismissing it, in her view, amounts to strategic malpractice, combining willful blindness of what China’s rulers say they want to achieve with a lack of imagination about just how profoundly Beijing is moving to reshape the global order.
According to Rolland, “BRI remains—arguably purposely—an amorphous and ambiguous construct.” Her work attempts to nail down the nature of that project, zero in on its stated—and unstated—objectives, and answer why Beijing has mobilized the full resources of the state behind it. The monograph proceeds in a forensic fashion, accumulating evidence and clues as it analytically moves its way toward its conclusions.
Rolland believes that through BRI, China offers the promise of material benefit, and in return expects muted criticism of its policies and compliance with its wishes. In exchange for offers of investment, infrastructure projects, and security benefits, Beijing “expects that they [BRI partners] tacitly agree not to challenge China’s core interests, criticize its posture, or seek to challenge its political system.”
Rolland sees BRI as a laboratory and prototype for the type of order China seeks to build. Eurasia would be linked by high-speed trains; the Digital Silk Road would effectively be sealed off from the rest of the world and closely monitored and controlled; when BRI countries have disputes with China, they would appeal not to international law, but instead to Beijing on bilateral—and inherently inferior—terms; U.S. alliances would be substantially weakened in both Asia and Europe; increasing webs of aid and trade between China and its neighbors would create fundamental dependencies at all levels. In this vision of the future, transparency has weakened while corruption and social control have strengthened, breathing new life into authoritarian regimes. The end result is that, “wary that they might be punished and isolated, most countries silently acquiesce to Beijing’s diplomatic priorities.”
Of course, such a future is by no means assured. Because BRI is an external project of grand dimensions, its success depends on other states deciding that BRI is in their interests. But that means that its ultimate fate rests on “the rest of the world’s willingness to accept China’s objectives and go along with its plans.” Rolland describes what Chinese analysts have identified as the main challenges to the realization of this vision and the strategies Beijing has undertaken to mitigate them. Of special attention is the negative reaction BRI has engendered in both large and small partner countries, and Beijing’s renewed efforts to soften, transform, and manipulate public opinion in various capitals.
Along the way, she reveals some other key insights. One is the role of media in BRI. In 2016, at the Media Cooperation Forum on Belt and Road, Xi declared that “media plays an essential role in communicating information, enhancing mutual trust and building consensus.” This, in essence, is how the CCP, and Xi, view media: indistinguishable from propaganda and meant to advance the aims of the state. Such information might not be fake news, but it is state-sanctioned and intended to harness, manufacture, and when necessary manipulate public opinion—at home and abroad.
And yet, despite these conclusions, Rolland’s study should be read as neither a wholesale dismissal of BRI nor a blanket call for its rejection. Rather, it is a much-needed attempt to understand its often obscured purposes. Why are those purposes obscured? Rolland suggests that it might be because BRI is not yet fully developed and, being opaque, allows for adaptability. Alternatively, it may be because BRI has no strategic design, and is simply an accumulation of many dispersed initiatives. Or, most alarmingly, it might be because Chinese officials fear that being transparent about their aims would produce an intense counter-reaction. Hardly definitive, but certainly suggestive, is her quoting of an officer in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army: “If you tell people, ‘I come with political and ideological intentions,’ who will accept you?”
The promise of economic benefit in exchange for political obedience is not a particularly new concept. Neither, of course, is spending money and manpower to win friends and build diplomatic support. And, if these approaches fail, there are always other forms of coercion that can be employed. As much as these strategies can be seen in China’s near abroad, they are squarely in keeping with how China’s leaders have approached their own population.
This is one of the primary arguments in Sulmaan Wasif Khan’s Haunted by Chaos: Chinese Grand Strategy from Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping. In this brief survey, Khan attempts to dissect the major movements of Chinese statecraft, charting the fears, objectives, and strategies of Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao, and Xi Jinping. Unlike Economy, he finds very little new under the sun and in his telling, there is far more continuity than discontinuity in the past hundred years of CCP strategy. “The dramatic changes modern China has endured,” Khan writes, “have obscured the commonality of purpose and power.”
Khan’s book is a search for those commonalities, an attempt to understand the calculus behind China’s decision-making, and an explanation of how its leaders have seen the world. All saw China as brittle and constantly threatened by a dangerous world. All believed that security lay in territorial expansion. And all held that preserving their hold on power necessitated political cohesion, economic growth, a strong military, and a favorable balance of power. Khan also finds that CCP leadership, from Mao to Xi, approached diplomacy in a similar fashion, by promoting good relations, protecting core interests, calibrating the use of force, and being pragmatic. These conclusions are largely unsurprising. What makes Khan’s take of greater interest are the conclusions about Beijing’s expanding ambitions, and its read of, and response to, American actions.
