- Revolution? What Revolution?
Wars and revolutions, Hannah Arendt once famously claimed, “determined the physiognomy of the twentieth century.” 1 For one thing, the two World Wars had devastating and destructive impacts on the historical development of the century. Think also of the systemic challenges to the international order presented by the Bolshevik Revolution and the Chinese Communist Revolution, which attempted to create and sustain different domestic political and economic orders founded on a rival socioeconomic system and ideology. Furthermore there was the 1952 Egyptian Revolution, the 1959 Cuban Revolution, and the 1979 Iranian Revolution, and one could also point to anticolonial revolutions that delegitimized imperialism and made the sovereign order global.
China had its own share of wars and revolutions in the twentieth century. The modern transformation of the country is characteristically marked by the 1911 Republican Revolution, which ended its dynastic history and changed the Chinese body politic. It is also marked by the deadly contest between the Nationalist and Communist revolutions in what are often called the “revolutionary civil wars,” leading to the Communist victory and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Mao Zedong and his comrades continued to wage revolution after 1949, culminating in the disastrous Cultural Revolution of 1966–76. As a revolutionary power in the postwar international system, China actively promoted revolution worldwide, exporting it as one thrust of the country’s foreign policy. It was Deng Xiaoping who launched the “second revolution” through opening and reform in 1978, which changed the country from a revolutionary power to a reformist state. It is therefore only natural that fundamental changes in China in the twentieth century are often understood in terms of successive revolutions—or continuous revolution, as Mao would have it. By the same token, revolution, either as a critical perspective or as a descriptive, analytical, and normative term, has become deeply entrenched and practically indispensable in the study of Chinese history and politics. [End Page 154]
Wittingly or not, Elizabeth Economy’s The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State largely follows this analytical mode in an attempt to make sense of China’s contemporary transformation under the leadership of Xi Jinping. “Deng’s ‘second revolution’ had drawn to a close,” Economy asserts, and “Xi Jinping’s ‘third revolution’ was underway” (p. 10). She judiciously selects six areas of Xi’s top reform priorities for critical examination. Chapters 2 to 7 each provide a captivating account of the transformation of China’s political institutions and processes that led to the dramatic centralization of authority. These are symbolized by the declaration of Xi as the core of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership, the intensified penetration of society by the party-state through the control of the internet and of the free flow of ideas and information, the reassertion of the party in the decision-making of state-owned enterprises (SOEs), the expanded role of the SOEs in core sectors of the Chinese economy, the government’s drive to reinvent China as an innovative nation, the war on pollution, and finally China’s ambition under Xi to reassert itself as a great power in world politics through the exercise of its growing hard and soft power.
Economy investigates these ongoing transformative changes in China not as a disinterested academic but as an acutely involved policy analyst concerned with understanding the “seeming inconsistencies and ambiguities of Chinese policy today” (p. x). Her study attempts “to assess the relative success or shortcomings of the Chinese leadership’s initiatives on their own merits” (p. xi). The analysis is punctuated by conversations with Chinese officials, interviews of think-tank analysts and civil-society activists, and discussions with Chinese scholars in Beijing, Shanghai, Dubai, and Washington, D.C. There are also encounters with Jack Ma at the Economic Club of New York and debates at New York University. Cutting through the maze of what she calls “fast-changing, contradictory and occasionally misleading information” (p. x) about the transformation of China that has arguably overloaded information circuits, Economy has carefully woven a rich tapestry that provides a big picture while also including telling and baroque details of China’s ongoing...