It has been said that anyone who knows only one country knows no countries. I know this is a famous quote from somebody I should remember but my mind is blanking like it so often does. As Montaigne complained, “My memory grows cruelly worse every day.” A background in China is necessary to a fundamental understanding of political science. Americans will naturally compare their political system with any country they encounter. Sometimes this is a bit awkward because it is necessary to recognize different political systems on their own terms. But China is different. It is the second largest economy and the major rival to American interests. Moreover, China represents a political tradition that is entirely alien to Americans, so the contrasts are significant.

Elizabeth Economy offers a snapshot into the contemporary Chinese political system. The transformation of China over the last decade has been so significant, this work offers an opportunity to reassess past reflections on the Chinese political system. Not all of it has been good and there is a lot to fear as China enters its third revolution. Nonetheless, China is often misunderstood by those who have not taken the time to study its political system and its recent history. For example, China is not an aggressive nation. Deng Xiaoping established a tradition of silent strength. China went out of its way not to show its power nor its weakness.

Xi Jinping, of course, has changed the trajectory of Chinese power. No longer does China wait patiently to demonstrate its power. The military has begun a process of modernization. China has begun to express its priorities globally and exert its influence. There is a concern among international scholars as China begins to flex its muscle. Yet they largely avoid military conflicts. Despite close ties with Russia, China does not create formal alliances. Moreover, their law does not allow a first strike nuclear attack. This does not sound like a major concession, but the United States is unwilling to make a similar commitment.

The transformation of China has occurred within a social and political context unique to China. Elizabeth Economy goes a long way to help readers understand the different nuances within different aspects of Chinese political culture. For example, the internet in China is largely defined by its censorship symbolized by the Great Firewall. Yet the Chinese Ecommerce market is nearly twice as large as the United States despite a smaller overall economy. The Great Firewall exists to permit online engagement rather than to discourage it. This does not change the reality or the extent of Chinese censorship, but it does require an American audience to rethink the relationship between the internet and China.

Finally, this is not a complex work with equations designed to make one’s head spin. It is written with great simplicity in a manner that communicates to the general public. But Elizabeth Economy is also a serious scholar. She is the Director for Asian Studies at the Council of Foreign Relations and a visiting scholar at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University. And her work resonates throughout the intellectual community. A few days after I read an article she wrote in the Journal of Democracy, I came across an article in The Economist where they referenced the same article.

There is a lot of scholarship written today on China. But Elizabeth Economy offers an easily accessible work that does not cut corners. It is available on Audible. I read a lot of books but it’s great when I can incorporate serious scholarship into my audio routine. This work will provide greater insight and nuance into a country that will find its way into multiple research topics. It’s best to get a head start now.

jmk, carmel, indiana, democracyparadoxblog@gmail.com

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