Has China Won? The Chinese Challenge to American Primacy
PublicAffairs, 2020, 320 pp., $30
China’s Western Horizon: Beijing and the New Geopolitics of Eurasia
Oxford University Press, 2020, 336 pp., $29.95
Maoism: A Global History
Knopf, 2019, 624 pp., $37.50
In the acknowledgments to his new book, the Singaporean diplomat turned academic Kishore Mahbubani confesses that he “knew that it would be a challenge to find an American publisher.” This struck me as quite incredible. The appetite for books on China in this country shows no sign of being slaked. Alarmism sells: think titles like The Hundred Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower or China’s Vision of Victory. The coronavirus outbreak and the morally reprehensible finger-pointing it has inspired in Washington and Beijing bode well for the sales of future books on China. We already have articles on the need for decoupling and China’s use of the pandemic to reshape the global order. Savvy publishers are probably soliciting book-length versions right now, and I glumly expect to be reviewing a title like China’s Coronavirus: How Beijing Won a year or two hence. So it is unsurprising that PublicAffairs snapped up Mahbubani’s Has China Won?: The Chinese Challenge to American Primacy and, given all that has happened over the last couple of months, it will be unsurprising if the book sells even better than expected.
Unsurprising, but also disappointing—for Mahbubani’s little jeremiad is not particularly useful. Mahbubani comes to a conclusion that he notes is “paradoxical”: “a major geopolitical contest between America and China is both inevitable and avoidable.” Clever as this sounds, he never does get around to explaining the apparent contradiction. The “avoidable” side of this equation makes sense, though “undesirable” describes his argument better. The United States, he suggests, needs to adjust to China’s playing a role befitting a great power in the international system. Both countries would do better to focus on giving their citizens better lives rather than trying to kill one another (American politics since 2016 shows that this idea has resonance here). The global problems that confront all of humanity—climate change is his prime example; the virus came later—require the two superpowers to cooperate if we are to survive. This is all true, but much of Mahbubani’s book is preoccupied with what makes the geopolitical contest inevitable—and it is here that he falters rather badly.
There are, to be fair, some interesting nuggets of insight on the United States. Mahbubani is right to point out that the role of money in politics undermines political freedom—something that both Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren put at the heart of their campaigns. He is right to lampoon the streak of moralism that runs through American foreign policy, and it is more than fair to observe that the United States is, as things stand, a far more interventionist power than China. There is much here for Americans to ponder, especially when it comes to forging a China policy—which, Mahbubani correctly notes, the United States lacks.
But Mahbubani never manages to bring that same skeptical, thoughtful outlook to bear on China. China, we are told “did not conquer or occupy any overseas or distant territories.” What of Xinjiang, Mongolia, and Tibet—not to mention Taiwan? Mahbubani swiftly reassures us that Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, and Tibet were conquered by foreign dynasties rather than Han Chinese ones. This doesn’t explain the Chinese Communist Party’s use of lethal force to reconquer Xinjiang and Tibet once it came to power, but so it goes. “The relatively peaceful streak of the Han Chinese people is brought out when their behavior is compared with some of their neighbors,” we are told, only to be reminded a few pages later that “although China has fought countless wars with Japan, Korea, Myanmar, and Vietnam, the prospects of any such war breaking out in the next few decades are virtually zero.” It’s a style of argument that defines the book: Say something completely wrongheaded in strident tones, then rush through the opposite idea to cover all bases. Mahbubani’s reason for playing down the prospect of war between China and its neighbors is that those countries have developed “sophisticated and subtle instincts on how to manage a rising China.” Maybe—but those sophisticated and subtle instincts, at least in Japan, seem to include the recognition that war is a distinct possibility and that military strengthening (Sheila Smith, Japan Rearmed, is excellent here) would be wise.
