A Guide to Catching Up on China’s Politics and Military

August 3, 2016

For special access to experts and other members of the national security community, check out the new War on the Rocks membership.

Coinciding with National Security Advisor Susan Rice’s recent trip to China, the White House released a statement from Rice on the U.S.-China relationship in which she opined, “There is no more consequential bilateral relationship than the U.S.-China relationship…” As such, some knowledge of China would benefit most members of the War on the Rocks tribe. With August’s arrival and the beaches or mountain lakes beckoning, now is a good time to catch up on some of the interesting and important China-related books that have been published in the last year or so. A surprising number of the books today are accessible to the generalist, even to those with just a passing interest in China.

Xi Jinping and Chinese Politics Today

The ascension of Xi Jinping to China’s highest offices at the 18th Party Congress in November 2012 sparked a sea change in Chinese politics, whether we attribute that shift to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) or to Xi’s brand of politics. There is considerable debate about whether President Xi is powerful, whether collective leadership continues, and whether opposition exists within the party. Useful work is now appearing about Chinese politics under Xi. While much of it remains speculative, the quality is rising steadily as Xi’s rule provides more data on a daily basis.

The Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS) published a useful series of papers on Chinese leadership politics and policymaking processes in a report entitled China’s Core Executive: Leadership Styles, Structures, and Processes under Xi Jinping. The report’s tightly argued essays were written by a “who’s who” list of China watchers, including Harvard’s Roderick MacFarquhar, UCSD’s Barry Naughton, Boston University’s Joseph Fewsmith, and MERICS’ Sebastian Heilmann. The most important theme of the report is the CCP’s near-paranoid need for domestic control and the effort Beijing will expend to manage society. As University of Nottingham researcher Samantha Hoffman recently observed to The Financial Times, “Under Xi Jinping the Chinese government is creating a more coherent legal framework to enforce preservation of the party-state.” Although the papers are short and individually perhaps a bit unsatisfying, the MERICS report provides a fulfilling intellectual feast.

For insight into the murky world of Chinese elite politics, longtime analyst of China’s leadership Cheng Li published his latest book, Chinese Politics in the Xi Jinping Era: Reassessing Collective Leadership. The book illustrates both the plethora and paucity of data on Chinese leaders. While many of the leaders’ backgrounds can be uncovered, much less information can be found about their relationships, policy thinking, and, in some cases, family. Li charts the development of the CCP’s internal institutionalization from the 1990s, and he argues that President Xi’s legacy within the party will be determined by whether he reinforces or degrades the norms of collective leadership and intraparty democracy. This is the optimistic view of Chinese politics: that rules have replaced a contest for power.

The drama of Xi Jinping’s leadership already has birthed several books focused on Xi specifically. On the more pessimistic side, longtime China watcher and former China editor for The South China Morning Post, Willy Wo-Lap Lam, has authored Chinese Politics in the Era of Xi Jinping: Renaissance, Reform, or Retrogression? Dr. Lam’s perspective stems from the presumption that personalities and their rivalries cannot be cleansed from CCP elite politics, despite the outward appearances of new norms and rules. For him, Xi’s doubling-down on ideology and obsession with security are closing the Chinese mind and regressing Chinese civilization. Kerry Brown, a former British diplomat now at King’s College London, falls somewhere between Li’s optimism and Lam’s pessimism in explaining Xi in CEO, China: The Rise of Xi Jinping. Brown argues Xi has accumulated significant powers, especially relative to his predecessor Hu Jintao, but that those powers are circumscribed by the party structure and its needs. Elements of this argument were foreshadowed in Brown’s analysis of Hu’s power, which functioned precariously between “the soapbox and the truncheon.”

