Commentary Magazine


China Shakes the World by James Kynge; China’s Trapped Transition by Minxin Pei

China Shakes the World: A Titan’s Rise and Troubled Future—And the Challenge for America
by James Kynge
Houghton Mifflin. 217 pp. $25.00

China’s Trapped Transition: The Limits of Developmental Autocracy
by Minxin Pei
Harvard. 294 pp. $45.00

We know more about China today than ever before, but we may understand less. In late 1949, after grabbing power and establishing the People’s Republic, Mao Zedong quickly moved to exclude outsiders from his domain. Still, although foreigners may not have had the opportunity to roam the new China in its first years, the essential nature of its totalitarian system was well understood. After all, we had seen that same system, albeit with Russian characteristics, at work in the Soviet Union.

Today, foreigners need no longer stand on the outside; they can go to China and even live there. Yet, whether from the inside or the outside, gazing at China in its present state of turbulent transition can cause a loss of perspective. The People’s Republic is too large and diverse—and changing much too fast—for anyone to comprehend the whole of what, along with the American effort in the Middle East, is undoubtedly the greatest experiment of our time.

Can a guided tour from a distinguished journalist help? James Kynge visited every Chinese province during his two decades of reporting, most recently as Beijing bureau chief for the Financial Times. (He has since left journalism but remains in the Chinese capital as the chief representative of Pearson, the FT’s owner.) Not only did he visit China’s growing metropolises, stay in its backwater towns, and walk through its muddy fields, he also traveled to locales elsewhere in the world, including in the United States and Europe, that have been significantly affected, in most cases for the worse, by China’s rapid industrialization.

“The world,” Kynge writes, “has never had to deal with such a large, cheap, and versatile workforce joining the global economy in such a short period of time.” Inevitably, then, decisions made in Beijing have an impact not only on the Chinese but on the rest of us as well. In places like Rockford, Illinois and Dortmund, Germany, workers have lost their livelihoods, neighborhoods have shriveled, and established businesses have failed. Indonesians, Burmese, Central Africans, and Russians are systematically cutting down rain forests and boreal woodlands to meet the insatiable Chinese demand for timber and pulp. China’s appetite for soy has resulted in the clearing of the Amazon for farmland at an alarming rate. Chinese industry airmails to us pollutants that hover over New England and mercury that settles into our soil.

From some viewpoints, China thus seems unstoppable and invincible. When seen close-up, however, it appears subject to crippling vulnerabilities. Kynge reports that Beijing needs to generate 24 million jobs annually for the impoverished peasants moving to its cities, the workers let go by ailing state enterprises, and the young entering the labor force. To keep up its torrid pace, it has mortgaged much of the nation’s future, accumulating bad debts in the fragile banking system, distorting the economy with misconceived incentives, and degrading the environment. Economically, “the country is beset by profound frailties.”

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Yet China’s profoundest weaknesses are not economic in nature. During the course of its rule, the Communist party has subverted traditional norms and destroyed trust among the Chinese people. Kynge captures China’s social disintegration with the story of Qi Yuling, a peasant from northeastern Shandong province. Qi’s parents wanted her to escape an arduous village life through education. So it was good news when, at age seventeen, she learned that she had passed her entrance exam for a technical college in a nearby city. But then she was informed that there had been a mistake; in fact, she had failed to get into college.

Having missed her only opportunity to better her life, Qi was consigned to menial labor in field and factory. Eventually, however, she found out that a branch director of the prestigious Bank of China in another city bore the same name as hers. Curious, she visited the branch and on the bulletin board came upon a photo of the director: it was an old classmate, Chen Xiaoqi, identified as Qi Yuling.

It subsequently emerged that Chen’s father, a Communist-party official in charge of Qi’s village, had purloined Qi’s examination certificate, either bribing or threatening school officials to keep quiet about the theft-and-substitution. Even Chen’s husband may not have known the real identity of the woman he married. When, having learned of the deception, Qi’s parents complained, Chen’s father hired thugs to seek out family members and beat them. Although Qi would eventually receive token compensation, she has remained poor and uneducated to this day.

Kynge believes that a pattern of such arbitrary actions by local officials has contributed to the breakdown of stability across the country. The number of civilian protests—“mass incidents,” in the lingo of the Ministry of Public Security—is soaring. In 2004, the Chinese government acknowledged a total of 74,000, up from about 10,000 a decade earlier, and by 2005 the total had grown to 87,000. China may be shaking the world, but the Chinese people are simultaneously shaking China from within.

