03 January 2019

CAPT Sean E. Thompson, USAF, Reviews “The China Questions” in Strategic Studies Quarterly

CAPT Sean E. Thompson, USAF; review of Jennifer Rudolph and Michael Szonyi, eds., eds., The China Questions: Critical Insights into a Rising Power (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press2017); Strategic Studies Quarterly, March 26, 2018.

The China Questions is a compilation of 36 essays from academics affiliated with the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University. Premised on the idea that “China matters, and therefore that understanding China matters” (p. 1) the editors, Jennifer Rudolph and Michael Szonyi, invited experts to pick a question Americans should ask about China and then provide a short, insightful answer. In organizing these answers, the book is divided into discussions of politics, international relations, economy, environment, and society as well as history and culture. Throughout each section, it is the intention of the authors to cumulatively show how China’s past informs the present and how the present shapes the future. To this end, it is the hope of the editors that they will be able to lessen the “understanding deficit” America has with China.

Within the politics and international relations sections the authors ponder such questions as “Does Mao Still Matter?,” discussing the continued influence of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) founder Mao Zedong, especially as it relates to the rule of Xi Jinping and his desire to upend precedent and remove term limits from the office of the presidency. Also considered is the perennial question of Chinese Communism’s legitimacy, which explores why the party continues to be viewed as legitimate by the Chinese people. Elizabeth Perry explores the idea that the CCP is reliant on its performance for legitimacy but is rapidly trying to transition to historical legitimacy to justify its rule in preparation for uncertain times. However, as the CCP looks to the past, it also inadvertently opens the door for criticism of Mao Zedong’s policies such as the Anti-Rightist Campaigns, the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution. To prevent undesirable narratives from undermining the CCP’s efforts, in 2013 the party outlined the seven “speak-nots” (areas of liberal governance that might challenge CCP rule) including “historical nihilism,” which Joseph Fewsmith describes as any historical writings or research which “conflicts with the Party’s approved historiography” (p. 22). The urgency of the question of legitimacy gains increased relevance when, in a separate essay, Yuhua Wang asks what the CCP can learn from the various Chinese emperors’ rise and fall. Wang’s findings are disconcerting for the CCP as on average a Chinese dynasty lasted only 70 years, an age the CCP will reach in 2019, and were predominantly overthrown by societal elites and not external military powers.

With respect towards the question of how strong the Chinese armed forces are, Andrew Erickson projects that despite China’s near-term progress in developing and fielding military tech capable of targeting US vulnerabilities in the Yellow, East China, and South China Seas, propulsion, electronics, and other complex system-of-systems technologies will remain a key Chinese weakness. Furthermore, Erickson expects that the development of cutting-edge technology and mounting personnel costs, particularly with regard to supporting its growing retiree population, will place an increasing budgetary burden on the Chinese government and economy.

In asking if China’s high growth will continue, Richard Cooper anticipates that the economy’s rate of growth will likely begin to slow in the coming decade as many of the factors that previously bolstered growth rates above 10 percent diminish, potentially dropping to as low as 5 percent if China cannot spur innovation and further benefit from technological improvements. However, Dwight Perkins contends that while growth may be slowing he sees little indication that the Chinese economy is in for a recession. Instead he suggests that the real danger to the Chinese economy is that continued low household consumption rates will be unable to offset the aggregate decrease in demand as China continues to taper off its massive national infrastructure and building projects. Perkins also points out that this excess production capacity, especially within the steel industry, has already resulted in anti-dumping actions in North America and Europe, making it unlikely that those markets will be willing to absorb additional capacity. Furthermore, in a study of urbanization in China, Meg Rithmire concludes that without significant reforms to the Chinese household registration (hukou) and land rights systems China will be unable to successfully manage the rural-to-urban migration necessary to maintain a successful economy. While the outlook may look bleak, Nara Dillon is optimistic that China is capable of making the kind of data-driven developmental and welfare reforms appropriate to maintain the strong economy necessary for Xi Jinping to meet his goal of eliminating extreme poverty in China.