Dealing with the Challenges of a Chaotic World

Early this year, the venerable and prolific John Garver offered a career-capping magnum opus on Chinese foreign policy as daunting as it is instructive and thoughtful. Readers will be on their own quest to finish China’s Quest: The History of the Foreign Relations of the People’s Republic of China at 888 pages, but the journey will be fulfilling. Garver offers a healthy blend of high-level analysis and informative detail. In his introduction, he outlines the central importance of China’s communist ideology as a set of drivers and as a set of values that create interests that must be protected. He charts this theme through three periods: forging a revolutionary state (1949-1978), the happy interregnum (1978-1989), and the Leninist state besieged (1989-present). In each, Garver shows how Chinese communism provides the bridge for understanding the linkages between Beijing’s domestic and international behavior.

More accessible books on Chinese foreign and international security policy also have been published in the since late 2014. The textbook Chinese Foreign Policy: An Introduction entered its third edition, and CSIS’ Freeman Chair in China Studies issued a concise history of Beijing’s foreign policy as it unveiled a new initiative for the Eurasian landmass: President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative: A Practical Assessment of the Chinese Communist Party’s Roadmap for China’s Global Resurgence. Better still, China’s Foreign Policy — published by Polity Press, which has produced a number of pithy but important books on China in recent years — offers a sprightly overview of, well, China’s foreign policy. The author, Stuart Harris, addresses the views that underpin Chinese policy, the basic structure of policymaking, responses to security threats, economic foreign policy, regional diplomacy, and the future adjustments with which Beijing must grapple. It is as good an introduction as any, and those cowed by China’s Quest will find an accessible starting point.

The Ever-Modernizing People’s Liberation Army

Most War on the Rock readers probably will prefer Roger Cliff’s China’s Military Power: Assessing Current and Future Capabilities, which may be one of the most rigorous books about the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) written in years. Each of Cliff’s analytic chapters — doctrine, organizational structure, weaponry, personnel, training, logistics, and organization culture — compares the PLA in 2000 and 2010, closing with speculation about where the PLA will be in 2020. As the author points out in first pages, this book is unique in that it looks at Beijing’s ability to use its military effectively rather than the more common approaches of digging into a particular aspect of Chinese military modernization or examining material capabilities without investigating the human side that will employ new equipment. Although Cliff provides good answers to questions of Chinese strength, the best thing about the book is that the thoughtful reader will come away with more questions. For more on the human challenges identified by the PLA itself, a RAND report from earlier last year, China’s Incomplete Military Transformation: Assessing the Weaknesses of the People’s Liberation Army, offers a well-organized summary of PLA self-evaluations.

Seasoned China watchers have lamented the difficulty of training the next generation of PLA watchers, but the publication of China’s Evolving Military Strategy offers hopeful signs for the future. Even if I had not contributed, I would still say the book offers an outstanding cast of young China analysts with a few contributions from some of the most respected names in the field: Kenneth Allen, Dennis Blasko, Michael Chase, and Taylor Fravel. The book’s chapters expand from the simple premise of comparing The Science of Military Strategy (2001) and The Science of Military Strategy (2013), published by the Academy of Military Science, to evaluate how PLA thinking and warfighting concepts have evolved. Thanks to editor Joe McReynold’s intellectual entrepreneurship, China’s Evolving Military Strategy includes several chapters that break new ground in the study of the PLA: computer network warfare, information operations and electronic warfare, military-civil integration, and deterrence. For readers already familiar with the basics of Chinese military modernization, this volume will be a welcome addition to the bookshelf and a reminder about how difficult it can be to keep with all the Chinese publications appearing today.

If these books seem a bit complicated, then perhaps Analyzing the Chinese Military: A Review Essay and Resource Guide on the People’s Liberation Army (shamelessly self-promoted) might do the trick. Published late last spring, Analyzing the Chinese Military offers my perspective on developing one’s knowledge and analysis of the PLA with fairly comprehensive bibliographies to help one find their way among the various authors, conferences, and other sources.

