The China Questions, the bottom line:
Book review of The China Questions: what if asking the correct questions about China made you smarter?
China is hot stuff these days. People talk about it a lot and China-bashing is often the focus, but in reality, there’s much more to say.
The China Questions by Jennifer Rudolph and Michael Szonyi (Harvard Press) asks a series of interesting and thoughtful questions on China, its politics, its economy, not forget its society and cultural background.
This book is eye-opening. In fact, it probably is a must-read book if you are serious about learning a little more on the topic. Just saying!
The China Questions – Jennifer Rudolph & Michael Szonyi (eds)
Today, I’ve decided to make you think SMART with a book about China: The China questions, by Jennifer Rudolph and Michael Szonyi.
China is a big topic these days. President Trump has progressively turned his ‘America Great Again policy’ into an anti-Chinese policy (from a trade perspective). And everywhere discussions on China tend to turn into threat assessments and witch hunts.
In short, that’s hot stuff, but that’s not surprising because China is a complex country, with a particular historical and cultural background which – believe it or not – conditions every new development.
Whatever happens today or tomorrow, chances are that won’t be expecting it.
And there is a reason for that: the Chinese don’t think as westerners do. And, of course, the reason why they think differently is a whole story. The good news is, you can get some help.
Meeting the book
As often, I bumped into The China Questions in my favorite bookshop. And I decided to give it a try for three main reasons.
The first is that I currently live there – in Hong Kong, to be precise.
The second is that I happen to work on Chinese and Asia-Pacific developments on a daily basis. So all that makes a lot of sense to me.
The third is that having discussions on China is always very complicated!
Many people have preconceived ideas on the topic, for starters. Beyond that, though, things are just difficult to understand and explain!
As an expat, many people (friends, family, visitors and clients) ask me questions about what life is like around here. But the reality is that China is a complex country, moved by very complex dynamics.
There is good news, though. The China Questions does a fantastic job of explaining them. Do you want to find out more? Read my book review!
As usual, here is what you get on this page:
- A brief overview of the book (that includes my SMART takes).
- A much more comprehensive commentary of what the book is about, with the author's main topics explained in detail.
- The book's main themes, questions and conclusions in bullet points.
- Why the book was worth my time, why it will be valuable to you, and additional reading suggestions if you are interested in the topic!
The China Questions: brief book review (for starters).
As always on I’ll Make You Think Smart, let me start with a brief book review and overview of the book.
The China Questions is edited by two Harvard academics – Jennifer Rudolph and Michael Szonyi – from the Harvard’s Fairbank Center For Chinese studies. As it turns out, the Fairbank Center recently celebrated 60 years of Harvard research on China and East-Asia, sounds promising, isn’t it?
To be very honest, though, I was a little skeptical at first.
Even though I am an academic, I don’t normally enjoy reading academic books. As compilations of long research papers, they are rarely easy to read, rarely engaging.
So I honestly wondered whether that book would just end up like the others. Understand, on my office bookshelf, never to be read again.
But I was wrong! And The China Questions is now on my bookshelf at home – which, trust me, is a very different collection of books. In case you wondered about that, I’ll Make You Think SMART is what I’m talking about here.
Not the usual academic book (at all)
Anyway, my point is: The China Questions is not the usual edited book written by academics for academics. At all. It is a book by the best China specialists, and it was made to clarify and explain.
Academics often write books to show how complex a topic is, but Rudolph and Szonyi have played the clarity and simplicity card here. They’ve asked 36 questions to 36 experts, who produced 36 short straight-to-the-point answers. Each topic is practical and, with maybe ten pages per question on average, the book is fascinating and easy to read. Really.
What that means is, if you are interested in learning more about China and if you plan on going further than the usual China-bashing talks, The China Questions is a must-read book. It’s as simple as that.
The book provides very interesting insights into a variety of topical issues – the goal being to give the reader a big picture. For example, China’s international relations, its economy, it’s relationship with the environment, not to forget its complex politics, society and cultural background.
Right, so would be the typical reader then?
Well, the typical reader would be… you and me, really.
At the end of the day, the country is difficult to understand, so my guess is that the book was written for a general public of curious readers with an open mind.