While the politics, international relations, and economy sections provide a relatively simplified, if not well trodden and direct description of a complex and adaptive country, the essays on society, history, and culture that make up the second half of the book cover a much more varied and disjointed set of topics.

Through their writings on Confucius, religion, propaganda, education, law, and literature the authors try to delineate the boundaries and critical events that shape Chinese thinking and society. Of note is Paul Cohen’s closing piece in which he catalogues several of the technological, political, and sociocultural factors which have changed the study of China over the years. Cohen describes how the open door policy of the 1970s combined with the growth of the internet and Chinese scholars’ increasing willingness to study a broader array of questions have created a clearer picture of China—although, in the preceding piece, Stephen Owen cautions that while this picture may be clearer, we must always remain aware that the goals of Chinese scholarship are not the same as Western scholarship. Harkening back to the discussion of the seven speak-nots, he alludes to the chilling effect government censorship and official historiography has on critical scholarship, writing that a scholar’s task is to secure “greater detail in the history of the people, and not to ask questions about it” (p. 285).

On a more critical note, as a book published in 2018 and purportedly focused on questions Americans should ask about China, it remains almost completely silent on China’s continued support of North Korea and China’s desired end state on the peninsula. This notable absence is possibly remedied by the inclusion of an extensive further reading list assembled by the authors and hosted on the Fairbank Center’s website (https://fairbank.fas.harvard.edu/china-questions/). However, relying on the reader to seek out, identify, and decipher the scholarly material on such a critical matter misses the point of the book.

Overall China Questions is a worthwhile read, and its short essays are perfect primers for quickly exposing the complexity of a specific subject without dwelling too deeply on the details. The individual essays may lack the depth and nuance of a published paper, but their ease of understanding opens the subject up to the uninitiated and encourages further research. I recommend this book as a starting place for anyone wanting to gain insight into the political, economic, social, and historical drivers shaping Chinese thinking and requiring solid ground from which to start.


“The China Questions: Critical Insights into a Rising Power”—Published by Harvard University Press to Commemorate Fairbank Center’s 60th Anniversary

CAPT Sean E. Thompson, USAF; review of Jennifer Rudolph and Michael Szonyi, eds., eds., The China Questions: Critical Insights into a Rising Power (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press2017); Strategic Studies Quarterly, March 26, 2018.

Published to celebrate the 60th Anniversary of Harvard University’s John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies with 36 chapters contributed by its faculty and affiliates, The China Questions presents the most important issues in the fields of China’s politics, international relations, economy, environment, society, and history and culture.

Click here to order from Harvard University Press.

For media inquiries, please contact James Evans at jamesevans [at] fas.harvard.edu.

Click here to Google Search inside the volume.


Jennifer Rudolph is Associate Professor of modern Chinese political history at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

Michael Szonyi is Professor of Chinese History at Harvard University.



Many books offer information about China, but few make sense of what is truly at stake. The questions addressed in this unique volume provide a window onto the challenges China faces today and the uncertainties its meteoric ascent on the global horizon has provoked.

In only a few decades, the most populous country on Earth has moved from relative isolation to center stage. Thirty of the world’s leading China experts—all affiliates of the renowned Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University—answer key questions about where this new superpower is headed and what makes its people and their leaders tick. They distill a lifetime of cutting-edge scholarship into short, accessible essays about Chinese identity, culture, environment, society, history, or policy.

Can China’s economic growth continue apace? Can China embrace the sacrifices required for a clean environment? Will Taiwan reunite with the mainland? How do the Chinese people understand their position in today’s global marketplace? How do historical setbacks and traditional values inform China’s domestic and foreign policy? Some of the essays address issues of importance to China internally, revolving around the Communist Party’s legitimacy, the end of the one-child policy, and ethnic tensions. Others focus on China’s relationship with other nations, particularly the United States. If America pulls back from its Asian commitments, how will China assert its growing strength in the Pacific region?