Confronting China’s Violent Past

Most of the violence in China since the suppression of public demonstrations on June 4, 1989 has occurred hidden from the gaze of the outside world, such as the violence in Tibet in 2008 or Xinjiang in 2009, or at the level of individual cases of police brutality. The CCP is a long way from the days when Beijing set quotas for the numbers of class enemies to be killed and local party cadres surpassed the quotas to avoid criticism. Nevertheless, abundant circumstantial evidence suggests the party retains its violent streak, as in the case of forced organ harvesting for transplants or delegating the use of force to local levels while higher levels control the power to negotiate and compromise. Frank Dikötter’s latest book on China, The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History 1962–1976, chronicles one of the most damning chapters of the party’s past. Although there are more thorough treatments available, such as Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals’ 750-page Mao’s Last Revolution, Dikötter’s strength is his ability to concisely and relatively accessibly convey the complex events that brought China to the brink of destruction. The Cultural Revolution may seem distant, but two reasons give the chaotic events significance today. First, this generation of Chinese leaders, including Xi, are children of the Cultural Revolution. They saw the chaos and maybe even participated or faced persecution. In a sense, these leaders understand the stakes in whether China succeeds in executing the ambitious reform agenda unveiled at the Third Plenum of the 18th Party Congress in 2013. Second, the rivalries between Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, and Liu Shaoqi (among others) in the period from 1962 to 1966 highlight the importance of economic policy as a spark for splits among the party elite.

If the Cultural Revolution casts a lingering shadow over China today, then it is worth considering the overarching impact of Mao’s nearly three decades as China’s “Great Helmsman.” Past treatments of Mao’s leadership have run from the polemical to the fawning, the latter including treatments that suggested his ideological thinking marked a novel contribution to Marxist-Leninist thinking. Stanford’s Andrew Walder offers an appropriate policy-focused perspective in China Under Mao: A Revolution Detailed that couples well with the more biographical Mao: The Real Story by Alexander Pantsov and Steven Levine. Walder observes

Almost none of Mao’s initiatives led to outcomes that he and his supporters fully anticipated, foresaw, or welcomed. In fact, as we shall see, most of Mao’s initiatives backfired. Why? … the events of the Mao era were an expression of distinctive institutions established during the first decade of Communist Party rule.

So far removed from Mao today, Walder’s work would seem mostly academic. However, the foci of Walder’s analysis are the CCP as an organization and the Soviet Command economy “were at the very core of the struggles and conflicts of the Mao era” and remain so today with Xi’s continuing anti-corruption campaign and the disagreements bubbling into the public eye over rebalancing the Chinese economy.

For those who want to keep their eyes on the present, the English translation of former deputy editor of the People’s Daily Zhou Ruijin’s essay “Reflections on the Cultural Revolution: A Ten Thousand Character Petition” will connect the Cultural Revolution to China’s present conditions. As Zhou writes,

The ending forty years ago of the Cultural Revolution made possible the reform and opening that followed.  This in turn made possible the China of today. Therefore, when we speak about reform, we cannot avoid discussing the Cultural Revolution.

The essay is powerful criticism of the way the CCP rules China and illuminates the way in which the party uses the state apparatus to shield its purpose. In many respects, Zhou offers a ten thousand [Chinese] character version of China’s political history since 1949.

What is Washington to Do?

How Washington should respond to China and its challenge to Asian regional stability has been debated fiercely for the last two decades. The U.S. response has settled on mixture of building a political-military hedge against Chinese revisionism and engaging China through a variety of mechanisms — civil society, people-to-people relations, traditional diplomacy, and business — to encourage Beijing’s acceptance of a liberal, rules-based international system. The Pivot: The Future of American Statecraft in Asia offers an articulate defense of U.S. policy and a path forward from Kurt Campbell, one of the most vigorous architects of U.S. policy toward Asia for nearly 20 years. Campbell outlines how the United States can and does pursue a regional strategy, aimed not at China, but at reinforcing a rules-based system of international relations. As assistant secretary of state in the first Obama administration, Campbell was the architect of the U.S. rebalancing toward Asia and helped drive the interagency process for a new set of commitments to Asia. This book is the antidote for concerns that Americans no longer get Asia, because, while Campbell clearly understands the security issues, he also appreciates that Washington’s future in the region depends on more than force posture and deterrence.

