China and its Discontents

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Review of “A Contest for Supremacy” by Aaron Friedberg

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Want to read the ultimate hawkish view of the US-China relationship? Read Aaron Friedberg’s recent book, “A Contest for Supremacy.” Throughout the book Friedberg emphasizes that the US-China relationship is inevitably heading down a dark road, that China is forsworn to become a hegemon and direct competitor, and that US policy is currently overweighted on the side of diplomatic engagement rather than military balancing. For a man who wants more balancing, his book is seriously unbalanced. What follows is not so much a review, but a list of grievances, in no particular order. Here’s what’s wrong with the book:

  1. Underrates internal threats to China’s rise. Friedberg mentions them briefly (demographic problems, impending environmental catastrophe, failing economic models), but doesn’t let them get in the way of predicting a Chinese juggernaut. Friedberg also sketches some possible Chinese futures, concluding that a truculent, hyper-nationalist China is more likely than either the status quo or democratic regime change. Granted, I agree with him that a hyper-nationalist China is more likely than a peaceful democratic China, but a more likely scenario than either is a future where China’s internal problems derail any of the global ambitions he ascribes to it.
  2. Mistakenly casts Chinese foreign policy thinking as more or less monolithic. Yes, no Chinese political leader currently or will likely in the future call for the demonopolization of the CCP’s power. But beyond that, there is serious political disagreement within the CCP. Economic and political reform are not settled within the party. Neither is foreign policy. The very lack of any coherent grand strategy (which Friedberg mentions) should tell him this.
  3. Underrates human leadership as making a difference in the US-China relationship. Is foreign policy merely the product of impersonal, historical forces, or can individuals play a role in shaping history? Friedberg seems to believe almost entirely in the former. I think this does not accurately reflect reality. Automatons don’t make foreign policy, human beings do.
  4. Unnecessarily combative and essentially labels everyone else defeatist appeasers. Seriously, he labels everyone who disagrees with him with these sorts of names. It’s unnecessary, especially because it’s not true. Probably no one he attacks would argue that the US shouldn’t maintain its qualitative military edge; the debate is in how to do this. He derides the idea that Sino-US cooperation can be borne on the back of issues like climate change, trade, etc. Why not? These are legitimately problematic issues, and we need China’s help to solve them, or else we are screwed. He doesn’t even mention climate change in his last chapter.
  5. Makes assertions about hypotheticals that are ungrounded from reality. Friedberg does this all over the book. The basic model is: what if China becomes a global superpower, projecting force all over the world to secure its interests, while the US de-arms, weakens, and appeases China according to our worst neoconservative fears? These are not credible hypotheticals, and they lead to baseless fear-mongering.
  6. And finally and most importantly, he underrates the effectiveness of current US policy. Throughout this entire book, Friedberg ascribes no less than the future collapse of all US interests related to China and the Asia Pacific to the Democrats and the current administration’s policies. But Democrats are not the feckless appeasers Friedberg is crudely making them out to be. Of course, just shortly after this book’s publication, the Obama administration announced the pivot/rebalance to Asia. But many of the policy proposals Friedberg advances, including the development of Prompt Global Strike and the Next-Generation Stealth Bomber, have been in the pipeline for a long time. And to be quite honest, the rebalance is not so much a quantitative shift as it is a qualitative shift; the difference is a matter of emphasis, not really a matter of resources. With or without the rebalance, US policy towards China continues a long tradition that has not been upset since the Tiananmen Massacre. It’s worked surprisingly well, and is a sound strategy going into the future.

Friedberg miscalculates both American and Chinese strategy. Engagement and balancing are not goals in of themselves; they are means to an end. That end is a peaceful, strong and rising China that is integrated into the international system. He pays lip service to this, but advocates absolutely zero proposals to make China as it is today more integrated. Everything he proposes is designed to deter the Chinese from overturning America as the global superpower. But this is also a miscalculation of Chinese strategy. China doesn’t want conflict with the US. It’s not building a military that can project force globally. It is developing relatively limited capabilities that would defeat adversaries in a Taiwan conflict and deter an American attack against the mainland. Is this going to change in the future? Very unlikely. China’s integration into the world economy, and its dependence on the US Navy to secure trade and energy shipments, make the calculus fall far in favor of peace and development. Conflict on any mass scale would cause chaos and misery for the Chinese people (think about how current CCP leaders shudder when they hear the words, “Cultural Revolution”). The CCP could very well lose power because of it. And for any foreseeable timeline into the future, the PLA would lose any conflict with the US military. Hands down.