Is it possible for us to get along with such an unstable behemoth? This is the critical question with which Kynge ends his book. He gives more than one answer. From the beginnings of the People’s Republic, the Chinese government has gone to great lengths to cultivate, stage-manage, and manipulate its relationships with foreigners. A great show of outward friendliness hides longstanding Chinese feelings of both superiority and acute wariness. At home, as a result of the deliberate inculcation of anti-foreign views, the regime now runs the risk of becoming captive to the ugly nationalism of its young.

To be sure, there are moderating influences. The principal one in Kynge’s view is that the Chinese realize they need the West’s good will and support if their country is going to develop further. From this perspective, he notes, “A key question for the future is not so much how China’s rise will affect the world, but to what extent the world will allow China to continue its ascent.” So long as China keeps this piece of Western leverage in mind, he thinks the worst can be avoided.

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If China Shakes the World were just another reporter-leaves-China book, no one would expect Kynge to provide an incisive analysis of the country’s overall trajectory. Yet his ambitions are broader than that. He opens by talking about the rise and fall of great powers, of how their paths “are full of twists and turns, false dawns and deceptive signals.” His travelogue and his collection of anecdotes are aimed at illuminating that proposition. But what do they add up to? After a banquet of images the reader is still left hungry.

Is the modern Chinese state fundamentally strong, or fundamentally weak? The first part of Kynge’s book generally describes a strong state, the second part a weak one. Fair enough, but not only does he leave his two portraits unreconciled, he largely avoids distinguishing true signals from misleading ones. Nor does he give us much of a hint about which of these two directions—mighty giant or sickly ward—he thinks the country is heading in.

Luckily, this is where China’s Trapped Transition: The Limits of Developmental Autocracy comes in. Treating many of the same topics covered by Kynge, it is the work of Minxin Pei, a scholar born in China and now affiliated with the Carnegie Endowment in Washington.

Pei’s China is unequivocally a stagnating and even fraying giant, one that has progressed just about as far as it can go within the current one-party system. The Chinese Communists, basking in a sense of security and confidence thanks to the country’s economic success, see little need to change. As a consequence, and despite much talk of public reform, the party has lost much of its vitality, becoming essentially incapable of reinvigorating itself.

As Pei sees it, big trouble looms. Continued progress toward a more modern economy will require the establishment of a true rule of law, which in turn will require “institutional curbs” on governmental action. These two limitations on power are incompatible with the party’s insistence on dominating society. So long as the current political framework remains in place, then, China is effectively, and perhaps fatally, trapped in its state of transition.

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A major reason for Pei’s doubts about the future prospects of the Chinese Communist state is the venality that has infected every level of society. Kynge, too, is well aware of this aspect of things, as in its own way his story of Qi Yuling demonstrates. “The most powerful inhibitor of political reform,” he writes summarily at one point, “is corruption itself.” Yet that is where he leaves the topic, while Pei gives us chapter and verse, demonstrating in detail how predatory local elites, by opposing reforms that would jeopardize their ability to exact bribes, engage in illicit business activities, and sell government offices, are not only retarding progress but crippling the ability of central leaders to implement nationwide policies.

In fact, Pei concludes, China is becoming “an incapacitated state,” and the Chinese government may soon become “unable to honor its commitments.” In our globalized system, the spillover effects of such a huge default “would make China’s problems those of the entire international community.” Still worse, the nation’s sheer size could overwhelm the ability of other countries to render assistance. Just like a rising one, a debilitated state can cause the foundations of the world to tremble.

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Pei could, of course, be wrong. But at least he has offered an analytical framework by which to assess his explanations of Chinese weakness, and his dryly marshaled facts and dispassionate argumentation present a welcome contrast to Kynge’s vignettes, however tantalizing those may be. The result is a more comprehensive and, I believe, compelling understanding of present-day China.

No nation—not even one as large and as resurgent as China—can exhibit so many afflictions without suffering severe political consequences. Central technocrats still craft their five-year plans, but the Chinese people are lunging into the future without so much as a roadmap or compass. Eventually, their aspirations, unleashed by more than a quarter-century of centrally planned economic reform and social engineering, will overwhelm the weakening party that devised those programs in the first place. It is ironic and instructive that this should be clearer to a think-tank scholar in Washington than to a keenly perceptive journalist in Beijing.

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About the Author

Gordon G. Chang is the author most recently of Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes On the World. His articles in COMMENTARY include "How China and Russia Threaten the World" (June 2007) and "China in Revolt" (December 2006). He blogs regularly on Contentions at www.commentarymagazine.com.




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