Overall, though, the book does a great job of explaining why China matters (because it does) and how China will continue to matter in the future (because it will). And it is really worth a read in my opinion.
I’m getting into the details with a much more comprehensive book review below (keep reading!), but in short, here is what the book says:
The China Questions: The comprehensive book review.
If I had to summarize the book in a paragraph, I would just mention a fundamental question formulated by Michael Szonyi: Where does this superpower come from and where is it going?
As I just noted, The China Questions explores six major themes. The various expert contributors start from the issue of politics, they then move to international relations and economic matters. They also elaborate on environmental and societal concerns. And they finish with food for thought on the country’s historical and cultural background – which I must say is a permanent topic throughout the book.
As usual, this more comprehensive part of the book review starts with the main themes and questions considered in the book – in bullet points. I’ll then elaborate on the themes more extensively. Let’s dig in!
The book in bullet points
Jennifer Rudolph and Michael Szonyi’s book explores these major themes:
- Where does China come from?
- What makes today’s China a superpower?
- Where is China going?
They also asks a variety of questions, including:
- On what foundations is the Chinese superpower built?
- How do Chinese politics operate?
- What does the rise of China mean for the United States in terms of leadership?
- Could China lead Asia someday?
- What can we say about the Chinese economy?
- Do philosophic emblems such as Mao and Confucius still matter today?
- How does China manage environmental and social issues?
- What could be China’s greatest challenge for the future?
Sounds interesting, right? Now, let’s get into the details. Just keep reading!
The China Questions – Theme #1: China, and China’s politics.
Politics unquestionably is one of the main topics nowadays, and Rudolph and Szonyi have played things smartly. They don’t talk about political opinions at all!
Their contribution is far more interesting than that: they explain the political dynamics of China, to help you understand what on earth is happening over there.
Various questions are considered (and answered) from the roots of the Chinese government’s legitimacy to the role played by the recent anti-corruption efforts. Not to forget the importance of Mao and Confucius in today’s society. That’s more than enough to get a big picture. Here are a few examples.
Where does the Party come from?
The first short article in The China Questions asks whether the Party is legitimate.
Elizabeth Perry takes an interesting – i.e. neutral and analytical – approach here because she puts things into context. To her (and as far as political sciences are concerned, really) legitimacy isn’t about good a bad. It is a question of odds. In short, what are the odds of political stability and long-term survival for the Party?
Perry refers to Political sciences, obviously. Weber’s theories, in case you wondered.
She explains that there are typically three types of political models: traditional systems, charismatic systems, and rationally legal systems. Empires, personality-based regimes, and republics or democracies to keep it simple.
But in China’s case, things are a little more complicated than that.
China used to have a very traditional system, with emperors and all that – until a republic was created in the 1900’s. Then a charismatic leader (Mao) took power until 1976. Yet, nowadays the system isn’t fully rational or legal either.
In short, the legitimacy of the Chinese Party doesn’t tick the usual boxes.
So, why does it hold, then?
Well, different factors are playing a role, Perry says, starting with a very strong popular support, grounded on trust and satisfaction. Because, at the end of the day, the Chinese leadership is delivering. Interesting, right?
How about Mao?
Another contribution by Roderick Macfarquhar helps to go a little bit deeper with another question: does Mao still matter?
Macfarquhar notes that it has turned “into a country Mao wouldn’t recognize”. Deng Xiaoping allowed the country to operate a drastic shift from agricultural subsistence to industrial development some time ago, but enormous (huge!) progress has been made. In fact, China produces more millionaires than the US these days! Quite a shift!
As a result, though, the “dream of equality and collectivism” which followed the Cultural Revolution has turned into a new type of ideology, far from Mao’s ideology. The interesting thing, though, is that Mao’s image as the supreme leader remains. Charismatic leadership still is a valuable and valued concept in today’s china. Mao still matters.
The polemical issue of corruption in today’s China.
Another topic is corruption. Those who know a little bit about China know that a significant anti-corruption campaign has taken place over the last years. In The China Questions, Joseph Fewsmith explains why.