Such moments abound. “The more powerful China has become, the less it has intervened in the affairs of other states,” Mahbubani announces. At this point, an Australian, New Zealander, Norwegian, or South Korean reading the book might howl in disbelief, but in a quick few lines on China’s dealings with Norway and South Korea, Mahbubani explains that “China was responding directly to what it perceived to be an attack on China’s national interests. It was not a gratuitous intervention in the affairs of another state.” That most interventions by most states are driven by perceptions, however misguided, of national interest is a point seemingly lost on him. When he finally lays into another author for a “contradiction . . . so brazen that it must indicate the author’s deep reluctance to acknowledge the facts”, one can’t help feeling that Mahbubani has diagnosed the failure that mars his own book. Meanwhile, misleading statements pile up. Mahbubani is “astonished how the quality of mind of Chinese diplomats has improved, decade by decade.” Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping, Pan Tzuli, and Huang Hua to name but a few of China’s negotiators would be fully justified in taking umbrage here; they played a weaker hand with far greater finesse. “There is no question,” Mahbubani writes,“that if China suddenly becomes a democracy, it would emerge with a leader as interventionist and imperialistic as Teddy Roosevelt, not with a leader as restrained and non-interventionist as Xi Jinping.” There are some rather large questions about that. It’s always hard to tell what a country wants; China, with its malls and Hello-Kitty-obsessed youth, might well choose boring old consumerism. And whatever else Xi Jinping might be, he is decidedly not restrained or non-interventionist. Mahbubani’s account of Sino-Japanese relations seems extraordinarily naive. It’s nice to hope—one should hope—that a “culturally symbiotic relationship” between the two can foster stable, good relations. But to canter across the relationship as Mahbubani does while barely mentioning the territorial dispute shows a resolute unwillingness to face facts. “I was born an argumentative Indian,” he notes. The line that divides argumentative from plain silly is not particularly fine, but Mahbubani tumbles across it all too often.
This is a crying shame, for the call for common sense in American policy toward China that Mahbubani is making is important, perhaps more now than ever. Daniel Markey, formerly of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff and now a research professor at SAIS, makes a similar call, but in a very different style, in China’s Western Horizon. A tougher editor would have asked that Markey’s book either be expanded to encompass more than the three case studies in China’s foreign relations (Pakistan, Kazakhstan, and Iran) that it sets out to explore, or else be pruned to a hundred pages. But the book is a measured, thoughtful analysis of the nature and limitations of China’s influence in Eurasia. Markey’s central thesis is that the smaller countries with which China is interacting will shape the way the relationship evolves. “China’s new initiatives and ambitions are playing out against the backdrop of Eurasian realities,” he notes. “Beijing cannot run roughshod over these realities or avoid them entirely. To the contrary, China’s own interests will be shaped and implicated in regional dynamics in new, complicated ways.”
The best chapter is the opening one on Pakistan. (Much of Markey’s career has been spent studying or dealing with South Asia.) Markey begins with the story of erstwhile Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf asking China to invest in a new Pakistani port, Gwadar, and how the Chinese, despite being wary, were gradually sucked into the project. Markey offers a helpful sketch of the rivalry between India and Pakistan, and China’s attempt to walk a “vanishingly fine line” between those two countries. For a chapter titled “South Asia and China,” the Sino-Indian relationship feels short-changed here, and other South Asian countries need much more attention. But as a study in how Pakistan’s messy politics and “crony capitalism” will affect Chinese aims, it is valuable. The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has received a ton of attention; Markey skillfully highlights how ethnic groups such as the Baluch object to CPEC projects in their territory, how well-entrenched politicians enrich themselves through such projects, and how Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Imran Khan, seemed to lead a backlash against CPEC. (The full story here has yet to be told: I suspect that Khan—who is no relation of mine—was following the time-honored Pakistani tradition of shaking down a patron power.) Markey shows convincingly that China’s involvement in the region won’t fix Pakistan’s many problems, whatever Beijing and Islamabad say. He also suspects that China’s involvement in Pakistan will fuel Sino-Indian rivalry. This seems a stretch. China has a decent track record at balancing between those two countries and not letting Pakistan drag it into conflict with India, despite Pakistan trying repeatedly. It’s a possibility, certainly—just not as strong a one as the book suggests. Greater attention to the risk militant Islamism in Pakistan might pose to China, especially given how accounts of China’s gulag in Xinjiang are spreading among Pakistanis, would have been valuable. Nevertheless, this is a sound account of the Sino-Pakistani relationship and one that American policymakers worried about China’s reach would do well to read.
Markey sees similar challenges in China’s dealings with Kazakhstan and Iran: nasty internal politics and the risk of upsetting existing regional powers (Russia and Saudi Arabia). China has growing energy investments in Kazakhstan that, Markey contends, will be jeopardized by potential turmoil and Russian fears of being displaced by China. In the Middle East, he sees China’s burgeoning relationship with Iran strengthening the regime there but undermining Saudi confidence in the region’s stability, not to mention inviting American ire. These chapters are less well-developed than the Pakistan one, and Markey’s analysis of both Russia and Saudi Arabia could have gone further. As a roadmap to some of the pitfalls China will face in these regions, though, it is a good starting point.
