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  • Author’s Response: The Third Revolution Is Real
  • Elizabeth C. Economy (bio)

Let me begin by thanking David Shambaugh, Liselotte Odgaard, Yongjin Zhang, and Michael Auslin for providing such thoughtful and well-considered reviews of The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State. It is an honor to have four such distinguished scholars take the time to address the ideas and themes of the book, and I am delighted to have the chance to respond.

Two broad issues are raised by more than one reviewer. The first is the essential question of whether the third revolution is a genuine “revolution.” Shambaugh suggests that much of the rhetoric associated with Xi Jinping’s China is not new, nor are the changes as progressive or transformative in nature as those undertaken by the leaders of the two previous revolutions, Deng Xiaoping and Mao Zedong. Zhang notes that revolution “by definition” is associated with “human emancipation” and with “progressive, sometimes violent struggle” that is directed against “subjugation and oppression.” In fact, Xi’s policy direction, he argues, is regressive or reactionary. Zhang further points to cooperation between the state and society on issues such as environmental protection as evidence that Xi has not ushered in a revolution.

I did, in fact, grapple at length with the term revolution and at one point considered characterizing Xi’s leadership as a “reactionary revolution” to capture precisely the regressive nature of the policies that Zhang references. Ultimately, however, I understand both revolution and reform as political processes that are devoid of normative bias. Both signify change in political processes and institutions; the transformative effect on those processes and institutions, however, is far greater in revolution than in the case of reform. Moreover, if one accepts Deng’s own characterization of his leadership as the “second revolution,” it is certainly plausible to argue that Xi has ushered in a “third revolution”—a transformation of equal import that has reversed many of the political processes initiated by Deng. Under Xi’s leadership, China has moved away from collective decision-making back to one-man rule and eliminated the two-term presidency; reasserted the role of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in society and the economy, [End Page 162] reversing Deng’s trend toward withdrawing the party from everyday decision-making; rejected Deng’s welcoming of foreign ideas and capital and built a virtual wall of restrictions and regulations designed to constrain foreign competition and influence; and upended Deng’s low-profile foreign policy to adopt one that is far more ambitious and expansive. Moreover, the Chinese state increasingly is fusing technology with politically repressive laws and regulations, as evidenced by the social credit system, internet constraints, and a country-wide surveillance system.

In this context, Odgaard’s suggestion that Xi’s authoritarianism may be veering into totalitarianism is particularly relevant and further underscores the revolutionary nature of Xi’s policies. To Zhang’s note that state-societal cooperation on environmental protection necessarily undermines the concept of revolution, I would offer two reflections: first, Xi’s regime has embraced environmental protection, alongside anticorruption, as a pillar issue of regime legitimacy within its revolution; second, the political processes of cooperation between the state and society around environmental protection have changed significantly from the era of Hu Jintao to Xi. For example, opportunities for open discourse or coordinated environmental activism via the internet, social protest, and NGOs are much diminished. Xi has also pushed for party committees to establish a presence in and actively guide NGOs, and he has sharply limited the ability of environmental NGOs to engage with their foreign counterparts through the Law on the Management of Foreign NGOs.

Zhang and Odgaard further raise the important issue of whether China’s third revolution will exert a transformative impact on the international system. Zhang argues that if China is indeed experiencing a revolution, it could not be “caged” within Chinese borders, and he seeks evidence of China’s revolutionary agency and impact on the liberal international order. Odgaard wonders whether China will attempt to use coercive power abroad in order to recreate a Chinese sphere of influence in Asia—particularly in the event that the United States...


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pp. 162-165
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