China has already captured the world’s attention. The China Questions takes us behind media images and popular perceptions to provide insight on fundamental issues.




“Rudolph and Szonyi, both associated with Harvard’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, bring together 36 short, but collectively weighty, scholarly articles on contemporary China. The articles are grouped into six categories: China’s politics, foreign relations, economy, environment, society, and history and culture. This collection is impressive for its comprehensiveness, with contributors providing numerous pointed observations.”

Publisher’s Weekly, 2017.





1. Is the Chinese Communist Regime Legitimate? [Elizabeth J. Perry]         11

2. Can Fighting Corruption Save the Party? [Joseph Fewsmith]         18

3. Does Mao Still Matter? [Roderick MacFarquhar]         26

4. What Is the Source of Ethnic Tension in China? [Mark Elliott]         33

5. What Should We Know about Public Opinion in China? [Ya-Wen Lei]         43

6. What Does Longevity Mean for Leadership in China? [Arunabh Ghosh]         51

7. Can the Chinese Communist Party Learn from Chinese Emperors? [Yuhua Wang]         58


8. Will China Lead Asia? [Odd Arne Westad]         67

9. How Strong Are China’s Armed Forces? [Andrew S. Erickson]          73 (pp. 73-80)

10. What Does the Rise of China Mean for the United States? [Robert S. Ross]         81

11. Is Chinese Exceptionalism Undermining China’s Foreign Policy Interests? [Alastair Iain Johnston]         90

12. (When) Will Taiwan Reunify with the Mainland? [Steven M. Goldstein]         99

13. Can China and Japan Ever Get Along? [Ezra F. Vogel]         110


14. Can China’s High Growth Continue? [Richard N. Cooper]         119

15. Is the Chinese Economy Headed toward a Hard Landing? [Dwight H. Perkins]         126

16. Will Urbanization Save the Chinese Economy or Destroy It? [Meg Rithmire]         133

17. Is China Keeping Its Promises on Trade? [Mark Wu]         141

18. How Do China’s New Rich Give Back? [Tony Saich]         148

19. What Can China Teach Us about Fighting Poverty? [Nara Dillon]         155


20. Can China Address Air Pollution and Climate Change? [Michael B. McElroy]         165

21. Is There Environmental Awareness in China? [Karen Thornber]         173


22. Why Does the End of the One-Child Policy Matter? [Susan Greenhalgh]         183

23. How Are China and Its Middle Class Handling Aging and Mental Health? [Arthur Kleinman]         191

24. How Important Is Religion in China? [James Robson]         199

25. Will There Be Another Dalai Lama? [Leonard W. J. van der Kuijp]         206

26. Does Law Matter in China? [William P. Alford]         212

27. Why Do So Many Chinese Students Come to the United States? [William C. Kirby]         219


28. Who Is Confucius in Today’s China? [Michael Puett]         231

29. Where Did the Silk Road Come From? [Rowan Flad]         237

30. Why Do Intellectuals Matter to Chinese Politics? [Peter K. Bol]         244

31. Why Do Classic Chinese Novels Matter? [Wai-yee Li]         252

32. How Have Chinese Writers Imagined China’s Future? [David Der-wei Wang]         261

33. Has Chinese Propaganda Won Hearts and Minds? [Jie Li]         268

34. Why Is It Still So Hard to Talk about the Cultural Revolution? [Xiaofei Tian]         276

35. What Is the Future of China’s Past? [Stephen Owen]         283

36. How Has the Study of China Changed in the Last Sixty Years? [Paul A. Cohen]         288

  • Further Reading         297
  • Acknowledgments         309
  • Contributors         311
  • Index         325




$27.95 • £22.95 • €25.00

ISBN 9780674979406

Available 12/11/2017

352 pages

5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches

4 graphs, 2 tables



History: Asia: China

Political Science: World: Asian

Social Science: Developing & Emerging Countries

Political Science: International Relations: General