When President Xi arrived in power as the Party’s Secretary General in 2012 after Hu Jintao, the Party was threatened by competition and instability. To keep things simple, the fight against corruption became a matter of political strategy. It was a way of reminding people that the Party’s authority “must be obeyed”. A way to remind everyone that what mattered most was unity.
Insisting on the need to abide by the rule of law as part of anti-corruption efforts was a way of restoring disciplines and ideals, at every level. At the top level, the “tigers” had big troubles but at lower levels, the “flies” had troubles too. Yet, at the end of the day, unity and political stability prevailed.
I only gave you hints on three interesting politics-related discussions here because my book review of The China Question needs to move on. But there are much more ideas to explore as far as the politics topic is concerned.
Ya-Wen lei explains how a nascent public opinion is currently developing in China, where people nowadays requests more accountability from their local leaders.
Mark Elliott explores the ethnic side of China’s transition from an Empire into a proud and nationalist nation.
Arunabh Ghosh and Yuhua Wang write on the challenge faced by the Part in terms of longevity and leadership – while taking the sometimes violent history of past emperors as a lesson.
In short, don’t expect The China Questions to tell you what to think about Chinese politics. Be sure, however, that the book will give you tons of contextual elements of answer and food for thought if you are interested in China’s political development.
The China Questions – Theme #2: China’s International Relations.
Having explained the logic behind the politics of China, Jennifer Rudolph and Michael Szonyi then explore how China interacts with the rest of the world.
Note: I might be biased here because these topics are basically the one I work on, but that part of the book is very eye-opening. Just saying.
What China means for the United States
That question is very (very) trendy. China makes the headlines pretty much every day, nowadays, and the conflicting leadership relationship between the country and the U.S. has become a big topic. So, what does China’s rise mean for the United States – which so far have acted as the world leader?
Robert Ross provides interesting food for thought here. In one word: multipolarism is the new standard. So far, the US have dealt with leadership on a global scale. Political leadership, military leadership, Washington has managed. With the rise of China, however, power has shifted. China has become an important actor in the Asia-Pacific region and, as such, the country has become a competitor to the United States.
Note: on these issues, make sure to read the food for thought question down the page.
So, what does it mean for the U.S., then? Well, for Ross the answer is simple: Washington will need to adapt. Washington needs a proper China strategy and needs to talk with China. Washington needs to cooperate, from military, economic and political perspectives. The United States needs to accept and create what academics like to call a ‘paradigm shift’. A pivot, if you will.
So far, the U.S. has tried to counter China’s development by making friends with non-Chinese countries, but for Ross that won’t be enough. The U.S. needs to take China into account, period.
China as a regional leader?
That point leads to another question that I just can’t omit to mention in this book review. What is the impact of China in terms of regional leadership?
Odd Arne Westad explores whether China could lead Asia, but interestingly his answer is very negative. China went from dirt to predominance in a few decades and it is now a “restless superpowers in-the-making”, he writes, yet Beijing isn’t equipped to lead. So far, China’s foreign policy has been a matter of self-preservation, nationalism, and expansionism. Beijing keeps its neighbors divided and weak. The Chinese defy U.S. leadership and openly question the legitimacy of international tribunals which decisions contradict Chinese interests.
In sum, China’s foreign policy is about influence but it is not about leadership-building through cooperation and support. China is feared in the region, Westad (correctly) says, but that’s just not enough to take the position of a regional leader. In his words: “Chinese leadership in Asia will therefore be slow in coming […] do not bet on it happening any time soon”.
These questions are complex and, again, my book review can’t go into too much detail. As explained by Johnston in one of the other China questions, however, the issue goes deep! One the one hand, respect for peace is written in the people’s genes. Yet, in many places, perception is one of danger and fear. So? Well, there seems to be an important gap between the perception of China by the Chinese, and the perception of China by others.
The complex relationship between China and Taiwan is also explored, of course. And so is the tumultuous relationship between China and Japan – which for Ezra Fogel could improve with new generations if the leaders on both sides put more cooperation into place. If that’s not food for thought…
The China Questions – Theme #3: Economy.
Let me continue my book review with the book’s third big theme. The China Questions then explores the economic particularities of China in various ways, from growth sustainability to urbanization, not to forget poverty and the role of the country’s new rich.