With an arbitration tribunal’s decision on July 12 on Philippine disputes with China over economic rights in the South China Sea, now is a good time to freshen up on the history of this contested waterway. Bill Hayton’s The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia, published near the end of 2014, offers the best available introduction to the South China Sea disputes involving China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines. The book offers sensible policy analysis, fascinating characters, and the farcical absurdities of the various countries’ historical claims. Most importantly, Hayton’s book makes the point he subsequently made elsewhere: In dealing with Beijing, the South China Sea is about emotion and overcoming humiliation. If you already are familiar with this history, then perhaps now is the time to read Ryan Martinson’s collection of articles on Chinese maritime policy and law enforcement or his most recent article in the Naval War College Review on how to evaluate Chinese maritime strategy from Chinese-language sources.

Final Thoughts for the Studious

These are just individual reading suggestions based on recent works. For those who want to transform their idle curiosity into something more substantive, the American Mandarin Society (AMS) has published three self-study syllabi on the Chinese economy, politics and policymaking, and the PLA. The suggested readings probably require about an hour each night, five nights a week, for four weeks. The mission of AMS is to help maintain Chinese-language skills while developing professional knowledge, so those without the language ability will miss some of the readings. Nevertheless, the AMS syllabus project provides one of the few places to find a set of readings organized coherently.

 

Peter Mattis is a Fellow in the China Program at The Jamestown Foundation and author of Analyzing the Chinese Military (2015). He is currently completing two book manuscripts on Chinese intelligence operations.

Image:  Staff Sgt. Marc Ayalin, U.S. Marine Corps

We have retired our comments section, but if you want to talk to other members of the natsec community about War on the Rocks articles, the War Hall is the place for you. Check out our membership at warontherocks.com/subscribe!

One thought on “A Guide to Catching Up on China’s Politics and Military

  1. Thank you for this detailed analysis of books and writers dedicated to the the study of modern China Today and , underlying it, the interest and intentions of US ‘imperialism’ and Foreign Policy. China is not a challenge to the peace and stability in Asia; quite the reverse, it fosters peace and stability in not just the vast region of the ancient Silk Road but is opening it up to the world with OBOR and other global co-operations e.g. AIIB, scientific projects with ESA, BRICS, and I hope, many more of such multilateral projects that will promote peace and understanding as well as employment opportunities for economic progress. It’ obvious that no country has, as yet, found or developed a perfect system; but each follows its own historic development, within the constraints of its own internal and usually, more oppressively so, from the external pressures to build its way into unknown future. It’s here where US-China relationship can make a difference so all the studies and dedication spent on studying China can reap rewards… Stop trailing the ghost of a non-existent imagined enemy and start treating each country as a nation with its self-determination to exist with its own democratic sovereignty unchallenged whatever political system it adheres to… respect everyone, even the dot of an island, and work on the universal good for true humanity. We should know, being parents, that life is a great challenge wherever we are. We should develop a truly meritocratic environment to support individual diligence, dedication to humanity and scientific progress, wealth and full employment. This must be the negotiating table for all nations. The US has a long established history and development in this aspect of civilised culture ( as China has too ) as contrary to the war machinery started since its abduction by a small group of corporations bent on quick profits from the barrel of a gun, paving the way forward for the reintroduction of similar weapons of terror like knives, bombs and grenades; all of which make this world today a hell and a nightmare. I am aware of the genuinely benevolent attention the US has given to invest its reserves in education, freedom, scholarship and the evolution of a just and equal society based on a strong and incorruptible social order. I know China has the same goal regardless of the different approach in achieving the same end. If only the US and China will sit on the negotiating table and talk through the chasms of their differences – historic-linguistic, socio-cultural, economic-political… there will be less dangers, less speculations and more understanding and trust. This relationship is crucial for our survival into the next century; be it a dream fulfilled or a nightmare to endure. It will be our legacy to our future generations whether they’re in Syria, Israel, the US or China. The eternal lesson for us all in all times is that power can only be productive when shared and enjoyed by all but becomes destructive when greed and avarice grip to possess it. This is our true nature. We’re all humans.