China Goes Global: the Partial Power

By David Shambaugh.

Oxford University Press. $29.95.

The Rise of China vs. the Logic of Strategy

By Edward N. Luttwak.

Belknap Press. $26.95.

Stumbling Giant: the Threats to China’s Future

By Timothy Beardson.

Yale University Press. $35.

It is open season on China and not from the usual suspects, often dismissed (especially in Beijing) as “China-bashers,” human rights obsessives, anti-Communists or Chinese dissidents living abroad. Three books have appeared in recent months that each paint the Chinese state as straining under pressure, both internal and external, even as it continues its remarkable economic growth. Unlike China’s more familiar critics, none of these authors has been denied a Chinese visa, the occasional lot of a few dissenters from the media or academia. David Shambaugh is a well-known academic China specialist with broad contacts in China, Edward Luttwak is a self-styled “strategist” (China is just one of the subjects on which he has written widely) and Timothy Beardson is the founder of an investment bank based in the Far East.

What we learn from these three books is that it has become respectable, without being labeled a China-basher, to worry less about a China that challenges the United States-dominated international system than a China that even its new leaders admit is facing profound problems from corruption to the destruction of the environment. It is becoming rare, therefore, for well-qualified scholars to argue that the rest of the world has little choice but to step out of the way of the Chinese juggernaut. The most well-known proponent of that admiring attitude is Martin Jacques, whose best-selling 2009 book “When China Rules the World,” is dismissed by Shambaugh and Luttwak. There are now Chinese people who are educated in the West, or who turn to the Internet to debate what China really is and where it is heading, who no longer believe everything the government tells them. Even China’s new leaders worry about this; if corruption reaches into the highest levels of government, as they admit and as the public cries out, and if environmental destruction is as out of control as many say, China is in no state to lead the world.

Shambaugh’s latest book will surprise his fellow China-watchers. For years they have regarded him as a respected academic _ he is a professor at George Washington University _ who, in his many publications, explained China rather than judging it. In Beijing, where Shambaugh has been welcomed as a “foreign friend,” “China Goes Global: the Partial Power” will amaze, if not anger.

Shambaugh argues that Jacques’ thesis that China will soon be the world’s pre-eminent superpower is “profoundly overstated and incorrect” (although he thanks it in his acknowledgments). Shambaugh takes a wholly opposite position: “The elements of China’s global power are actually surprisingly weak and very uneven. China is not as important, and is certainly not as influential, as conventional wisdom holds.” This may wound egos in China. What will hurt some feelings deeply are Shambaugh’s judgments on the country to which he has devoted his professional life. “A society composed of self-seeking, power-maximizing individuals,” he writes, “who are dismissive of domestic social responsibilities and public goods are certainly in no position to embrace arguments concerning international responsibilities and public goods.” In case this is construed as meaning only individual Chinese people, Shambaugh hammers the Chinese state as an “ insecure, confused, frustrated, angry, dissatisfied, selfish, truculent and lonely power.”

Although Shambaugh initially dismisses (I think unworthily) most of his fellow scholars as encumbered by an “increasing obsession with social science theories and methodologies,” he thanks a veritable army of “valued colleagues” in his acknowledgments, and later defends their scholarship as “quite accurate and highly detailed” against Chinese criticism that they are biased. This contrasts with his opinion of Chinese academics. Shambaugh notes that while China now outstrips the U.S. in the number of Ph.D.s awarded, its basic research is poor. Thousands of Chinese students do doctoral research on difficult subjects in the U.S., Britain and other Western countries. A significant minority do not return to China.

Here the main culprit, he contends, is the Communist Party, which “continues to place various restrictions on free thought and inquiry, particularly in the humanities and social sciences. …” But the party alone is not to blame. He continues: “Academic plagiarism, favoritism and false credentials are rampant, and intellectual property rights theft is endemic.” As for Nobel Prizes, for which Beijing longs, Shambaugh notes that until Mo Yan won the prize for literature in 2012, no Chinese person living in China had won, except for the imprisoned dissident Liu Xiaobo. “The Nobel deficit,” he writes, “is directly traceable to China’s political system, which stifles creativity.”

Shambaugh scrutinizes China’s “global footprints” in diplomacy, economics, culture, global governance and security. He observes that China’s present and traditional “preference has always been for a regional hierarchy of asymmetrical interstate relations centered on itself.” These traditional features of Chinese foreign policy “continue to resonate today. They may not be readily apparent at all times, but they certainly exist in Chinese minds, experience and practices.”

