- The Rise of an Illiberal China in a Liberal World Order
Elizabeth Economy’s The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State is a compelling book explaining the paradox that, under Xi Jinping, China has become an increasingly illiberal state fighting Western liberal values, while at the same time positioning itself as a champion of the fundamental institutions of a liberal world order. China’s profile as a proponent of anticorruption, provider of significant public goods such as international development and humanitarian aid, and champion of globalization has won it wide acclaim as a force for responsible international leadership. Economy demonstrates that the rise in China’s international legitimacy has occurred alongside domestic institutional change that seeks to reverse many of the political, social, and economic developments that emerged from 30 years of liberalizing reform. The objective of this institutional change is to restore the central role of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) within the Chinese polity.
This contradictory development has been facilitated by China’s ability to take advantage of the political and economic openness of other countries through policies such as the Belt and Road Initiative while providing considerable overseas political and financial commitments. At the same time, China does not provide countries with similar opportunities to engage within its borders. Even if the Trump administration does not succeed in changing China’s unfair investment and trade practices, it has rightly pointed to the need to redress the imbalance between the country’s easy access to overseas markets and its restrictive domestic policies.
The anticorruption campaign has strengthened the CCP and deepened the party’s integration into Chinese society. At the same time, issues such as price levels, wealth distribution, and educational opportunities that could improve people’s basic livelihood have not been addressed. Under Xi’s presidency, the rule of law has been strengthened on the pretext of preventing the abuse of power and the dereliction of duty for personal gain. However, in contrast to Western interpretations of the rule of law, in China it is not a means of restraining arbitrary actions by those in power. Instead, it is equated with ruling the country according to the law and is used as [End Page 150] an instrument to both ensure the continued dominance of the CCP and strengthen the coercive power of the state.
The book traces what might rightly be termed the totalitarian policies of the current regime back to ancient Chinese history and the politics of the People’s Republic of China. Economy argues that Xi’s form of totalitarianism constitutes a revolution due to its strategy of intensified penetration of the party-state in domestic political and economic life combined with an ambitious and expansive role for China abroad. She touches on totalitarianism when describing the leadership’s development of a social credit system that will provide benefits for good behavior and penalize bad behavior, as defined by the party. The thinking behind this form of social control is rooted in the dossier that all Chinese citizens have, which includes information such as their education, grades, workplace assessments, and political liabilities. Although the deep delving into citizens’ personal lives has resulted in some Chinese describing the system as “big brother,” numerous Chinese citizens support the effort, seeing it as a means of enhancing societal trust. In a future edition of the book, it would be interesting to include a foreword discussing the extent to which Xi’s brand of authoritarianism constitutes a totalitarian form of government, and if so, whether this type of regime indicates that China is headed toward a Sino-centric form of hierarchical government with little room for international liberal institutions.
The fascinating analysis of how the party-state and its logic of control and planning creep into all corners of Chinese society begs the question of whether China’s rise will be accompanied by the use of coercive power abroad as well as at home. Indeed, Beijing may aspire to recreate a Chinese sphere of influence in Asia if the United States’ reliance on its system of democratic alliance partners unravels and is replaced by narrow U.S. interest protection. We are already...