Scholars' Blog

23 October 2021
Brian Wong
By Brian Wong

Book review: A glimmer of hope in U.S.-China relations?
Washington must update its understanding of contemporary Chinese society

Many among those who had hoped for a reset to U.S.-China relations as President Joe Biden took over following Donald Trump's fraught years have found themselves disillusioned by the recent turn of events.

Chinese and American diplomats alike abandoned much semblance of diplomacy, doubling down on bellicose, moralizing rhetoric toward each other. Biden declared he foresaw "extreme competition" with China, while President Xi Jinping insisted that "international rules should be based on universally recognized norms, rather than the rules of the few," calling upon Chinese citizens to "fight" (douzheng) in upholding China's interests vis-a-vis the West.

In Washington, an increasingly bipartisan consensus has emerged among the policy establishment -- that the economic transformations adopted by the Chinese Communist Party under Deng Xiaoping's reforms and opening-up in the 1980s have not been accompanied by commensurate liberalization in the Chinese political system. Engagement with China -- as championed by Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon -- has ostensibly failed.

It is against this backdrop that the Brookings Institution's Cheng Li's "Middle Class Shanghai: Reshaping U.S.-China Engagement" makes the timely, potent, exhaustively researched and emphatic case for constructive, critical, multilateral engagement between China and the U.S.

Drawing upon a rich range of sources, ranging from archival and historical documents to firsthand dialogical research, Li makes the case that "American policymakers must not lose sight of the expansive dynamism and diversity in present-day China." He admonishes the "caricature of the PRC as a Xi-dominated, burgeoning hegemon with aggressive intentions," calling instead for a nuanced and holistic view that takes China not as a monolith but as an internally eclectic and resilient population with more in common with their Western counterparts than many may think.

Li makes three central claims. Firstly, in comprehensively surveying the city's historical, political, cultural and social significance to the rest of China, Li concludes that Shanghai serves as a prime exemplar of how Western norms and cultures can be embraced by Chinese urban residents without compromising their continued devotion to the unitary-nationalistic ethos enshrined by the Communist Party. Yet Shanghai is also exceptional -- as the fulcrum of liberal, cosmopolitan haipai (literally, "of the seas") values -- compared with many other major cities in China, especially the politically conservative capital of Beijing.

Such exceptionalism nevertheless casts a greater shadow over the scope of applicability of the book's findings -- how readily could the virtues of Shanghai's modus operandi be transplanted to cities that lack the political connections and historical wherewithal of a city whose government has produced more than one paramount leader of China? This question may be done due justice only through another book.

Secondly, China's middle class -- unlike its more risk-averse, establishmentarian counterparts in industrial democracies -- is a vivacious, transformative force that "holds the keys to the governance and prosperity of the country" as China shifts from export-driven to domestic consumption-led growth models. By 2030, per expert Su Hainan's estimates, 40% of China's population (600 million) will be of middle-class standing. These individuals -- many of whom are highly and Western educated -- will herald a new era in Chinese policymaking and civil society-state relations, with a marked increase in professionalization and individualization of the Chinese workforce to come.

Yet with the recent consolidation of the techno-surveillance state, the political defanging of civilian-led private corporations (minying qiye) and the structural exclusion of middle-class voices from the highest echelons of Chinese governance, it would not be out of line to ponder the following: To what extent could China's middle classes influence politics at large? It is one thing to be co-opted, even nominally included -- per Jiang Zemin's "three represents" -- in the country's governing coalition. It is another for these individuals to accrue genuine political capital in transforming the legal and institutional fundamentals to the country. Li would perhaps have benefited from more explicitly commenting on what he envisions as the relationship between China's middle classes and its fledgling civil society.

These two prongs are straddled by a third -- that Shanghai has long served as the primary source of, and repatriation destination for, Chinese talents who study, research and work abroad, many of whom have repatriated out of both optimism over the country's future and an increasingly abrasive international environment. The time these individuals spend abroad, in turn, has broadened their horizons to the emancipative ideals and "advanced science and technology research" championed in the United States.

Li's erudite evaluation and tracking of the multifaceted Shanghai Gang's ebbs and flows interweaves his original interpretation of China's factionalist politics with an equally compelling dissection of broader, continually evolving ideological undercurrents. Those who are avid followers of the competing interests among the country's political upper echelons may find themselves surprised by the extent to which Shanghai has facilitated the rise of individuals traditionally viewed as nonaligned with the eponymous ruling clique in national politics.

The book's empirical analysis duly reflects the complex, murky realities of contemporary Chinese politics. While Chinese students who study in the United States are indeed more predisposed to "favor liberal democracy than their peers in China," they nevertheless harbor "ambivalent attitudes toward the United States." Empirically, he finds, experiencing racialized discrimination substantially bolsters the strength of Chinese students' support for the party. There is no simple brush with which overseas returnees (haigui) can be painted -- these individuals combine moderate patriotism with socially liberal values, and are equally skeptical of American hegemony and authoritarian retrenchment of the state.

They are not oblivious to the merits of democracy, but many find these merits contextually outweighed by the loosely internally connected China Model, which has and does deliver for many residing in the country, especially those in the lower middle classes."

To simplistically assert that engagement has failed -- or wholly succeeded -- would thus be deeply misguided. Instead, the question should be: How does such engagement occur? To what extent does such engagement come with the open-minded receptiveness that enables Chinese scholars and students to feel at ease and home in America, as opposed to being subjected to vitriolic, McCarthyist witch hunts for alleged espionage? The same applies to Western journalists and academics in the mainland who have found themselves caught in the crossfire of the downward-spiraling relations between the Chinese state and foreign media.

The author intrepidly pushes back against dominant media narratives from both sides of the Pacific. He calls upon American policymakers to avoid overhyping China's quest for ostensible global dominance but also invites Chinese bureaucrats to eschew fixating over the country's history and related hypersensitivity to perceived foreign interference in adjusting its foreign policy. Advancing groundbreaking scientific research, combating climate change, resolving international security threats ... are all ends best accomplished through collaboration and dialogue, not vengeful accusations.

Li is concise and incisive in his prescriptions. Yet it is also the relative brevity of his recommendations, perhaps reflective of his intentions of eschewing speculative pontification in favor of grounded, fact-based analysis, that will inevitably attract skeptical detractors who doubt the feasibility of his advice.

Could Beijing truly set aside the legitimating narrative that has served as a core pillar of its post-Deng foreign policy? Can the Washington establishment truly reckon with and embrace a world order where America no longer leads as the sole hegemon? These are feasibility challenges that the book does not answer -- nor, indeed, should it seek to, perhaps.

Written in accessible and clinical prose, Li's tour de force offers something to everyone -- from veteran D.C. staffers to senior Beijing officials, from seasoned foreign policy analysts worldwide to inquisitive laypeople who want a better grasp of the key facts undergirding the most significant international relationship today.

"Middle Class Shanghai: Reshaping U.S.-China Engagement" by Cheng Li (Brookings Institution Press, 2021)

About the author
Brian Wong, 2015 Kwok Scholar, is pursuing the DPhil in Politics degree at the University of Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. He is the founding editor-in-chief of the Oxford Political Review. His book "Metamorphosis" is published by the Hong Kong Economic Journal in September 2021.
This article was published on 23 October 2021 by Nikkei Asia.