Shambaugh notices that “Chinese diplomats and media go to extraordinary lengths to stage-manage its leaders’ and officials’ foreign interactions. They make great efforts to try to maximize the formality and grandeur in which foreign leaders are received abroad and minimize (to zero) the possibility of their being embarrassed by public protests in their presence or openly aired disputes with foreign leaders. Why? Because the controlled visual images are broadcast back into China by state media and are intended for one purpose only: to give the impression that China’s leaders are being received with respect and deference.” (There is also the nasty side of Chinese diplomacy; in late 2010 Beijing urged foreign ambassadors in Oslo, Norway, to shun the ceremony awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu _ 17 complied.)

Shambaugh also notices how then-President Hu Jintao received foreign statesmen, standing on their left, “right hand and arm outstretched, while the foreigner is forced into the less comfortable stance with the right hand awkwardly crossing the body. As a result, the Chinese leader always appears relaxed, whereas the foreigner often seems physically uncomfortable.”

But all that is theater. Shambaugh contends that the China he knows well is a “lonely power, lacking close friends and possessing no allies.” Moreover, it “often makes known what it is against, but rarely what it is for.” Where China speaks loud and clear is on its own narrow self-interests: “Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, human rights and its maritime territorial claims.”

In a little list, concluded with irony, Shambaugh points to China’s influence beyond its borders: “global trade arrangements, global trade patterns, global energy … the global tourism industry, global sales of luxury goods, global real estate purchases and cyberhacking.” I write that again: cyberhacking. This is now so widespread that American officials, even in the White House and intelligence services who normally avoid publicly criticizing China, condemn it.

During the celebrations in Beijing on China’s National Day, Oct. 1, 2009, Shambaugh watched the enormous military parade (complete with “10,000 goose-stepping soldiers” and “massive trucks ferrying huge intercontinental ballistic missiles”). Security was extremely tight and on the day of the parade the whole of Beijing went into lockdown. He wondered: “If the Communist Party is so proud of its achievements and 60 years in power, what is it so afraid of? The juxtaposition of pride and patriotism on the one hand, mixed together with the party’s deep insecurities and the obsession with control, on the other, spoke volumes to me about China’s current conflicted (and insecure) condition.” Because of Shambaugh’s profoundly informed book they also speak volumes to us.

Luttwak says he is a military strategist and not a “Sinologist.” Now very rare, Sinologists are specialized beings essentially concerned with traditional Chinese texts. What Luttwak means of course is that he is not like Shambaugh: trained in reading Chinese but also in applying social science and humanist studies to deepen our understanding of China. Instead, Luttwak, in his new book “The Rise of China vs. the Logic of Strategy,” aims to explain how Beijing thinks and acts, supplying readers with a beginner’s guide to Chinese history. This includes what modern Western scholarship has to say about how today’s Chinese people misunderstand their remote history, and how they apply this misunderstanding to their current international strategies.

Unlike Shambaugh _ who sees China today as unhappy and lonely, internationally active but not influential, with narrow interests, a country to be coaxed into becoming a normal part of the international scene _ Luttwak views China, and many Chinese citizens, as gripped by imagined past greatness and thus convinced of their superior ways of dealing with today’s global scene. Luttwak dismisses the “when China rules the world” predictions of Jacques, and the more involved assumptions and miscalculations of former U.S. secretary of state and influential China-watcher, Henry Kissinger. (Kissinger almost always speaks positively about China today, and rarely notes that his firm, Kissinger Associates, does business there.)

The fundamental difference between Shambaugh’s view of China on the international stage and Luttwak’s is that the latter believes “the essential problem is not China’s conduct but its all-around magnitude.”

Luttwak profoundly notes that China’s leaders, who conceive of the U.S. as a nation of cultural innocents, “cannot absorb in-depth information with all its complexities and subtleties. … Decisions on foreign affairs are almost always made on the basis of highly simplified, schematic representations of unmanageably complex realities, which are thereby distorted to fit within internally generated categories, expectations and perspectives.”

