What Should Obama and Romney Read on China?


Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chair of the UC Irvine History Department, author of four books, including "China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know" (OUP 2010), and co-editor of "Chinese Characters: Profiles of Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing Land," which was recently released on Kindle and will soon be available in other formats as well.

Yao Ming leading the Chinese delegation in the 2008 Olympics. Credit: Flickr.

In mid-August, the Los Angeles Times ran an interesting feature in which a nicely diverse set of authors provided summer reading suggestions for the two main presidential candidates. The respondents flagged a lot of good books, some timeless and some timely, but one thing was missing: a book devoted to China. The omission seems noteworthy, given how important the country has become to the United States economically and geopolitically. Surely, Obama and Romney could benefit from reading a book on the country -- ideally one informed by scholarship, free of jargon, and attentive to history but thoroughly up to date. And fortunately just such a work was published on August 10: Red Rising, Red Eclipse. It’s a collection edited by Geremie Barmé, who directs the new China in the World Centre at Australia National University. And as for how accessible it is, you don’t have to take this professor’s word for it. Right after it appeared, Ian Johnson, who won a Pulitzer covering China for the Wall Street Journal and now writes about the country for the New York Times and other publications, used the phrase "very very readable" in a tweet praising Red Rising, Red Eclipse.

The book focuses on the period lasting from the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games to the present and is the inaugural "China Story Yearbook," launching what promises to be an extraordinarily useful series for specialists in Chinese studies and also for those simply curious to get a smart, quick take on the PRC. The book is one project of a multi-faceted collaboration between ANU and the excellent Beijing-based group Danwei, which is known for its insightful tracking of trends in Chinese popular media. Danwei’s founder, Jeremy Goldkorn, is among the leading analysts of the Chinese Internet, which continues to serve as the closest thing to a public sphere in China. The book is linked to a new blog, the "China Story Journal" that, among other things, will publish regular "lexicon" entries that examine the way that Chinese government officials, their critics, and other citizens of the PRC use and understand key terms, such as "human rights" (the subject of an early post). 

There are many appealing things about Red Rising, Red Eclipse. It contains a valuable section devoted to urban trends in China, for example, and another that translates selected important posts from the Chinese Internet. One of its best qualities is simply that it manages to pay close attention to dissecting Chinese government propaganda and emphasizes the influence state media has, yet continually shows why readers need to avoid falling into the common trap of assuming that all or even most citizens of the PRC think the same way about big topics.

And although this hardly matters for presidential campaigns that don’t need to pinch pennies, there’s another big plus about the book: its price. Team Romney and Team Obama can download it as an e-book for free at www.thechinastory.org.

What, though, if the candidates -- pressed for time as they are -- want to read good work on China but only have a few minutes, rather than hours, to do so?

I regularly come across short pieces that I find myself hoping no one who has Obama or Romney’s ear will notice—or at least take seriously. I have in mind articles and commentaries that misleadingly present China’s population as completely homogeneous, give too much credence to the Communist Party’s own presentation of the virtues of the current Chinese political system, or engage in the kind of over-the-top bashing of the PRC that generates much more heat than light and, worse than that, buttresses Beijing’s assertions that the West is determined to keep China down.

Fortunately, though, excellent easily digestible pieces keep appearing everywhere from Foreign Policy to the Financial Times , the New Yorker, to the New York Review of Books, that complement Red Rising, Red Eclipse’s effort to steer clear of romanticizing or demonizing China and highlight the ways that opinions of Chinese people diverge along class, regional, and generational lines. 

Here, to illustrate the sorts of pieces I mean are two valuable short works that happened to come out either just before or just after Red Rising, Red Eclipse was launched. The way each treats the multifaceted nature of Chinese political viewpoints has much to offer Obama, Romney, or indeed anyone seeking to understand China.

The first, "How Weibo is Changing China," appeared on August 9 on the excellent YaleGlobal website. Written by Mary Kay Magistad, best known for her radio reporting on Asia for "The World," it explores the importance that posts on weibo, a micro-blogging platform similar to Twitter (which is banned in China), play in disseminating information and showcasing contrasting opinions on political events. Magistad quickly and smartly introduces the uninitiated to everything from the way Chinese Internet users evade censors via word play to the increasing restiveness of the country’s middle class.

The second, by Beijing-based freelance writer Helen Gao, is "Diaoyu in Our Hearts," which came out on August 22 in The Atlantic’s online edition. Gao focuses on the recent anti-Japanese protests in China, which were sparked by the contested sovereignty of small pieces of land known as the Diaoyu Islands in Chinese and the Senkaku Islands in Japanese. She juxtaposes the jingoistic sloganeering accompanying them with a quiz on Weibo that went viral, in which readers were asked: "If your child were born on the Diaoyu Islands, what nationality would you pick for him/her: Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong or the mainland?" The least popular answer given was the mainland. This was due, she says, to a wide range of reasons, including a sense among some respondents that their children would have better job opportunities, more freedom, or simply be less likely to consume tainted baby food if they grew up elsewhere. While stressing that national pride remains very important in China, Gao encourages us to consider that "perceptions of patriotism may be changing" in complicated and intriguing ways.

The "China Story," as Magistad, Gao and the contributors to Red Rising, Red Eclipse all show us, is not just too important but also too interesting to be ignored or simplified. Whether you are running for president or just want to be an informed global citizen, it’s a multifaceted, complex and protean tale that is well worth following.

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