Book Review: A Glimmer of Hope in Sino-US Relations?

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HONG KONG – Many of those hoping for a reset in U.S.-China relations following President Joe Biden’s assumption of office after Donald Trump’s difficult years have been disappointed by the recent turn of events.

Chinese and American diplomats have let go of much semblance of diplomacy, doubling down on belligerent and judgmental rhetoric towards each other. Biden said he foresees “extreme competition” with China, while President Xi Jinping insisted that “international rules should be based on universally recognized standards, rather than the rules of a few. “, Calling on Chinese citizens to” fight “(douzheng) to defend China’s interests vis-à-vis the West.

In Washington, an increasingly bipartisan consensus has emerged within the political establishment: the economic transformations adopted by the Chinese Communist Party as part of Deng Xiaoping’s reforms and opening up in the 1980s are not happening are not accompanied by a proportional liberalization of the Chinese political system. Engagement with China – as championed by Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon – has conspicuously failed.

It is in this context that Cheng Li of the Brookings Institution “Shanghai of the Middle Class: Reshaping the Engagement between the United States and China” advocates for constructive, critical and multilateral engagement between China and the United States. United States.

Drawing on a rich range of sources, from archival and historical documents to first-hand dialogical research, Li argues that “US policymakers must not lose sight of China’s expansive dynamism and diversity of ‘today”. He chides the “caricature of the PRC as a nascent Xi-dominated hegemon with aggressive intentions,” calling instead for a nuanced and holistic view that sees China not as a monolith but as an eclectic and resilient population. interior with more in common with their Western counterparts than many realize.

Li makes three central claims. First, by examining in depth the historical, political, cultural and social significance of the city to the rest of China, Li concludes that Shanghai is a perfect example of how Western norms and cultures can be adopted by people. Chinese city dwellers without compromising their continued dedication to the Unitarian-nationalist ethos enshrined by the Communist Party. Yet Shanghai is also exceptional – as the hub of the liberal and cosmopolitan economy haipai (literally, “seas”) – compared to many other major cities in China, especially the politically conservative capital of Beijing.

Such exceptionalism nonetheless casts a greater shadow over the scope of applicability of the book’s findings – how easily could the virtues of Shanghai’s modus operandi be transplanted into cities that lack political ties and historic means of a city whose government has produced more than one head of China? This question can only be done justice through another book.

Second, China’s middle class – unlike its more risk-averse establishment counterparts in industrial democracies – is a living, transformative force that “holds the keys to the country’s governance and prosperity” as China moves on. from export to the domestic economy. consumption-driven growth models. By 2030, according to estimates by expert Su Hainan, 40% of China’s population (600 million) will belong to the middle class. These people – many of whom are highly skilled and Westerners – will herald a new era in Chinese policymaking and civil society-state relations, with a marked increase in the professionalization and individualization of the workforce. Chinese work to come.

Yet with the recent consolidation of the techno-surveillance state, the political denigration of private companies run by civilians (mining qiye) and the structural exclusion of middle-class voices from the highest echelons of Chinese governance, it would not be out of place to think about the following: To what extent could the Chinese middle classes influence politics in general? It is one thing to be co-opted, even nominally included – according to Jiang Zemin’s “three representatives” – into the country’s governing coalition. It is another for these individuals to accumulate real political capital in the transformation of the legal and institutional fundamentals of the country. Li might have benefited from commenting more explicitly on what he sees as the relationship between China’s middle classes and its burgeoning civil society.

These two strands straddle a third – Shanghai has long been the primary source and repatriation destination for Chinese talent studying, researching and working abroad, many of whom have returned out of optimism about the country’s future and by an increasingly abrasive international environment. The time these people spend abroad, in turn, broadened their horizons to the ideals of emancipation and the “advanced scientific and technological research” championed in the United States.

Cheng Li’s “Middle Class Shanghai: Reshaping US-China Engagement” advocates for constructive, critical and multilateral engagement between China and the United States (Courtesy of Brookings Institution Press)

Li’s scholarly assessment and tracking of the ebb and flow of the multifaceted Shanghai Gang interweaves his original interpretation of China’s factionalist politics with an equally compelling dissection of broader and evolving ideological undercurrents. Those who are strong supporters of competing interests among the country’s political upper echelons may be surprised at the extent to which Shanghai has facilitated the rise of individuals traditionally seen as not aligned with the eponymous ruling clique in national politics.

The book’s empirical analysis duly reflects the complex and obscure realities of contemporary Chinese politics. If Chinese students studying in the United States are indeed more predisposed to “favor liberal democracy than their peers in China”, they nevertheless maintain “ambivalent attitudes towards the United States”. Empirically, he notes, being racially discriminated against greatly strengthens the strength of Chinese student support for the party. There is no simple brush with which returnees abroad (haigui) can be painted – these individuals combine moderate patriotism with socially liberal values, and are also skeptical of American hegemony and authoritarian state withdrawal.

They are not oblivious to the merits of democracy, but many find these merits to outweigh the context by the loosely internally connected Chinese model, which has been and works for many residents of the country, especially those in the middle class. lower. “

To state in a simplistic way that the engagement failed – or totally succeeded – would therefore be deeply flawed. Instead, the question should be: how does such engagement come about? To what extent does such engagement come with the open-mindedness that allows Chinese scholars and students to feel at ease and at home in America, instead of being subjected to hunts? vitriolic McCarthyist witches for alleged espionage? The same is true of Western journalists and academics on the continent who have found themselves caught in the crossfire of the downward spiraling relationship between the Chinese state and foreign media.

The author fearlessly rejects the mainstream media discourses on both sides of the Pacific. He calls on US policymakers to avoid exaggerating China’s quest for apparent world domination, but also urges Chinese bureaucrats to avoid focusing on the country’s history and the related hypersensitivity to perceived foreign interference in it. the adjustment of its foreign policy. Advance cutting-edge scientific research, fight against climate change, resolve threats to international security …

Li is concise and incisive in his prescriptions. Yet it is also the relative brevity of his recommendations, perhaps reflecting his intentions to avoid speculative pontification in favor of fact-based analysis, that will inevitably attract skeptical detractors who doubt the feasibility of his advice. .

Could Beijing really put aside the legitimizing narrative that served as a central pillar of its post-Deng foreign policy? Can the Washington establishment really reckon with and embrace a world order where America no longer rules as the sole hegemon? These are feasibility challenges that the book does not answer – nor, indeed, it should seek to, perhaps.

Written in accessible, clinical prose, Li’s tour de force offers something for everyone – from veteran DC staff to top Beijing officials, from seasoned foreign policy analysts around the world to curious laymen who want better. understand the key facts behind the most important international relationship. today.

“Middle Class Shanghai: Reshaping US-China Engagement” by Cheng Li (Brookings Institution Press, 2021)

Brian Wong is a Rhodes Scholar from Hong Kong and founding editor of the Oxford Political Review. His book “Metamorphosis” will be published by the Hong Kong Economic Journal later this month.


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