Understanding China’s economic growth
Unsurprisingly, China’s economic growth makes the headlines these days so two contributors have explored the issue.
Richard Cooper explains where economic growth has come from over the past years (for starters), and he explores which of these sources could remain sustainable drivers to China’s growth in the forthcoming years. Hint: not that much. The point, though, is that China’s growth is hardly a failure. As noted by Dwight Perkins, in fact, China’s economy is changing but talking about a “hard landing” is not “realistic”!
The real danger is elsewhere, in reality, and the key question is rather a matter of finance, financial market regulation and financial (in)stability. Again, call me biased if you want because these topics are the ones I follow every day at work. Still, the analysis is correct and really worth a read if you are serious about understanding recent China questions. Again, just saying.
No need to have a Ph.D. to know that urbanization is a big thing in China. Still, most people have no clue about what’s at stake and therefore Meg Rithmire’s analysis comes in handy.
The interesting thing is, urbanization has become a real challenge. While the Chinese have “overinvested” in building urban areas, they still lack the infrastructure needed to make everything work. Schools, social services, social welfare, Rithmire explains it all.
Because there is a problem! Would you rather have a ghost city or a city full of jobs and consumers able to support the economy? That’s what the urbanization question is about.
Again, more questions
Of course, there are more questions to be asked and solved, including the fate of the new rich in a country which – whilst capitalist in essence – remains governed by a communist party. China can also offer a few lessons to the world in terms of poverty reduction and welfare development. There are lots of interesting ideas in the book, so if my book review is picking your curiosity, have a look and find out for yourself!
The China Questions – Theme #4: China and the environment.
Welfare is increasingly important to the Chinese population nowadays, therefore the environment is the next logical step in The China Questions.
I won’t elaborate too much on that topic, but let’s say that McElroy and Thomson keep making the book worth a read. One point here is that whilst China is usually denounced as the biggest polluter out there, some efforts are being made. Large efforts, in fact.
The other point deals with an interesting question: are the Chinese environmentally aware? Simple answer here: big yes, but the issue is bigger than we think. Again, to find out more, get the book.
The China Questions – Theme #5: Society.
Jennifer Rudolph and Michael Szonyi then ask fundamental questions as to how the Chinese society works. What with the one-child policy? How about aging? How do the Chinese deal with religions? Why do so many students go to the U.S.? Oh, and does the law matter out there?
From the one-child policy to aging populations
Susan Greenhalgh and Arthur Kleinman also provide interesting food for thought on population-related issues.
On the one hand, the one-child policy has had important consequences for decades. Highly disruptive ones, in fact. Yet, who knows that many exceptions to the rule were allowed over the years without meeting much success. Since 2015, the one-child policy is officially over, but could a baby boom happen sooner or later?
Not done yet!
The book goes on with more society questions.
James Robson explores how the Chinese consider religions. Alford defines the law as a Party instrument more than as a society-building element. Very interesting, also, is Kirby’s explanation as to why so many Chinese students move to the U.S. for their education… starting with the leaders’ children. Have a look for yourself.
The China Questions – Theme #6: Culture.
The last theme in my book review of The China Questions relates to culture and history. As far as I am concerned, this part of the book turned out to be the most challenging and the more instructive.
Confucius is back, and that’s more important than you think.
Confucius is a big thing in China but I’ve never really figured out how the historical philosophy actually intertwined with today’s mentality.
Good news, Michael Puett’s contribution provides some interesting elements of answer. Puett describes Confucius “as the embodiment of what China had to reject in order to enter the modern world”. In other words, old and new don’t really get along.
Under Confucius, the traditional social order is what matters most. Life is about rituals, roles, and duties, which means that questioning the established order simply isn’t relevant.
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But eventually, new models came in, such as communism and capitalism. Mao’s philosophy questioned the established order and wanted to “eradicate” Confucianism. So, a struggle appeared between tradition and modernity!
Interestingly, though, Confucius and his principles are back, and they are expected to… save China from the West its neo-liberal influence by bringing traditions back. China is a largely capitalist country, but the importance of preserving the foundations of the society is becoming a new priority. So Confucius matters!