Mao: “cryptic, cavalier, and arguably deranged”

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I’ve been reading a series of articles over the past week for my Post-1949 Modern Chinese History class, written by my professor himself, focusing on Nanjing’s experiences during the Cultural Revolution, including the January 1967 failed power seizure. The details are more complicated and confusing than I could possibly have ever imagined. I am having trouble making sense of the various actors and plot twists, but that is partially the point. Occasionally sections jump out of the page for being unintentionally hilarious:

 When Mao spoke about Nanjing during this period his utterances were cryptic, cavalier, and arguably deranged. In a meeting with military commanders on July 13 he said,

“Don’t fear chaos, the more chaos there is, and the longer it goes on, the better. The more chaos goes on, there always emerges a hall of fame, and things will clear up. No matter how chaotic, don’t be afraid. The more afraid you are, the more demons will appear. But no matter what, don’t open fire, whenever you open fire its no good. It’s not possible to have nationwide chaos. Wherever there’s a pustule, there are germs, so they’ll always pop. The chaos in the streets of Nanjing is really fierce, the more I see the happier I get. The more chaotic it gets the more there is a third faction that opposes civil war, opposes armed conflict, and that’s great! (Zhang Chunqiao interjects: “Some say the third faction will take a third road”). What third road is there! Everyone should unite, criticize, you should guide them!” (Mao Zedong 1967).

I’ve said this many times, but it’s worth saying once again: if this is the kind of material that is available now, think what will happen when the party collapses and the archives are opened up.

Written by Will

November 7th, 2012 at 11:39 pm

Review of “China in Ten Words,” by Yu Hua

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I just finished reading Yu Hua’s latest novel/memoir, “China in Ten Words.” What a book. It’s one of the best China books I’ve ever read, and it’s banned in China (which is one of the reasons why it’s so good). The book, with all of Yu’s polemics and invective, is an astonishingly effective evisceration of any legitimacy to which the CCP still desperately clings. If I were to make an analogy, Yu Hua’s latest book vs. his previous novels is like Tian Zhuangzhuang’s movie “Blue Kite,” vs. Zhang Yimou’s adaptation of another Yu Hua novel, “To Live.”

The premise of the book is self-explanatory: Yu Hua surveys modern China by looking through the lenses of ten words, from “People” and “Leader” to “Revolution,” “Grassroots,” and “Bamboozle.” But the method by which he does this is creative and emotionally resonant. Each word is mainly a jumping off point for Yu’s childhood memories of the Cultural Revolution. The beginning of the book in Chapter 1 (“People”), with his memories of the Tiananmen Massacre,  are the least distressing, most innocent parts of the book. Surprised? I was too. By the time we get to “Revolution,” present-day forced evictees are throwing Molotov cocktails at the demolition crews and burning themselves to death, and childhood Yu is admiring his older brother for making the teacher cry while other teachers backstab each other and engage in class warfare-style schadenfreude. In “Disparity,” young Yu and his buddies mob and beat a villager to crack down on the illegal sale of food-rationing coupons; the villager had been saving the coupons for his wedding. Yu explains: “We got a kick out of bullying those weaker than ourselves, believing too that we were performing a public service.” (149) Space-Time and the normal associations between youth and innocence have been overturned. Yu’s reminisces bring us into the thick of what seems like some tragic nightmare that belongs to some other reality, that “Romantic and absurd comedy/cruel and all too realistic tragedy.” (116-117)

Yu’s message gradually unfolds as we progress from word to word: that modern China and the CCP are still best explained by the Cultural Revolution; that China is still stuck in a middle-school mentality of bullying, senseless brutality, and anarchy. Furthermore, this backwards political system has birthed a deformed, inane popular culture where “copycats” and “bamboozlers” are celebrated. The implication is that China’s corrupt political system keeps the country stuck in a post-modern moral and spiritual confusion that the West can at least confront with a common moral vocabulary, strong critically-minded education system, and history of democratic governance; the average Chinese citizen has none of these resources.

This message is brightened by a few brief moments of light, mainly the parts where Yu describes how reading and writing lifted his psychology out of the mind-numbing senselessness of the Cultural Revolution. Another anecdote about how the town morgue was his only refuge as a child is oddly calming. But he mainly focuses on just smashing the CCP’s legitimacy to smithereens, especially with this perfect description of modern China:

“What is revolution? The answers I have heard take many forms. Revolution fills life with unknowables, and one’s fate can take an entirely different course overnight; some people soar high in the blink of an eye, and others just as quickly stumble into the deepest pit. In revolution the social ties that bind one person to another are formed and broken unpredictably, and today’s brother-in-arms may become tomorrow’s class enemy.” (137)

If it’s any consolation, Yu ends by saying, “A bamboozler is quite likely to end up bamboozling himself or–in Chinese parlance–to pick up a big stone only to drop it on his own foot.” (221) I think if he were to make it any clearer that he hoped the CCP would bamboozle itself, this book would not only be banned but Yu Hua would find himself “disappeared.”

Written by Will

May 8th, 2012 at 2:08 pm