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The China Questions: Critical Insights into a Rising Power

The China Questions: Critical Insights into a Rising Power, ed. Jennifer Rudolph and Michael Szonyi. Harvard University Press, 2018, 352 pp.

 The China Questions is a compilation of 36 essays from academics affiliated with the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University. Premised on the idea that “China matters, and therefore that understanding China matters” (p. 1) the editors, Jennifer Rudolph and Michael Szonyi, invited experts to pick a question Americans should ask about China and then provide a short, insightful answer. In organizing these answers, the book is divided into discussions of politics, international relations, economy, environment, and society as well as history and culture. Throughout each section, it is the intention of the authors to cumulatively show how China’s past informs the present and how the present shapes the future. To this end, it is the hope of the editors that they will be able to lessen the “understanding deficit” America has with China.

 

Within the politics and international relations sections the authors ponder such questions as “Does Mao Still Matter?,” discussing the continued influence of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) founder Mao Zedong, especially as it relates to the rule of Xi Jinping and his desire to upend precedent and remove term limits from the office of the presidency. Also considered is the perennial question of Chinese Communism’s legitimacy, which explores why the party continues to be viewed as legitimate by the Chinese people. Elizabeth Perry explores the idea that the CCP is reliant on its performance for legitimacy but is rapidly trying to transition to historical legitimacy to justify its rule in preparation for uncertain times. However as the CCP looks to the past, it also inadvertently opens the door for criticism of Mao Zedong’s policies such as the Anti-Rightist Campaigns, the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution. To prevent undesirable narratives from undermining the CCP’s efforts, in 2013 the party outlined the seven “speak-nots” (areas of liberal governance that might challenge CCP rule) including “historical nihilism,” which Joseph Fewsmith describes as any historical writings or research which “conflicts with the Party’s approved historiography” (p. 22). The urgency of the question of legitimacy gains increased relevance when, in a separate essay, Yuhua Wang asks what the CCP can learn from the various Chinese emperors’ rise and fall. Wang’s findings are disconcerting for the CCP as on average a Chinese dynasty lasted only 70 years, an age the CCP will reach in 2019, and were predominantly overthrown by societal elites and not external military powers.

 

With respect towards the question of how strong the Chinese armed forces are, Andrew Erikson projects that despite China’s near-term progress in developing and fielding military tech capable of targeting US vulnerabilities in the Yellow, East China, and South China Seas, propulsion, electronics, and other complex system-of-systems technologies will remain a key Chinese weakness. Furthermore, Erikson expects that the development of cutting-edge technology and mounting personnel costs, particularly with regard to supporting its growing retiree population, will place an increasing budgetary burden on the Chinese government and economy.

 

In asking if China’s high growth will continue, Richard Cooper anticipates that the economy's rate of growth will likely begin to slow in the coming decade as many of the factors that previously bolstered growth rates above 10 percent diminish, potentially dropping to as low as 5 percent if China cannot spur innovation and further benefit from technological improvements. However, Dwight Perkins contends that while growth may be slowing he sees little indication that the Chinese economy is in for a recession. Instead he suggests that the real danger to the Chinese economy is that continued low household consumption rates will be unable to offset the aggregate decrease in demand as China continues to taper off its massive national infrastructure and building projects. Perkins also points out that this excess production capacity, especially within the steel industry, has already resulted in anti-dumping actions in North America and Europe, making it unlikely that those markets will be willing to absorb additional capacity. Furthermore, in a study of urbanization in China, Meg Rithmire concludes that without significant reforms to the Chinese household registration (hukou) and land rights systems China will be unable to successfully manage the rural-to-urban migration necessary to maintain a successful economy. While the outlook may look bleak, Nara Dillon is optimistic that China is capable of making the kind of data-driven developmental and welfare reforms appropriate to maintain the strong economy necessary for Xi Jinping to meet his goal of eliminating extreme poverty in China.

 

While the politics, international relations, and economy sections provide a relatively simplified, if not well trodden and direct description of a complex and adaptive country, the essays on society, history, and culture that make up the second half of the book cover a much more varied and disjointed set of topics.

 

Through their writings on Confucius, religion, propaganda, education, law, and literature the authors try to delineate the boundaries and critical events that shape Chinese thinking and society. Of note is Paul Cohen’s closing piece in which he catalogues several of the technological, political, and sociocultural factors which have changed the study of China over the years. Cohen describes how the open door policy of the 1970s combined with the growth of the internet and Chinese scholars’ increasing willingness to study a broader array of questions have created a clearer picture of China—although, in the preceding piece, Stephen Owen cautions that while this picture may be clearer, we must always remain aware that the goals of Chinese scholarship are not the same as Western scholarship. Harkening back to the discussion of the seven speak-nots, he alludes to the chilling effect government censorship and official historiography has on critical scholarship, writing that a scholar’s task is to secure “greater detail in the history of the people, and not to ask questions about it” (p. 285).

 

On a more critical note, as a book published in 2018 and purportedly focused on questions Americans should ask about China, it remains almost completely silent on China’s continued support of North Korea and China’s desired end state on the peninsula. This notable absence is possibly remedied by the inclusion of an extensive further reading list assembled by the authors and hosted on the Fairbank Center’s website (https://fairbank.fas.harvard.edu/). However, relying on the reader to seek out, identify, and decipher the scholarly material on such a critical matter misses the point of the book.


Overall China Questions is a worthwhile read, and its short essays are perfect primers for quickly exposing the complexity of a specific subject without dwelling too deeply on the details. The individual essays may lack the depth and nuance of a published paper, but their ease of understanding opens the subject up to the uninitiated and encourages further research. I recommend this book as a starting place for anyone wanting to gain insight into the political, economic, social, and historical drivers shaping Chinese thinking and requiring solid ground from which to start. 

 

Capt Sean E. Thompson, USAF

 

 

 

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

 
Strategic Studies Quarterly (SSQ) and the Air & Space Power Journal (ASPJ)publish book reviews to inform readers and enhance the content of articles in the journals.