Book Review: “China: Fragile Superpower” by Susan Shirk

Book information: 320p. 24cm.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

“A tight grip is actually a sign of a weak hand.” –  American President Bill Clinton, 1999

China is spreading profound influence in an unprecedented speed, investing huge sums of capital per second and gradually moving forward to “Xiaokang society”(a moderate society) suggested by Deng Xiaoping.  On one hand, its skyrocketing growth seems to be paving the way to a rosy future, but on the other, domestic fragility is lurking beneath the surface.  Susan Shirk, a former American Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, put herself in the shoes of Chinese elites, explored in an invaluable insight of China’s motivation behind of internal affairs and the way China embroiled in a paradoxical crisis of confidence.

Watching overnight collapse of Soviet Union and her satellites in own eyes, and democracy marches in Tiananmen during 1989, in Chinese government officials’ opinions, these incidents nearly triggered an escalating brink to the regime collapse at worst.  Feared of following these alarming steps and confronting another massive protest again, for first thing, public leadership splits have to be avoided.  For another, social stability is strongly emphasized to convince public to obey to the Communist Party’s rule.  Meanwhile, it is also reflected that the back up of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is paramount to the political survival of top leaders and Party, as well as to wipe out of potential rivalries, prevent opposite movements and consolidate power.

The more prosperous the country is, the more insecure the Chinese leaders are and more hypersensitive to public opinions.  All posts in the newspapers have to be orchestrated by the Propaganda community before getting published and the web comments reviewed.  The perpetual power of press is like a double-edge sword for having control over expanding netizens in a subjective, sentimental way.  Internet information spreads like wildfire.  Users could keep abreast of current issues at the brink of their eyes, which in turn, the Chinese government can no longer bury all the affairs deep into the sand.  And the more diffident the leaders are, the more they play the governance card of “nationalism” since Jiang Zemin’s rule.    With mass media emphasizing news about Japanese whitewashed historical textbooks and Prime Minister’s visits to Yasukuni Shrine, violent comments and protests would eventually break out.  Yet for the Communist party, every coin has two sides, the over-ferment waves of high-rise of sentiments would prompt the demonstrators to turn to party’s internal limitations (for example demanding freedom), thus sparking off an opposition against the government, just like the student protests in Beijing University in 2005.

Apart from Japan, Chinese people also particularly vent their anger and rage on Taiwan and the United States due to flaring national emotions.  American bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999 and the clash of Chinese and American airplanes in South China Sea in 2001 rendered irrational xerophilia with the Chinese demonstrating around.  For national consolidation cemented, credibility established and not losing face to citizens, China would prevent Taiwan to be independent at all means using both carrots and sticks.  It has been claimed that only by reunification with Taiwan can the idea of “One China” be completed and a regime survived.   Otherwise if Taiwan got independent at last, it will post a question mark on the Chinese regime survival with the stoking up of a sequence of movements in Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia at worst.

Nevertheless, alongside utilizing media influence to inflame the impetuous fire of patriotism at a suitable time, from my point of view, economic boom is also a pivotal means for the Communist Party to minimize people’s dissatisfaction by enabling the rich and middle class to enjoy a lavish life.  On one hand, it has been a high time for China to proudly show the world how state-of-the-art the infrastructures are, how advanced the high speed bullet trains and how splendid when 8% growth of GDP per year maintained.  However on the other hand, let us not forget the polarization between the coastal cities and inner provinces, unemployment of factory workers and unfair registration system would also likely prompt waves of grassroots’ blame to the government.  For those who would like to have an immerse grasp of the limitations of China’s domestic structures and its relationships with Japan, Taiwan and the United States up to 2007, this knowledgeable book is surely your cup of tea. ♦


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