The Dilemmas of Competing with Xi Jinping’s China


Elizabeth Economy, The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State (Oxford University Press, 2018)


Last year in October, President Xi Jinping strutted to the podium at the Chinese Communist Party’s 19th Party Congress to read his work report. For more than three hours, Xi forced his colleagues to sit and listen in one of the most ostentatious displays of that infamous Chinese phrase, “you listen, I speak,” to which anyone has ever been subjected. More than any other event of the last six years, the 19th Party Congress pressed home Xi’s influence on the Chinese party-state. His ideas were incorporated into the constitution. No obvious successor emerged, suggesting Xi would hold the reins of power indefinitely.

Xi Jinping may have been continuing the Chinese Communist Party’s long-running project of national rejuvenation, but, as Elizabeth Economy argues in her latest book, The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State, he rejected his predecessors’ humble approach to foreign affairs and moved forward on what she labels “reform without opening up.” The Third Revolution captures the story of Xi Jinping’s China. Reading the totality of what has occurred will undoubtedly be a wakeup call for most readers. The internment camps, where perhaps one million Uighurs are now incarcerated for “vocational training,” did not come from nowhere.

Her second chapter, describing the regressive policies under Xi, is worth the price of admission on its own. The chapter implicitly follows the pathway identified by the Central Committee circular — leaked in 2013 — “Communiqué on the Current State of the Ideological Sphere,” otherwise known as Document No. 9. It outlined a number of threats to the Chinese Communist Party, most notably civil society, constitutionalism and rule of law, Western-style journalism, and historical nihilism that distorted the Party’s history. Economy chronicles the Party’s wide-ranging efforts in each of these spheres to assert its control.

The third chapter, about how the Chinese Communist Party has and continues to shape how Chinese people experience the internet, also warrants close attention. In this chapter, Economy argues “Xi Jinping and the rest of the Chinese leadership make no real distinction between the virtual and real political worlds and the threats inherent to each.” The absence of this distinction is one of the reasons Beijing pushes so hard to shape international governance on cyberspace, privileging organizations where states, rather than non-state actors, possess the dominant voice.

The next chapters address different aspects of China’s economic modernization and complicated relationship with market liberalization and reform. There is less a coherent argument in these chapters than compelling vignettes of the tensions resulting from the Chinese Communist Party’s impulse to plan and control being pitted against innovators, stock market investors, and even economic policy bureaucrats. These portraits of Chinese economic life illustrate the optimism and dynamism of contemporary China, driven in part, according to one interviewee, by the weaknesses of China’s social safety nets and governance problems, for which the talented try to compensate.

Before this review transitions from the complementary to the critical, it is important to note that the criticisms in no way diminish the usefulness of the book or its place on this reviewer’s shelf. The book is accessible and well written. In the months since I purchased the book, I found myself returning to it, while other books have languished unfinished on my nightstand and coffee table. The Third Revolution probably is the first book I would recommend someone read to understand what happened in China during the last five years.

The two critiques below relate to whether the United States, its leaders, and its policy analysts really understand the Chinese Communist Party and its approach to governing China. And in a larger sense, the critiques relate more to the way in which China is discussed and understood in the United States rather than shortcomings of the book itself.

The chapters (4, 5, and 7) about China’s economic direction and strategic ambitions raise questions about the reality of Xi’s revolution, even though that is not the author’s intent. Building China into a great power in order to right the wrongs of the so-called “Century of Humiliation” has long been the goal of the Chinese Communist Party and its leadership. Arguably, this goal outweighs the Party maintaining power — or at least is intertwined with it. Finding and enacting sound economic and industrial policy to ensure China’s international prominence has been a central theme of Chinese politics since Mao’s day, with outcomes both catastrophic and miraculous. That these have been updated to reflect China’s growing capabilities, global supply chains, and international capital markets — while maintaining the Party’s centrality — should not really be surprising.

Economy’s clever turn of phrase about shifting from “the previous path of reform and opening up” to one where “there is reform without opening up” elides the party’s conflicting impulses on opening up. Deng Xiaoping may have launched the Reform and Opening Policy in 1978 — ending China’s autarkic policies and opening the country to much greater foreign interaction, economic and otherwise — but he also created the Ministry of State Security in 1983 to keep the pests out. The liberalization of corporate governance in the 1980s and 1990s resulted in policies to control businesspeople (rather than the market) and culminated in Jiang Zemin’s “Three Represents” to bring them into the party’s fold. For years, official Chinese publications and Party documents have paired “economic development” with “social management/governance,” i.e. processes through which the party maintains power and organizes society.