Markey concludes with recommendations on the American response to China’s conduct abroad. It is true, he notes, that China’s involvement “will not necessarily bring greater stability or peace.” In Iran, in particular, China’s presence thwarts American interests, as Tehran uses Beijing to ameliorate the effect of sanctions and procure weaponry. And yet, Markey points out, there is a whole matrix of options on how to respond: one can embrace all-out competition or “strategic withdrawal.” Markey does not advocate the latter, but he does argue persuasively for “filtering the competition through the sieve of local realities.” There is no need, he argues, for Washington to match Beijing “dollars for yuan” in every corner of the world; instead, America should cooperate with China where it makes sense (anti-terrorism in Afghanistan, for example), win over partners where possible, and focus on long-term competition if that is where we are indeed heading. The prescription is asymmetric rather than symmetric competition, to borrow John Gaddis’s categories of Cold War containment strategies, and it makes eminent sense.
Both Mahbubani and Markey are wrestling with the issue of how China’s power is affecting the rest of the world and what the United States should do about it. As any historian will harrumph, we have worried about China’s influence and what to do about it before. A look at the past might help, and we are fortunate to have Julia Lovell’s Cundill prize-winning book, Maoism: A Global History—a truly superb account of China’s influence from Mao to now, and how that influence was refracted and changed by local circumstances. Lovell, an academic at Birkbeck, University of London, has drawn back the curtain on one of the 20th century’s great untold stories: Maoism and how it spread from China across the world. The book is based, for the most part, on secondary sources. This is a pity, for primary documents, even the well-known ones, look different to each eye, and Lovell, who has a reputation as a first-class literary translator, might have seen more than most. But there is a time and place for synthesis, and no one can fault so wide-ranging a book for building on previous (judiciously selected) research. Lovell’s great accomplishment is to bring several different theaters together in a coherent, often astonishing narrative, showing how a set of ideas traveled from Yanan to Lima, Beijing to Kathmandu, inspiring, killing, and morphing as it spread.
It’s an important tale: as Lovell points out, Maoism’s global impact still inspires far less scholarship than the ideologies of Hitler or Stalin, but remains a powerful force in the making not just of modern China, but of many other parts of the world. She begins with a brisk account of Maoist principles. Some are familiar—power coming out of the barrel of a gun, the importance of the peasantry, self-criticism, imperialism as a paper tiger. But perhaps the most remarkable feature of this opening chapter—and one that recurs throughout the book—is Lovell’s attention to a principle not usually explored at length: “Women can hold up half the sky.” Lovell does not gloss over Mao’s many mistreatments of women, but she shows too how “the young Mao . . . was positively feminist in his rhetoric” and how “the imputation of feminism to Mao helped push his ideas across the world.” Studies of foreign policy don’t often venture into women’s history; Lovell’s book is probably the finest example I know of on how those two areas can be integrated.
The narrative shifts to American journalist Edgar Snow’s time with the communists before they took over China and his popularization of Mao’s precepts. From here, Lovell gets to the Korean War—and to a terrifying account of how overblown fears about China’s capacity to brainwash people, including US citizens, led to CIA-sponsored psychiatric experiments. She also provides a much-needed summary of North Korean attempts to supplant China as a center of revolution. The PRC remained, however, a fount of inspiration and support for would-be Maoists. Dreamers, insurgents, revolutionaries from around the world—Burma, Malaysia, Vietnam, among others—are introduced, coming to China to get trained in Maoism. The overall response is perhaps best summed up by Lovell’s description of the Malaysian communist, Ah Cheng: “Ah Cheng’s emotions towards the CCP are interestingly mixed, combining reverence for Mao’s revolutionary experience with mounting disillusionment on witnessing the failures of Maoism in power.”
What is truly interesting about all this is how wide and deep China’s influence ran on a relatively low investment. There were exceptions—notably Korea and Indochina—but for the most part, China didn’t make massive troop commitments. Military advisers, weapons, cash, courses in blowing things up at PRC academies: China was good for these but fell far short of the kind of commitment the Americans made to Vietnam or the Soviets to Afghanistan. More than American or Soviet ideologies, Maoism seems to have been an import ideology more than an export one (like its American and Soviet counterparts, it could swing both ways, of course), with various people courting China for it. Beijing’s answering efforts were haphazard and, as Lovell notes, almost always subordinated to national interest. Nevertheless, Maoism fuelled mass murder in Indonesia, the building of the Tanzania-Zambia railway, the guerrilla movement in Zimbabwe, and the workings of the African National Congress. Amidst the carnage and upheaval Lovell charts there are some laugh-out-loud moments: Zimbabwean Maoists choosing names like Margaret Thatcher and James Bond, or French Maoists liberating “twenty sacks’ worth of caviar, foie gras, champagne, and cheese.” The humor underscores a crucial point: In foreign climes, Maoism often took on a form that Mao himself, had he been transplanted there, would probably have disavowed.
