If you are or have been a China news junkie (like me) you are probably somewhat up to speed on many of the prominent, and not so prominent, China stories that have dominated the airwaves over the past decade since Xi Jinping came to power in 2012.
- A Huawei executive is arrested at the airport in Vancouver and placed under house arrest while awaiting extradition to the United States.
- A new Chinese social media app, Tik Tok, takes the world by storm, prompting fears of data mining and calls for it to be banned.
- A coach in the NBA posts a tweet in support of protesters in Hong Kong, leading to China cancelling broadcasts of NBA games and an eventual apology on the part of the coach in question.
- As a global pandemic gets underway and makes its deadly spread around the planet, China successfully prevents Taiwan from being a part of world-wide efforts at detection and prevention.
- China closes its borders to the outside world and keeps them closed for three years (so far) in an effort to “defeat” a virus, causing severe economic, social, and mental distress.
These are just a few of the many stories that Elizabeth Economy unpacks in her new book, The World According to China. How are we to understand these events and the broader policy decisions made by the Chinese government? What are they trying to achieve? Setting these stories within the broader context of Xi’s call for the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese state,” Economy lays out in detail how Xi “envisions a China that has regained centrality on the global stage; it has reclaimed contested territory, assumed a position of preeminence in the Asia Pacific, ensured that other countries have aligned their political, economic, and security interests with its own, provided the world’s technological infrastructure for the 21st century, and embedded its norms, values, and, standards in international laws and institutions” (p. 2).
Elizabeth Economy is a long-time China watcher and the author of three previous books on China. She is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and a senior fellow for China Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. She is also a senior advisor in the US Department of Commerce.
Economy structures her book around six different strategic themes that drive the Chinese Party-state, followed by some concluding observations. In the first chapter she looks at government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. Avoiding some of the contentious political debates outside of China about the origin of the virus, she focuses instead on helping the reader understand what is driving China’s zero-COVID response, a response that seems increasingly baffling to the outside world.
In the second chapter, she looks at China’s use of hard power and soft power to exert its will on the international stage. One of its most potent hard power weapons is its economic clout which gives it the ability to use its “market leverage to try to coerce other countries and foreign businesses to do its bidding” (p. 31). One weapon of soft power is the rise of Tik Tok, which provides a platform to “give a good Chinese narrative, and better communicate China’s message to the world” (p. 65). Soft power is also wielded through the global network of Confucian Institutes which are housed on university campuses worldwide.
In chapter three, the focus is on China’s claims of sovereignty in the South China Sea and over Taiwan. Of particular interest is how China was able to exert its will in Hong Kong, effectively bringing an end to “One Country, Two Systems” a full 19 years before its designated expiration date. Despite a positive trend in cross-strait economic and cultural relations, Taiwan remains an important piece of unfinished business from the civil war in the 1940s. China cannot ultimately achieve the great rejuvenation it seeks without regaining sovereignty over Taiwan. In China’s view, issues related to the South China Sea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong are purely internal matters and no one else has a say in what happens. Furthermore, these are the most dangerous flash points in Sino-everyone relations and have the highest risk of leading to armed conflict, something that would change everything for everyone.
The subject of chapter four is the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China’s signature foreign and economic policy initiative, with a focus on how it enables China to not only build railroads, highways, and ports, but to also exert their political, economic, and security preferences on the “partner” nations. Economy notes that by 2020 there were 140 countries that were participating in the initiative (p. 97). While actual statistics are hard to come by, she suggests that China has invested more than $70 billion in BRI projects worldwide (p. 98). Even though the Sri Lankan economic collapse happened after this book was written, this chapter helps us understand the role of BRI in that event.
In chapter five, she looks at the technology sector. When it comes to technology, the stories that garner the most attention in the West are the censoring of social media posts or the so-called “Great Firewall.” Those stories are, in many ways, small potatoes. According to Economy, what China really wants is to “lead the world’s technological transformation over the 21st century” (p. 23).
Her focus in chapter six is on China’s attempts to influence global governance. These efforts are particularly notable in how China participates in and works its will in international institutions such as the United Nations and the World Health Organization. In October, China was able to use its influence in the UN Human Rights Commission to block a resolution calling for an investigation into China’s treatment of the Uighurs. In the early days of the pandemic, China was also able to influence the messaging coming from the World Health Organization.
In the final chapter, she offers her thoughts on how the world, particularly the United States, should respond to these strategic ambitions, laying out a few broad conclusions. First of all, the overarching strategic priorities of the Chinese Party-state are sovereignty and stability. This has been evident in China’s response to COVID-19.
Second, even as China seeks to export its authoritarian model and limit international criticism of China’s policies, these attempts have not been universally accepted. While there are nations (near and far) who do align themselves with China, there has been some resistance. Therefore, we should not assume that China’s success in these endeavors will be inevitable.
Finally, the biggest challenge that China poses to the rest of the world comes not from military or economic might, but from China’s attempts to influence norms and institutions of the current world order.
If you are looking for specific references to the how the Party-State views religion, you will be disappointed. However, while the book does not address religion directly, it is helpful for those of us interested in religious life in China and in reaching out to Chinese, to have a better understanding of the context within which Christians in China live out and practice their faith.
From a strictly geopolitical standpoint, this book can be sobering. There is much that divides China, and many nations of the world and an increasing number of them see China’s rise as a major threat. As Christians, though, despite what is going on between the nations we call home and China, we must not allow those issues and concerns to override our commitment to reach out to Chinese (whether in their country or ours) with Christian love. We must not let political ideas and debates become barriers to the gospel.
Read the book. Then pray. Then love your Chinese friends.
Our thanks to Polity Books for providing a copy of The World According to China by Elizabeth Economy for this review.
Joann Pittman is Vice President of Partnership and China Engagement and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University …View Full Bio