What Next for Trump and Xi?

8 April 2017 | Oxford historian of China Rana Mitter reviews seven recent books that provide a glimpse of what the future may hold in store (Project Syndicate, 7 April 2017).

  1. David Shambaugh, China’s Future (Polity, 2016)

China’s system could adapt, rather than atrophy. But the Chinese model simply cannot be sustained.

  1. Minxin Pei, China’s Crony Capitalism: The Dynamics of Regime Decay (Harvard University Press, 2016)

“The defining feature of crony capitalism is the looting of nominally state-owned assets by colluding elites.”

Most Chinese understand that Xi’s broad crackdown has served as a pretext for removing his opponents from positions of power; but they still want to see officials with Rolexes and Rolls-Royces get their comeuppance. Pei, however, knows better: precisely because Xi’s campaigns are politically motivated, they will not root out corruption’s structural causes.

  1. Frank Pieke, Knowing China: A Twenty-First Century Guide (Cambridge University Press, 2016)

“The continued rule of the Communist Party is not the main obstacle, but instead the main condition,” because “CCP rule keeps China united and ensures stability and peace.”

The system has a capacity to use mechanisms such as consultative democracy, petitioning, and the rapidly developing, albeit much constricted, legal system to encourage profound change.

  1. Jonathan Fenby, Will China Dominate the 21st Century? (new ed. Polity, 2016)

The answer is NO. It is one thing to argue that China has a unique polity that makes liberal democracy impossible; it is quite another to argue that others must exchange political rights for economic benefits

  1. John Pomfret, The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to the Present (Henry Holt, 2016)

A hundred years ago, it was fair to say that Britain was the most important foreign country for China; 80 years ago, it was Japan; and 60 years ago, it was the Soviet Union. But for the past half-century, and in particular after Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s visit to China in 1972, there is no doubt that it has been the US.

The two countries’ elites reflect that change: Xi sent his daughter to Harvard, while the Trump family has significant business interests in China.

  1. Julian Gewirtz, Unlikely Partners: Chinese Reformers, Western Economists, and the Making of Global China (Harvard University Press, 2017)

Chinese reform was closely tied to ideas from the capitalist and socialist blocs during the Cold War. The “neosocialism” gave rise to an economic miracle.

  1. Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Eight Juxtapositions: China through Imperfect Analogies from Mark Twain to Manchukuo (Penguin, 2016)

An answer to critics who ask why Chinese banknotes feature Mao, who was responsible for the death of millions is Andrew Jackson. Andrew Jackson oversaw the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans from the southeastern US, and yet his glowering visage remains on the 20-dollar bill to this day.

The analogy may seem provocative, but they are important. Xi and Trump are interacting in a world where the contrast between China and the US (and the liberal world more generally) has become fuzzier. Make no mistake: the US is still a vibrant liberal democracy (there are no “Saturday Night Live”-type skits parodying Xi on CCTV) with the world’s largest economy and most powerful military.

But the two leaders’ language has grown much closer in some respects. Xi bullies the Chinese media to behave as though its “surname” were “The Party,” while Trump lashes out at the “lies” and “fake news” of media outlets that do not reflect his point of view.


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