And it survived the Chairman. Lovell tells the story of Maoism in Peru, India, and Nepal, where it thrived well after Mao’s death (and in the cases of India and Nepal continues to thrive). The chapter on Nepal is where Lovell catches fire. The three pages on Comrade Kamala, a Nepali Maoist, alone would have made it worth purchasing. Here is Kamala’s first encounter with Nepal’s young revolutionaries:
The current system of government, they told locals, was a ‘multi-party democratic sham. When our revolution triumphs, women will be empowered and go to school.’ Kamala was impressed and inspired. She had always wanted to attend school but could barely sign her name. With the support of a newly formed women’s committee, she taught herself to read and write in just two months, staying up all night while she was out with the cattle. Her first ever letter—sent to her brother studying in town—got straight to the point: ‘Why is life so unfair? Why do you go to school but I don’t? Aren’t we born of the same mother?’ Kamala then secretly took on odd jobs—hard labour like hauling stones—to pay for her school enrollment, books, and uniform. When her mother discovered what was going on she thrashed Kamala so hard she broke three sticks in the process. ‘I didn’t cry once. I was so desperate to go to school,’ Kamala told me. In 1994, when her mother died of a stroke at the age of forty, her father resigned himself to his daughter’s ambitions. Kamala quickly became the top student in her class, and an active member of ‘the fighters’ group’, the youth wing of the Maoist party, which provided ideological, physical and firearms training.
There, in a single, well-told tale, is the essence of why Maoism appeals. There is desperation. There is hunger for change. And there is a yearning for adventure, a personality willing to dream of something bigger and to fight for it. Terrible things might come of the dreaming and the fighting—the struggle the Maoists called for killed 17,000 Nepalis—but to understand Maoism’s power, one needs to understand its appeal. Maoism gives us that, just as well as it chronicles the damage wrought.
Lovell doesn’t really engage with the debate over contemporary U.S. policy towards China, but her book offers a model of how to think about China and its role abroad. First and foremost, a patient, meticulous sifting of evidence, allowing the argument to emerge from it, rather than imposing a straitjacket view on messy circumstances. Second, an attention to the countries dealing with China that is every bit as engaged and unwavering as attention to China itself. From this comes an awareness of the gap between intention and outcome, between illusions of influence and developments on the ground. And finally, a sensitivity to the human dimensions of great power politics. Projections of economic growth and the balance of power matter, but they can be thrown off course by a Mao in a cave or a Kamala hungering for education, intent on writing their own stories. I would love to see a book on China’s role today (grounded in solid historical work) that brings those things together.
Only in the last chapter, when she returns to China, does Lovell strike a false note. It has become fashionable to compare Xi Jinping to Mao Zedong and Lovell does too: “China is ruled by the strongest, most Maoist leader the country has had since Mao.” But popularity doesn’t make a view correct, and this portrayal of Xi feels a little too pat. Xi is authoritarian, certainly, but barring his insistence on party control, there’s very little of Mao when you scratch the surface. No peasant mobilization. No Cultural Revolution. An assertive foreign policy, but not one that preaches world revolution with Chinese characteristics. No flocks of foreigners coming to learn Xi Jinping Thought. Xi abolished term limits on the presidency, but you can do that as a good old-fashioned authoritarian without being Maoist (ask Vladimir Putin). The adherence to Maoism is so “selective”—Lovell’s word—that it feels like the type of charade you’re meant to see through. Watching Xi in action and remembering what Mao fought against, I can’t help being reminded of the end of Animal Farm: “The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.” China’s real revolutionaries—its own versions of Comrade Kamala—are not hanging out in Zhongnanhai, one suspects, but in the dark corners of a state both powerful and unequal: a migrant worker tired of being pushed around, a farmer whose land has been poisoned, a child who feels that the coronavirus took her parents too early and the state lied too well—too desperate to be pacified by symbols, too bold, too reckless to be quiescent forever.