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Reviewed by:
  • China: Fragile Superpower
  • Edward Friedman (bio)
Susan L. Shirk . China: Fragile Superpower. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. 320 pp. Hardcover $27.00, ISBN 978–0–19–530609–5.

Describing Susan Shirk's magnificent study of Chinese foreign policy in the post Mao era as far and away the best single-authored book on the topic in the last few years does a disservice to this politically informed, lucidly written, and powerfully argued analysis. It is in a class by itself. It is a breakthrough in the post-Mao era in understanding Chinese foreign policy in the same way that Donald Zagoria's study establishing the reality and significance of the Sino-Soviet rift opened new horizons and totally reshaped understanding of Chinese foreign policy in the Mao era.

Jim Mann's study of Nixon's rapprochement with Mao should have had a similar impact but has not. Mann's new documents and interviews in About Face (New York: Knopf, 1999) called into question whether the Kissinger-Zhou deal had heedlessly betrayed Taiwan. Mann's point has received support from the careful scholarship of Harvard's Roderick MacFarquhar.1 Unfortunately, the main trend among analysts is not to comprehend Taiwan's plight but to demonize Taiwan.

In contrast to virtually all other scholarship, which usually settles for rationalizing or explaining away China's behavior, Shirk disaggregates the Chinese polity so as to probe beneath the surface. She introduces us to leaders, institutions, and political interests that shape policy outcomes in ways that are not necessarily rational, except of course for the particular actors' interests. Instead of comprehending China's foreign policies as pragmatic or integrating, responsible or peaceful, the unifying theoretical categories of most recent studies, Shirk shows that the people creating Chinese foreign policy are, well, human beings: at times, flawed, irrational, self-interested, calculating for the very short run, and very involved in domestic power priorities. Chinese appear in Shirk's book not as ten-foot giants, wise Confucians with long and deep perspectives, but as mere mortals. Especially in Sino-Japanese relations, Shirk clarifies what others have apologized for, to wit, the self-wounding and tension-inducing behavior of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the Jiang Zemin era.

The only recent work that is at all in Shirk's class is Robert Suettinger's Beyond Tiananmen,2 which showed how Deng's decision to use the military to crush the 1989 democracy movement led to a huge increase in weight for the military in decision-making circles. Suettinger detailed how the incident skewed budget priorities and entrenched hawk forces on the Taiwan issue, thereby making peaceful reconciliation with Taiwan impossible for CCP rulers. Shirk adds, "A party anxious to keep the military on its side might find it hard to say no to the generals. A politically powerful and independent military is a danger sign in a rising power" (p. 70).

The one flaw in Shirk's analysis is not consistently applying her method to the study of Taiwan-China relations, that is, seeking the source of foreign policy in [End Page 536] China's domestic politics. Yet, even on Taiwan, Shirk is infinitely more nuanced, informed, and reliable than most mainstream analysts. At the outset, she declares, "The Japanese colonized the island of Taiwan from 1895 to 1945 when China was too weak to resist" (p. 153). But that sentence is not a simple statement of well-known facts. Actually, it was the Manchu's Qing dynasty that was too weak to resist the Meiji Empire. Chinese patriots, such as Sun Yat-sen, sided with the Meiji against the Manchu. The Manchu conquerors of the sinicized Ming were imagined, not as Chinese, but, as racist, imperialist invaders who slaughtered sinicized people, as at Yangzhou. In contrast, Japan was seen by Chinese patriots as Asia's leader in repelling alien imperialists. The CCP subsequently rewrote Asian history to obscure Japan's contributions. There in fact was no Chinese nationalistic outrage about an alleged loss of sacred Chinese territory, Taiwan, to Japan. Instead, Sun went to Taiwan to seek help from Japan in toppling the military expansionist Manchu Qing dynasty, which had created a huge...


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