- Xi Jinping’s China: Going Backward to Move Forward
Trying to gain a comprehensive, in-depth, balanced, and nuanced understanding of the dynamics at work in China is never easy. Many China specialists understand individual pieces of the puzzle, but they often have difficulty putting the pieces together to “see the forest for the trees.” Elizabeth Economy is one of those precious few who can do this. China specialists like her only arrive at this point in their careers after many years of working from the bottom up and across multiple issue areas. Becoming a true China generalist requires first being a China specialist in multiple areas.
Economy’s marvelous new book The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State is an example par excellence of both the breadth and the depth of her China knowledge. She has demonstrated this piece by piece over the years—beginning in 2010 with her pathbreaking and searing examination of China’s environmental degradation.1 She followed that up in 2014 with another pathbreaking (co-authored) study of China’s global quest for energy and natural resources.2 Both works demonstrated Economy’s real understanding of science and political economy. Along the way, she has established herself as one of the leading scholars in the world of China’s foreign relations—in particular, China’s role in global governance. In so doing, she has mastered the minutiae and complexities of issue areas as diverse as climate change, arms control, and development assistance. She has also become one of this country’s leading and respected experts on U.S.-China relations and U.S. policy toward China. Her sweep has extended to China’s activities in Southeast Asia, South Asia, Latin America, and Africa.
I mention all this background because it is fully reflected in The Third Revolution—a book that ranges widely across, but also probes deeply, issues of elite politics, China’s domestic economy and its international linkages, cyberspace, innovation, the environment, public health, labor, civil society [End Page 146] and NGOs, foreign relations, and other complex subjects. It is an impressive work. The book is also clearly organized, very well-written, and highly informative, with lively subheadings that help guide readers through the text. For anyone seeking a well-informed, well-researched, up-to-date “one stop shop” on China in the Xi Jinping era, this is it.
The Third Revolution is, however, far more than a survey and summary of multiple issue areas. Economy plunges deeply into the complicated governance challenges that China faces and does not whitewash their severity. Despite the metanarrative that China under Xi is experiencing something of a renaissance and is striking out boldly on several fronts, her careful dissection of different policy spheres leaves the reader deeply aware of the challenges and difficulties facing China and its leaders. Chapters 5 and 6 (on innovation and the environment, respectively) are the best compressed assessments I have read on these subjects that are so fundamental to China’s future. If China cannot master the innovation challenge, it simply will not move up the value-added product ladder and escape the middle-income trap. If the country can successfully do so, it will be the first nondemocracy to become a developed economy. At the same time, if China cannot arrest and reverse its environmental degradation—something Economy seems duly skeptical about—all other governance challenges will become secondary.
Another gem is her discussion in chapter 4 of the complex problems associated with reforming state-owned enterprises (SOEs). This is one of the clearest discussions I have read on the subject. Again, it leaves the reader not only sensitive to the nuanced complexities but aware that this problem will never be “solved.” As she notes, efficiency gains can be achieved through mergers, consolidation, and partial privatization, but SOEs are hardwired into the DNA of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Indeed, from the perspective of its leadership, “big is beautiful” (p. 110): Xi is moving on multiple fronts not to devolve economic and political power (as Deng Xiaoping did) but rather to recentralize it. This applies to SOEs as well. Economy notes that in 2016...