China’s changing economy is central to the events described in The China Reader, but it’s actually the weakest section in an otherwise very useful book.

Book review: sixth edition of The China Reader follows nation from death of Deng to emergent superpower

Despite some criticisms, this is an extremely useful book for those wishing to understand the rise of China and the issues facing the country

The China Reader: Rising Power

edited by David Shambaugh

Oxford University Press

4 stars

There’s something endearingly quaint about The China Reader, like some treasure from a bygone era that’s somehow wiggled through a wormhole into the internet age.

The China Reader series began life in 1967, with the publication of the first three volumes covering Imperial China, Republican China and Communist China up to 1966. The 1974 fourth edition, People’s China, charted Mao’s disastrous social experimentation during the Cultural Revolution and the momentous thawing of relations with the United States. President Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to Beijing marked not only a milestone in China’s retreat from isolationism, but also helped fuel public appetite for insight into the Middle Kingdom that this series has helped satiate.

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This sixth volume in the series picks up the narrative of China in 1997 and the death of Deng Xiaoping. Its predecessor covered the critical fulcrum that followed the Cultural Revolution and Mao’s death, with the opening-up policies of Deng laying the foundations for a period in which “China has truly emerged as a Rising Power in the world”, as editor David Shambaugh, an American political scientist and noted sinologist, puts it.

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Shambaugh’s challenge has been to distil 17 years of political, social and economic history into the 500-odd pages of a single volume. A daunting prospect. Consider this: when I type “China” into the Google search engine, it kicks out about 3.1 billion results in 0.55 seconds. When we can tap into a near proxy for the sum total of human knowledge in less than a second, what role does a “reader” still play? When the last edition was published in 1999, there were fewer than 300,000 internet users worldwide; that number has jumped to more than three billion.

A group of young pioneers of the Communist Youth League walk past a large billboard of Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, as they take part in a event to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party in China. Photo: AFP

The question of which material to select becomes a defining feature of the book itself. “Foreign analyses of China … are coloured by certain paradigms or perspectives that are prevalent at a given time,” Shambaugh says. “The China Reader series offers historical insights into the evolution of Western sinology.”

It inevitably carries the personal stamp of the selector too. And it is in this respect that Shambaugh will disappoint those readers who don’t share his personal perspectives on China. The author of “China’s Future” is a prominent sceptic on the Communist Party’s ability to maintain the impressive economic growth that has lent its one-party rule some popular legitimacy. That dystopian, dysfunctional flavour runs through the volume, which is organised into 11 thematic sections: Rising China; Politics; Economic Development; Resources and Environment; Society; Law, Rights and Civil Society; Media and Culture; the Military and Security; Foreign Relations; Greater China; and China Faces the Future.

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Still, Shambaugh manages to maintain the series’ tradition of selecting from a wide range of sources – not just academic papers, but Communist Party documents and speeches as well as articles by journalists and dissidents. The result is a work that provides a valuable time capsule of one of the most important periods in world history. The material succeeds in being both accessible and at the same time offering new insights for all but the most dedicated sinologists. The book’s organisation makes it perfect for dipping in and out of.

Perhaps it was the desire to display a balanced approach that led the editor to give the book’s opening shot to Martin Jacques, author of When China Rules the World: the End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order. Not surprisingly, Jacques – former editor of Marxism Today and an unapologetic China booster – offers a view that is the polar opposite of sceptical. Shambaugh also allots generous space to the official Chinese government viewpoint. However, the heavy-handed language of party propaganda succeeds more in alienating than in persuading the liberal reader to China’s case.

China continues to grow in global significance in many areas, making The China Reader a valuable primer on contemporary issues.

And then there is the infamous communiqué known as “Document 9”, which justifies this book’s space on any crowded bookshelf. The document sets out the party’s view on the state of ideology in China and its pathological antipathy towards Western ideas, such as the open exchange of ideas, multi-party democracy, a free media and civil society. For example, it states: “The ultimate goal of advocating the West’s view of the media is to hawk the principle of abstract and absolute freedom of press, oppose the party’s leadership in the media and gouge an opening through which to infiltrate our ideology.”

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Shambaugh deftly curates his way across his chosen topics, achieving a coherent narrative that both spans the evolution of ideas over the time period as well as giving air to a full range of views. The big issues of China’s relations with its neighbours and the wider world, its governance deficit, corruption, human rights and dissent are covered extensively, including input from the most authoritative experts and from those actors at the centre of events. The editor’s explanatory articles are excellent primers or reminders for any reader.

Just as the selections are coloured by the editor’s personal perspective, so the few niggles I have are coloured by mine. One of the biggest China stories of recent years has been the country’s accumulation of debt, a topic that could have been addressed in some detail. Overall, the economic and commercial story of China’s rise felt the weakest area of this volume: unfortunate given that it is the key factor behind the dynamics of so much else playing out in the country. I also felt that seven selections from The Economist was a bit too much – especially when that magazine’s input was the sole source, as it was with the chapter on the internet and social media. Nor did I value the extract from the CIA’s 2014 World Factbook.

Still, such complaints only serve to prove that you can’t please all the critics all of the time. The latest China Reader is a welcome addition to the series and one that shouldn’t be allowed to gather dust.