In recent years, we have come to accept that knowledge is power. But whether it comes from a textbook or “West Wing” script, it can’t always be purchased or controlled. Indeed, for years, we have often found ourselves wondering how much we know of the world’s political and diplomatic leaders. Such is the critique of “China’s Rise: A New Political History of the Cold War,” written by Stanford University professor Shi Yang in response to Xi Jinping’s promotion to the role of paramount leader of the world’s second largest economy and, more importantly, its largest, most populous nation.
The new book is part analysis, part background for any casual observer of international politics. Yang assembles a voluminous amount of study that examines everything from the Chinese leadership’s “Yan” nature to its subtle military designs in countries such as the Ukraine. Given the new attention to international relations, this volume finally becomes a key text, even if it is one that “only” took 30 years.
“China’s rise” is merely one note in a book that seeks to describe the culture and structures that govern China and Xi’s rule. Like other “young Turks,” Yang is anointed by the late Chairman Mao Zedong during the early years of the Cultural Revolution. At that time, despite their youth, such talented and talented men as Yang, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin were called upon to revive the status of Chinese communism and history. Together, the trio of “young Turks” were deeply dedicated to bringing the revolution to a new generation.
Understanding the culture and structures that govern Chinese society is paramount, and Yang does his best to explain why and how things get done in China, but the fast pace of the work makes it difficult for readers to get a full picture of what they are reading. While the book covers much of the background to contemporary Chinese politics and economics, it is much longer than most histories of other governments.
Taken together, what one has is a detailed, slow-cooked portrait of the two great personalities: Mao and Xi. (Shi Yang, incidentally, was interviewed by former CIA Director David Petraeus in 2013.) One of the overarching themes in China’s history is that of the United States playing second fiddle to Deng’s China and then moving to top position. In this book, some of these assessments are rendered without tension, but others are more persuasive than any new book has the potential to be.
As always, one wishes that literature would provide more nuanced portraits, with slightly more balance of the contrasting personalities. For example, no one would dispute that Mao spent a lot of time pondering, for example, nationalism in Korea and Vietnam. Yet it is difficult to judge the world history in a nuanced fashion when one fails to distinguish between different generational experiences. As a Chinese proverb correctly states, “fool me once, shame on you; fool me again, shame on me.” In this book, if the clichés are too well-worn, the reader may be tripped up and confused for too long.