- Rejuvenation, Muddling Through, or Manning the Pumps? Xi Jinping and China’s Turning Point
Long after cracks began appearing in the so-called Japanese economic miracle of the 1980s, pundits were claiming that Japan would soon challenge the United States for global dominance while fundamentally changing capitalism and providing a new socioeconomic model. Only a few voices dissented from such dramatic assertions, instead pointing out the structural weaknesses of the postwar Japanese system and warning that the country’s spectacular rates of growth could not be sustained. Within a few years, observers such as Bill Emmott and Karel van Wolferen were proved largely correct, as the Japanese economic bubble popped at the end of the 1980s amid a superheated property and asset market.1 The once-infallible Japanese government was soon derided for having feet of clay as the country entered a generational stagnation.
Coverage of China’s rise over the past decade has exhibited something of the same dynamic. Shelves of books and rivers of commentary have proclaimed the era of Chinese dominance to be upon us, coincident with the decline of the United States, whether from the lingering effects of the 2008 financial crisis or the election of Donald Trump. Hyperbolic claims about “Easternization” or “when China rules the world” complement similarly overwrought and dire predictions about inevitable traps that will result in armed conflict between a surging China and a decaying United States.2 Meanwhile, only a few scholarly attempts at taking a more balanced view of China’s strengths, and more importantly its weaknesses, have been published in recent years, including works by Minxin Pei and David Shambaugh.3 [End Page 158]
Now Elizabeth Economy joins the small group questioning the common wisdom that we live in China’s world. Instead, according to Economy in her work The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State, China is living in its current president Xi Jinping’s world, and more specifically his “third revolution.” Following the first revolution by the founder of the People’s Republic of China, Mao Zedong, and the second by the reformer Deng Xiaoping, the third is the personal hallmark of Xi, who has overturned decades of tradition to become the most powerful leader since Mao. Just what is this third revolution? Economy describes it as Xi’s strategy and policies to bring about his “China dream” to rejuvenate the Chinese nation. The core policies include centralizing authority under Xi’s personal leadership, greater state penetration of civil society, a new flood of regulations and restrictions on ideas, and greater projection of China’s power abroad.
Economy does not question the extraordinary growth that China has undergone over the past generation, nor the country’s newly powerful position in the world. Rather, it is the thoroughness of the changes that China has experienced as well as their durability that the rest of the world should see more critically. As such, she interjects repeated notes of caution about assuming any one trajectory for China going forward.
The Third Revolution is a welcome addition to the still-emerging literature on China’s problems. For those invested in the “China dominance” narrative, it remains difficult to fully acknowledge the dramatic economic, political, social, environmental, technological, and security challenges that have piled up during decades of breakneck modernization and expansion. Yet as China’s macroeconomic picture continues to moderate, if not worsen, as Xi’s personal rule becomes increasingly evident, as civil society becomes more constrained, and as concerns about China’s assertive foreign policies and militarization of the South China Sea grow, it becomes harder to sustain the hitherto unquestioned belief in the country’s unstoppable rise.
Deftly covering a huge range of issues familiar to those who keep up with news from Beijing, Economy has in essence crafted a handbook on contemporary China. The book traces Xi’s focus on a number of core areas, from the “reform” of state-owned enterprises (SOEs) to the creation of the tightly controlled ChinaNet, attempts to clean up air pollution, the infamous anticorruption campaign, and the push to assert China’s interests abroad, among others. Xi’s fundamental organizing principle is to reassert...