Khan claims, paradoxically, that while China is more powerful than it has been in centuries, it now feels more insecure and threatened than it has in decades. “With growing strength came a broader definition of what it took to stay safe,” Khan writes. The more powerful China has become, the greater its ambitions have grown and the further afield its grasp has reached. Ambitions alter with circumstances, Khan notes, and success has allowed Chinese leaders, from Mao to Xi, to redefine their goals, demanding more for China and asking more from others. It is particularly illuminating to read his account of the lessons the Chinese leadership drew from the Taiwan Strait crisis of 1995-1996. It was America’s under-reaction to initial Chinese attempts to dial up pressure on Taiwan that signaled that “American inaction meant acquiescence.” That particular read proved to be a miscalculation, but as Chinese power has grown and foreign responses have remained muted, one wonders how often Beijing takes silence for consent.
In one way or another, each of these authors focus on what is known to describe something that is, ultimately, unknowable—the direction of contemporary China. And all attempt to describe something of the country’s nature.
Ma Jian, the Chinese writer and dissident living in self-exile in London, does the same—but, with the license of a poet, his novel China Dream is far less constrained. A searing work of fiction that is at turns darkly humorous, satirical, and hallucinatory, Ma’s dystopian tale undercuts and ridicules the Chinese Communist Party, which he accuses of destroying China’s society, erasing its history, and perverting the nation’s soul.
In his take on contemporary China, Ma weaves together references to real events and documents, as he chronicles the unravelling of Ma Daode, a fictitious corrupt CCP party official. In between attempts to appease multiple mistresses, hoard stolen goods, and evict peasants off their land, Ma Daode runs the “China Dream Bureau,” charged with promoting Xi Jinping’s China Dream of national rejuvenation. In order to champion the glorious future the Chinese Communist Party is steering China toward, Ma must erase the memory of its violent past and replace all private dreams with a collective dream of a greater China. As Ma tells his staff, “our job, in this Bureau, is to ensure that the China Dream enters the brain of every resident of Ziyang City. It seems to me that if the communal China Dream is to fully impregnate the mind, all private remembrances and dreams must first be washed away.” The problem, however, is this mission proves impossible. Unable to suppress memories from the Cultural Revolution, Ma is consumed by visions of students beaten to death and his own denouncement of his parents. The cultural madness of China’s recent past seeps like a poison into the present as Ma increasingly has trouble distinguishing the two and, ultimately, is driven mad.
An engrossing story in its own right, Ma Jian’s novel works as historical testimony, social commentary, and description of the workings—and effects—of dictatorship. What emerges is a scathing indictment of the regime, exposing its hypocrisy, its brutality, and its willingness to mete out violence to anyone who deviates from the official line. By blending the past and present, Ma shows how the destruction of trust between student and teacher, parent and child, governor and governed brings a coarsening effect on a whole society. And he offers a powerful explanation of why totalitarian regimes attempt not to erase history, but to re-write it. “Of course, the past must be buried before the future can be forged,” the novel’s protagonist declares. Authoritarian regimes understand that their claims to legitimacy rest, at least in part, on a particular interpretation of the past. Anything that deviates from that line must be eradicated.
Ma Jian is not particularly shy about where he stands. In the book’s foreword, he writes that “Chinese tyrants have never limited themselves to controlling people’s lives: they have always sought to enter people’s brains and remould them from the inside.” In Xi Jinping’s China, there are no actual devices implanted in people’s brains to censor the past and control what people think. Ma Jian’s China Dream argues that that is beside the point, because both the intent of Chinese leadership, and the demand on its population, is the same. While the entirety of the novel’s action take place in China, it also suggests that Beijing’s ambitions to shape, suppress, and guide thought extend far beyond its borders and are “beginning to corrupt the democracies around the world.”
Each of the four authors use a different lens to understand the nature and direction of China. Whether it is the particular significance of Xi Jinping, the motivations behind the Belt and Road Initiative, the continuity of Chinese grand strategy, or authoritarianism with Chinese characteristics, there are plenty of ways to explain China’s present course. Despite their differences, though, there are several common themes woven throughout these books—the expanding level of Chinese aspirations, the centrality the Chinese Communist Party plays in shaping those aspirations, the internal and foreign repercussions, and the mixture of confidence and insecurity driving China’s leaders.
Of course, these are not the only questions to ask about China’s direction today. Looming over public debates are rising international concerns about China’s crackdown in Hong Kong, its ongoing interment of over a million ethnic Uighurs, Kazakhs, and others into camps and prisons in Xinjiang, and the level and depth of CCP interference activities overseas.
Responding to an emerging China is the strategic question of our time. America’s longstanding policy has been to try to engage, integrate, and bind China into the existing liberal order. That approach no longer seems viable; whatever economic benefits it has generated, U.S. policy has not produced the China that policymakers had hoped for. What has instead emerged is a richer, more powerful, more repressive China that is expanding its political influence around the world and attempting to impose a regional version of the Chinese domestic contract: stability, growth, and acquiescence. While there is now an emerging consensus that it is time for an overhaul of America’s China policy, there is less agreement on what exactly that should be.
These policy questions are ultimately about how America chooses to respond to shifts in Chinese behavior, and less about why China’s domestic and foreign policies have changed. But a firm grasp on these questions remains essential not only to understanding China, but also to fashioning an appropriate policy response. These books offer an excellent place to start.