If China really has undergone a “third revolution,” as Economy argues, then the reader would expect her suggestions for U.S. policy would argue for proportionate changes. Instead, she argues for minimal evolution of U.S. policy toward China: “The United States should retain what has worked well for its policy toward China while adapting to a new political reality.” The primary points of leverage Economy identifies are Xi’s aspirations for leadership on the global stage and willingness to export what Beijing calls a “China solution.” They are opportunities to hold Beijing accountable for their governance and human rights practices.

The problem here is that how to hold Beijing to account is not really explained in light of Beijing’s past actions. For example, Economy argues that Washington should “ensure that [China] does not try to use its growing influence to subvert human rights discourse internationally.” Since the preparations for the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action of the World Conference on Human Rights in 1993, human rights activists point to Beijing’s efforts to alter the principles that underpin the U.N. human rights regime. And these efforts have continued in the years since, evidenced by China blocking criticism from international bodies like the United Nations and promoting anachronistic interpretations of sovereignty. In the case of treaties, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Lu Kang declared in mid-2017 that “the Sino-British Joint Declaration, as a historical document, no longer has any practical significance, and it is not at all binding for the central government’s management over Hong Kong.” But the Chinese infringements of Hong Kong’s Basic Law and the joint declaration have been mounting for years. Yet, it is not clear from Economy’s book — nor from other public discussions of China policy — what holding Beijing accountable would mean.

The policy recommendations fall victim to the same trap that has bedeviled others trying to grasp a way forward in light of the challenge Beijing poses to U.S. and allied interests. The proposed policy framework is too small of a solution to address a revolutionary change. One could cynically, but perhaps unfairly, complain that the recommendations are “more of the same, but…better.” In her Jaw-Jaw interview about The Third Revolution, for example, Economy juxtaposes an argument for a robust response next to an argument to cooperate in ways that seem to echo past mistakes of allowing China economic or institutional access prior to completing agreed-upon reforms. Although this might a fairly literal interpretation of the policy recommendations at the end, Economy should be credited for seeming to have more questions than answers. There is a searching quality to the final chapter that should be applauded, even if it stays mostly within the boundaries of past policy toward China.

The most important point that Economy injects into her framework for making policy toward China is the issue of reciprocity. This should not be surprising. She was one of the contributors to the Asia Society and UC San Diego report on U.S.-China relations that placed reciprocity at the core of its policy prescriptions across political, economic, human rights, and security domains.

As I have argued elsewhere, reciprocity may not be the most effective way to frame policy around pushing back against Beijing. Western governments simply do not share parallel structures with the Chinese party-state. The most familiar case of comparison is journalist visas. Western commentators often ask whether their governments can or should counter Beijing’s visa denials to journalists with similar denials to Chinese journalists, because of how democracies value and protect a free press.

Even if a tit-for-tat approach were tried, the number of foreign journalists in China is dwarfed by the overseas presence of Chinese state media. The impact would be unequal, even if the response were reciprocal. To even describe the problem in such terms also points to another way in which the systems themselves are not comparable: Westerners refer to the employees of Xinhua and CGTN as journalists even though the Chinese Communist Party does not. As CCTV President Hu Zhanfan said some years ago, “Journalists who think of themselves as professionals, instead of as propaganda workers, are making a fundamental mistake about identity.” Reciprocity may be useful in trade terms, but it does not help policymakers determine appropriate responses for the challenges posed by Beijing.

In many respects, The Third Revolution is a microcosm of the American debate about China today and the path ahead. The changes — or at least the explicitness of Beijing’s ambitions — under Xi are disturbing, but alternatives to emphasizing engagement remain tantalizingly out of reach. The Trump administration may be pushing forward on a much more explicitly competitive approach to China, but a new bipartisan consensus is far from being forged. Americans still debate the compatibility of U.S. and Chinese interests, of how to seek out areas of cooperation amid competition. Others claim U.S. policy toward China was never mistaken and worked immaculately.

Twenty years from now, Elizabeth Economy’s book will be remembered for being a clear, if not picture-perfect, snapshot of the United States at a crossroads in policy toward China. Events will overtake this book. Xi Jinping’s power and influence may have peaked this summer. The Trump administration’s policies may make it impossible for a future administration to move away from outright rivalry, making today’s ongoing debate irrelevant. However, The Third Revolution captures the enormity of one of the central foreign policy questions of our time: what to do about an increasingly repressive China that clearly wants to remake the international order and legitimize authoritarian alternatives to democracy?

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Deng Xiaoping launched the Reform and Opening Policy in 1979. It was launched in 1978.

Peter Mattis is a Research Fellow in China Studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation and a contributing editor to War on the Rocks.

Image: U.K. Foreign & Commonwealth Office