Another very interesting discussion is provided by Peter Bol, who explains the historical role of intellectuals in China.
In the West, intellectuals are seen as free minds and writing tends to be a way towards freedom. In China, intellectuals are historically related to power. The writing was also traditionally an instrument of power. Writing allowed choosing who could lead, it was a way to define history and a way to create ideologies. Interesting difference.
In a related way, David Dee-Wei Wang explains how intellectuals have contributed to building the society over the past decades. In the early 1900’s, they imagined a utopian world in which, by 1960, China would be prosperous. When Mao took power, the utopia turned into communist storytelling. Nowadays… well, get the book!
‘The future of China’s past’
It took me a little while to understand this title by Stephen Owen. Not that obvious, really, yet Owen summarises the whole China questions with a simple question: what does modernity mean for the Chinese?
Is modernity a “breach in history” which must be replaced by more identity and traditions? Or is modernity the ability to create a tomorrow different from yesterday? The question may sound futile, but it is not. If the past is what conditions the way the Chinese think, then the question of their future is the key! In fact, if there’s one key take in this book review, this is it.
The main conclusions
The China Questions comes to 36 different conclusions, the main of which being:
- Politics in China are deeply related to the past, which conditions the evolution of the Party but also the way institutions operate.
- China will have an impact on the leadership of the United States, but China becoming a leader in Asia is unlikely because Chinese policy is hardly about unifying and promoting cooperation.
- The environment is a big topic these days in China, and the Chinese are environmentally aware. Yet, the problem is complex. Urbanization and population issues are also important and complex, but there is progress.
- Thinkers such as Mao and Confucius are deeply present in the Chinese models even though philosophies change as time goes.
- The main challenge for China could be to create tomorrow, considering the weight and importance of traditions in today’s society.
The China Questions: Food for thought.
As usual, let’s finish this book review with some food for thought!
We hear about China every day these days. Often, China is pictured as the bad player, as the modern monster, you name it. But there is a lot more to say, a lot more to ask, and a lot more to understand.
Are you interested in thinking smarter about China? Then my take is that The China Questions by Jennifer Rudolph and Michael Szonyi is a must-read book. You won’t get all the answers in there, that’s for sure. But it doesn’t feel like the book has the pretention to tell people what to think either.
To the opposite, this book is about providing context. The China Questions is about giving you clues and elements of answer, so you can feed your mind and come to your own conclusion as to what China is about.
The food for thought on the political and economic side of things is top-notch (thanks Harvard).
These topics are related to my own work so I had a great time reading all the short contributions. In particular, the ideas provided on the impact of China’s rise in terms of U.S. politics was very relevant.
For instance? Well. While Noam Chomsky’s book Who Rules the World? for instances characterizes China (and India) as “very poor countries in with enormous internal problems not faced by the West” which won’t have any impact on the United States, The China Questions give you stuff to think about.
Yet, I would have liked to read more on trade policy which, in my very biased opinion, isn’t discussed enough in the book. If you are interested in that, though, please have a look at the Insights we publish on The Asia-Pacific Circle.
The China Questions also does a great job at explaining the complexity of shifting from one economic model to another. Which is what China has been doing for the past decades, really.
>>> Related reading: For more on the difference between capitalism and socialism, see also my book review ‘What makes Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy for Joseph Schumpeter’.
Oh, and of course, I can’t wrap up this book review without mentioning that The China Questions is also great if you are looking to learn more about how the Chinese think. Again, you won’t find a clear-cut answer in there. But the contextual information is totally worth the read. At the end of the day, few people actually know what China is about. So this book is your chance to learn something. Get it, read it, rise, and shine!
In short, this book is a must-read if you seriously want to learn more about China, outside of the usual bashing discussions.
Have you read the book? Rate it here and leave a comment down the page!
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Your turn now, get the book!
That’s it for now, but don’t stop here! My reading notes are meant to give you a very comprehensive overview of the books I read and some food for thought for the month. That’s why I’ll Make You Think SMART is the Kick-Ass Book Reviews blog after all!
Having said that, the next step for you is to keep digging! Remember, books are a cheap way to learn new things and to benefit from the experience of others at no cost. Not to mention the stories you’ll be able to tell after a good read!
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