Elizabeth Economy’s The World According to China joins an overcrowded bookshelf. But it’s a welcome addition, its breadth of coverage and insights into China’s push to attain global dominance making the book a must-read for journalists, business leaders, policymakers, and the interested general reader.
The title is a little misleading – it’s not an examination of how China (either the people or the CCP) sees the world or an attempt to understand its underlying motivations, so much as a sober description and assessment of what China is doing around the world in order to achieve its goals.
Some of the stories mentioned in the book will be familiar – the CCP’s childish overreaction to NBA tweets, the building of islands in the South China Sea, Hollywood’s pandering to the Chinese market, the infiltration of Western universities by Confucius Institutes, the crushing of dissent in Hong Kong – but the book’s strength is in joining all the dots to provide a coherent global picture.
Even for China watchers, the thorough coverage means that it will fill a few blind spots. In my case, I wasn’t aware of China’s strong presence in Greece, in particular, how a Chinese company purchased a 51 percent stake in the port authority of Piraeus. Now the leading European port in the Mediterranean, Piraeus “is one of 13 ports in Europe and 97 globally in which China has a significant stake.” These ports are part of the much touted Chinese infrastructure initiative known as One Belt, One Road or BRI. Economy explains, and it’s a theme running through the book, that despite the BRI’s global ambitions, domestic considerations predominate, including boosting exports and connecting interior regions of the country to external markets.
The book starts with a chapter titled “Politics and the Plague” (the author “wrote much of the book over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic”) which is a great example of Chinese ambitions for international leadership, its successes and blunders. Having stamped out COVID-19 at home, China sought to position itself as a global leader by providing materials and expertise. Many of these Made in China products – ineffective masks, inaccurate testing kits, and fake disinfectants – didn’t win friends. Nor did China’s bullying approach:
China reportedly told France that ample PPE would be forthcoming if the latter bought Huawei 5G equipment. And when Australian prime minister Scott Morrison called for an investigation into the origins of the virus in April, China’s ambassador to the country suggested it would pay a steep economic price.
The punishment was China banning imports of Australian beef, wine, and coal. China’s bullying nationalistic rhetoric has hurt its reputation outside of China, but the CCP cares less about world opinion these days. Their concern is the domestic audience rather than the foreign one. Economy’s book captures this paradox of greater global ambitions but being less concerned about winning over the world.
China likes to frame its conflicts with the U.S. dominated world as the story of an existing power resisting the rise of a new power. Xi also tries to position China’s ascent within a “rising East, declining West” dynamic. However, China’s story is not an Asia versus the West situation; greatest opposition to China comes from its Asian neighbors, whereas African and Latin American countries – with less experience of China and less to fear militarily – are more sympathetic. Neither is China’s authoritarian state-development model something inherently Chinese. As Economy says, “Xi’s claim that there is something uniquely Chinese about the path he has set out for mainland China is also undermined by Hong Kong, prior to the National Security Act, and Taiwan.”
China’s grand plans have seen plenty of resistance and setbacks. Still, the behemoth trudges foreword, “two steps forward, one step back,” as Economy puts it in a chapter sub-heading. The overall picture painted is alarming, but the book is not alarmist. Although more descriptive than prescriptive, she outlines several ways forward: first, of course, is awareness of what the CCP is up to.
While countries have a reasonable track record of withstanding Chinese pressure, companies have proven far more vulnerable. China uses its market leverage to persuade multinationals to transfer highly desired technology. Foreign companies wanting access to the fabled Chinese market have to set up joint ventures and share their technology with local partners. This involves choice on the part of the foreign company, a gamble that what they lose will be made up for by market access. Far more insidious is when Beijing targets companies for political reasons. Economy writes:
There is a pressing need for countries to develop a coordinated response to Beijing’s coercive economic diplomacy. In cases where China boycotts goods from countries on political grounds, as it has with Australia, the Philippines, and South Korea, among others, there should be a collective response in which economic alliances, akin to NATO or the Quad, would levy sanctions or even undertake boycotts in kind. Similarly, when China threatens retaliation against individual multinationals or even entire industries with loss of market access, countries should respond in kind by indicating that Chinese companies in those same sectors will face similar consequences.
In a word “reciprocity.” Economy has praise for the Biden administration’s approach. Thankfully, it’s retained a tough stance and not gone back to the pre-Trump days of special treatment and engagement based on wishful thinking, but it has
embraced the traditional strengths of US foreign policy, such as allies and leadership in multilateral institutions. It also has reinforced the importance of the liberal international or rules-based order and the values that underpin that order in American foreign policy. This renewed focus on values provides a useful starting point for reconceptualizing the challenge China poses to the United States.
Indeed, because this is “a clash of values and systems,” not tensions related to the so-called Thucydides’ Trap. One of those values is openness, and the author calls for a “renewed commitment to immigration … to attract the best and the brightest to the United States for study and work.” She gives a good example related to Artificial Intelligence research:
the United States boasts 60 percent of the top AI researchers in the world, while China and Europe possess around 10 percent each. Two-thirds of the US researchers, however, received undergraduate degrees from other countries.
The World According to China is the best book I’ve read on the country’s push for a new Sino-centric world order. In one accessible work the reader gets a thorough and balanced understanding across multiple regions and domains. It’s worth noting that what makes it so good is not just the content of the book – it’s what is left out. I’m a huge history fan but I have to admit it’s often not that relevant. This overweighting of the past is an occupational hazard in the study of China and books on the country. The author sticks to the twenty-first century and it makes for a better book.
Elizabeth C. Economy is a leading China scholar, whose works include The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State and The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China’s Future, both of which are worth reading.
The World According to China is published by Polity Press.