Longtime readers know Pomfret is one of my favorite reporters. The former Washington Post bureau chief here in Beijing, he’s now overseeing the paper’s bureau in Los Angeles, and it’s good to see him writing something about China once again. His review of Susan L. Shirk’s new book is thought provoking, to say the least.
Susan L. Shirk starts out her revelatory book on China with a nightmare scenario. A Chinese SU-27 fighter and a Taiwanese F-16 collide over the Taiwan Strait. The incident spirals out of control when the Chinese do what they always do in a crisis: blame the other guy. Demonstrations erupt in Beijing. Protesters demand that the Communist Party confront Taiwan and the United States. “When will China finally stand up?” read the signs. Washington scrambles as Beijing readies for war.
This brief, fictional opening frames Shirk’s book, dramatizing the possibility that China’s communist leadership could lurch into combat with Taiwan and the United States, which is obligated to defend the island nation under the Taiwan Relations Act. She sets out to explain why it is not a mere fantasy and why we, basically, need to be nice to China to keep the nightmare at bay.
At a time when much writing about China frothily presumes the unstoppable rise of a global titan, it is refreshing that a respected academic and former government official (Shirk was the deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asia during the second Clinton administration) questions the notion that China is going to run the world. “China may be an emerging superpower,” she writes, “but it is a fragile one.”
It’s clear almost immediately that Shirk and Pomfret share similar views of China, especially (it seems to me) the notion that the CCP is not all bad but more bad than good. The article spans some of the topics Pomfret wrote about himself in his excellent book Chinese Lessons – the government-inspired nationalism , further fomented by government-inspired loathing of the Japanese; the party’s obsession with remaining in power at any cost; and the notion that China is far less stable and far less likely to emerge as a true superpower than most of us are led to believe. (I wrote about Pomfret’s thoughts on these topics in an old post that’s still one of my favorites, even though it brought to this blog its most annoying troll ever.)
Pomfret praises the book but criticizes, it, too – quite harshly. In particular, he thinks she is exaggerating the risk of a war with the US (as do I) and I like the way he expresses this:
Squeeze China too much, she argues, and you’ll get World War III. But, historically, China has been a far more fragmented society than either Germany or Japan. Faced with a grave threat to their nation’s survival from the Japanese invasion that began in the ’30s, what did China’s elite do? They barely battled the Japanese and continued their civil war. One Chinese person is a dragon, a Chinese saying goes, but three of us are just an insect.
I’m still working, so I’ll have to leave it at that. You’ll want to read it all.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.