Luttwak is right to assert that China’s leaders are so thrown off stride by their damaging internal unrealities that they cannot think sensibly about foreign affairs. There are too many distractions. As he says, “somewhere in China there is an emergency under way important enough to engage the top leaders, be it an earthquake, a major flood, ethnic rioting, an abrupt economic shift such as a sudden upsurge in food prices, or an actual or imagined internal political threat.” How true this last clause is: While the new leaders were preparing to sit down in the chairs of the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee, they were busy charging Bo Xilai, a nationally popular regional leader, his wife and a senior police chief with having poisoned to death the British businessman Neil Heywood.

But what really gets in the way of China’s leaders, says Luttwak, is their view of an ancient Sino-centric world in which China received “tribute” from far and wide and gave more valuable presents in return. Here, too, his criticism is correct, the persistent notion being that ancient “barbarian handling” is the way to manage foreigners. This was true 1,500 years ago, and still means corrupting “barbarians, non-Hans, with expensive presents, followed by indoctrination to get them to assume Han, that is ethnic Chinese, values.” So, writes Luttwak scornfully, every foreign “poo-bah … from the likes of countries like Kiribati, Vanuatu, Uruguay, Latvia, Burundi and other such” is accorded “an abundance of ceremony and elaborately hosted meals.”

Linked to this hierarchical worldview (also mentioned briefly by Shambaugh) is the truly incorrect self-image of 2,000 years of Chinese national and cultural unity. As Luttwak says, for the last 1,000 years (actually more than that) China has been either disunited or conquered by “unwashed” non-Hans, like the Khitan, Mongols and Manchus. It was the Manchus who established the present limits of China’s borders from 1644 onward, and whose basic characteristics were wholly un-Chinese. (In his next edition, Luttwak should include citations to the American scholars, chiefly Pamela Crossley and Evelyn Rawski, who established these mind-changing facts.)

So what should we do about a regime that prides itself on a mythical past, on the continuing assumption that all other countries are its cultural inferiors? The question is particularly acute, Luttwak states, because much of China’s aggressive ideology is also based on resentment of its past colonial exploitation, on a bellicose army and on fantasies of maritime dominance far beyond its shores. Shambaugh opposes containment as “absurd” and a “nonstarter.” Luttwak suggests that, while avoiding nuclear war, “U.S. military strength would still be necessary to contain China’s, but it alone could not preserve the ability of the United States to pursue containment in the future as well.” He underlines how the U.S. Treasury, led by Timothy Geithner, cowers before China, in contrast with the more defiant policies of the Department of State; true enough on both counts, except that the latter also avoids any challenges to how China treats its ethnic minorities, especially in Tibet.

Luttwak, rightly again, foresees the possibility of China’s economic decline. This is already on the cards; the one-child policy has resulted in a steep decline in young workers for the factories producing goods for export, and an increasing reliance on tens of millions of floating people with no legal or social rights as they move about the country.

Nor is Luttwak confident that the Communist Party will endure. He sees many destabilizing factors, including the widening gap between rich and poor, riots against local and central authorities, ethnic unrest, bankrupt ideas as capitalism challenges socialist ideals, and the disaffection of the better educated “who aspire to the freedoms of their global peers.” The regime, he believes, cannot go on banning what it sees as subversive literature. Here one must be touched by Luttwak’s faith in the intellectual subversion of “the ultimately more deeply subversive novels of Conrad, Dickens or (this is very learned) Manzoni to name but a few … whose impact is less immediate but certainly more profound than tweets, or miniblogs.” Tell that to the tweeters and bloggers here in London.

While much of Luttwak’s book is persuasive, his writing is sometimes marred by too many ironies and occasional offensive phrases like referring to China’s “great state autism,” to its Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying as an “assimilated Mongol of some elegance,” to the many Third World statesmen who visit China as insignificant, almost culturally inferior, and to China’s traditional neighbors as “unwashed.”

In the conclusion to this thought-provoking book, Luttwak contends that a “fully democratic China could advance unimpeded to global hegemony, but then the government of a fully democratic China would undoubtedly seek to pursue quite other aims, to maximize the happiness of the population rather than its own power.” Luttwak is a mere 70. May he see that day.

