The Forbidden City, Beijing

Chinese Society & Politics

Review of Recent Publications on China

F
or too long, it has been hard to find balanced analyses of China’s prospects. The media tend to adopt a zero sum approach and exaggerate either China’s growing strengths as an inevitable “threat” to U.S. interests, or its weaknesses and impending failure, sometimes implicitly seeing this as favorable to the U.S.

At best, one could find a journal publishing the “two sides” in different issues; maybe they assumed or hoped a person would read both and come up with a balanced judgment?

For example, Christianity Today has published horror stories of persecution of Christians in one issue, followed several issues later by a story highlighting the freedom given to the registered church, but with no explanation of these two phenomenon.

Foreign Policy in March/April 2006, published “The Dark Side of China’s Rise,” summarizing a new book, China’s Trapped Transition: the Limits of Developmental Autocracy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006) by Minxin Pei, Director of the China Center at the journal’s sponsoring organization, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Pei presents a dark view that political decay and corruption under China’s system “neo-Leninist crony capitalism” will prevent its attaining superpower status. The journal’s next issue, May/June 2006, printed commentary by two critics and two supporters, to provide balance.

There have been several outstanding efforts to find the middle ground, which I recommend:


  • Economics. The Economist, October 2, 2004, “The Dragon and the Eagle,” was one of the first to adopt a win-win or lose-lose framework, highlighting how America and China together accounted for nearly half of global growth and rising incomes in many countries, and how the two economies were so inter-connected that a major slowdown in either would greatly damage the other as well as the rest of the world. The article made rare comparisons of China with equivalent stages of development in other developing countries as well as the U.S., pointing out for example that the U.S. had gone through similar boom-bust cycles that so unnerve China investors today.

  • Foreign Policy. Newsweek, May 9, 2005, on the cover declared it was “China’s Century,” but the inside title for the Special Report added a question mark -- “Does the Future Belong to China?” After using the WalMart connection to China and China’s use of US dollar assets for its huge foreign exchange reserves to show inter-dependency, the article gave a clear explanation of how economic rather than military imperatives shape China’s more activist foreign policy. Realistic expectations are for a US-China “soft war” -- quiet competition for power and influence that includes both rivalry and cooperation, much like big power relations in general. (Newsweek included a rare but brief look at religious repression, along with predictions of political dissent disrupting the Olympics.)

  • Society. China: the Balance Sheet: What the World Needs to Know Now About the Emerging Superpower (Washington, D.C.: CSIS and the Institute for International Economics, March 2006) launched a three year project for which I am part of an advisory committee of China specialists. Conferences and Issues Papers and other Resources will be reported on http://www.chinabalancesheet.org. This effort, as well as The Economist,”Balancing Act: A Survey of China, March 25th, 2006, provided significant coverage of the social and environmental challenges to sustaining China’s economic growth and international influence, although the focus was on central government policy rather than grass roots or provincial level social change to which the government reacts.

  • Time, “The Chinese Century,” January 22, 2007, is the latest attempt to explain it all. The cover, “China: Dawn of a New Dynasty” is a peculiar choice of words, given that it implies China will overtake the US global lead while we’re tied down in Iraq, while Chinese would read it to mean the Communist Party’s imminent replacement! Nevertheless, the lead article several times counters statements hyping China’s international ambitions by noting “this is how all nations behave,” and reminding the reader that “the sheer scale of China’s domestic agenda is likely to act as brake on its doing anything dramatically destabilizing abroad.”