Beardson is the founder of what the jacket of his new book calls “the largest investment bank in the Far East.” Like Shambaugh and Luttwak, Beardson believes that the Chinese will neither displace nor challenge the U.S. as the world’s superpower. In most books, descriptions of threats to a country’s future see them, at least in part, as coming from outside. But in “Stumbling Giant: the Threats to China’s Future,” we read that, “many of the themes in this book return to a deficiency in the moral core of today’s China. … What is clear is that dozens of perceptive Chinese _ as well as foreign _ observers have noted a lack of honesty, integrity and morality in contemporary society.” The country’s leaders, says Beardson _ who, like Luttwak, uses the word “autistic” to describe them _ imagine that solving its main problems will take centuries. Beardson gives them a few decades.

Here is what he says near the end of his survey of the Chinese scene today: “If we consider the environmental degradation, the industrial manufacture of counterfeit goods, the return of extreme markets (where anything can be bought), the cyber hostility and the careful avoidance of historical truth, we must wonder whether China is building a society devoid of culture or moral standards. Is China the country that goes too far?”

Take environmental disaster. Beardson devotes one of his detailed and usually persuasive chapters to this, and near its beginning says flatly, “China has the worst environment of any country.” Indeed, China’s citizens put pollution very high as a national problem, though not as high as corruption. So while the issue of environmental degradation is basically centuries old and 300 million Chinese people were drinking polluted water in 2012, the authorities have tended to react by denying or obfuscating the problems. “Throughout the reform period, China’s reaction to criticism of its environmental degradation has been that its top priority is to deliver a rapidly rising standard of living.” If this problem is not solved, writes Beardson, “it could be the environment, rather than the economy, which topples the party.”

What about the ethnic problems, primarily the Muslims of Xinjiang and the Tibetans that plague the government and bring China into international disrepute? Admitting that this is “thinking the unthinkable,” Beardson proposes that “perhaps China would be … stronger and more stable if it unilaterally dropped Tibet, Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang (or parts of them) and possibly parts of Gansu, Qinghai and Sichuan. … Huge security spending (in these areas) is a massive burden, preventing other more congenial options.” He does not consider Tibet a major problem for China because there is little likelihood of an armed struggle there assisted from abroad, as might happen in Muslim Xinjiang, which lies on the border with Afghanistan.

Beardson, I suspect, is a frequent visitor to China where this book, like those of Shambaugh and Luttwak, may shock and wound. Beardson’s list of flaws is so long that I choose this damning conclusion, quoting Oxford’s Karl Gerth, as a representation: “Imagine what it’s like to be a consumer in China, where the authenticity and quality of everything in your life is suspect: the food you eat, the water you drink, the pills you put in your body, the building you live in, the computer you use, the airplane you fly in.”

Like Shambaugh and Luttwak, Beardson tackles the Chinese self-delusion about a lengthy national and cultural unity. He lays out the number of centuries that China was conquered by non-Hans and interestingly, but not convincingly to me, asserts that China’s present sense of national humiliation predates by far the colonial exploitation of the 19th century. I doubt this; not many Chinese citizens these days know how non-Han territorial conquest has affected them today. Here, as in Luttwak’s book, it would have been good to see in Beardson’s inadequate bibliography _ publishers are not mentioned _ the names Pamela Crossley and Evelyn Rawski, who showed this in detail, just as it would be useful if Beardson had listed _ and read _ Roderick MacFarquhar’s volumes on the Cultural Revolution, which would have made clear his muddy account of those years.

I wish that Beardson didn’t feel it necessary to observe occasionally that black moments in China can be replicated in other countries. His account of Tiananmen Square in 1989 is accurate enough, but why point out that in 1970 U.S. National Guard troops shot dead four demonstrating students at Kent State University in Ohio? That event, contrary to Beardson’s assertion, does not raise the same questions that attend Tiananmen Square, which was part of a national crackdown and is still blanked out on official Chinese websites. As he says, most Chinese students were born after 1989 and the question is: What have they not been told about it? Indeed. Chinese students in the U.K. often say that Tiananmen was “a riot when people shot down our soldiers and police.”

Even with its defects, if “Stumbling Giant” is allowed into China, readers there will be astounded. The same holds true for Luttwak’s analysis. But when Shambaugh’s book makes its way across the border, or his most damaging judgments appear on the Internet _ both of these are a certainty _ the impact will be even greater. Reading Shambaugh’s damning assessments, many Chinese who worry about their country and its future will experience the possibly beneficial shock that attends the truth.

— Jonathan Mirsky is a journalist and historian of China. He is the former East Asia editor of The Times