The Generalissimo

generalissimoThis is one of the most difficult book reviews I have done – this book was literally one of the most difficult, slowest books I have read in recent memory and yet was also incredibly compelling. Chiang Kai Shek is someone who is fascinating and yet is as a major World War 2 personality I  know the least about. What does his famous title “Generalissimo” even mean!?

Given these fundamental questions almost everyone in America has about the second world war, The Generalissimo by Jay Taylor answers these questions (in passing), showing how amazing this book really is. Chiang Kai Shek, aka Chaing Jie Shi, aka Chiang ZhongZheng (thanks Chinese) is one of the most important, influential, and interesting figures of the 20th century, and it’s therefore amazing how little most histories give to him.

China in the early 20th century was weak country with gigantic potential. The story of the person who came to “lead” the country is fascinating, it involves internal and international politics. The requirements of the position almost invariably lead to a person who could handle the shame of international inconsequentialism while also having a broad view of the Chinese potential. Chiang Kai Shek was someone who embodied this ethos 100%. His person is a fascinating view of classical Chinese themes – stoic fortitude, boundless cultural avarice.

This book covers the history of the Republic of China from the beginning of Chiang Kai Shek’s career in the 1910s through the warlord era, through world war 1, then the interwar civil war era, the Japanese invasion, the Allied victory, then the inevitable failure of the civil war, the retreat to Taiwan, and finallly the decades long wait on the island.

The Generalissimo is a fasciatning, complete view of the most overlooked important figure of the 20th century and the shape of the modern world.

The most interesting take away of this book is Chiang’s (and his son’s) view that Taiwan is not separate from China, it is in their view just a province of China which supports an alternate government. This is very distinct from my own natural view of the two China’s, yet is compelling. Does the current president of Taiwan Tsai Ying Wen also hold this view?

Chiang KaiShek is someone who everyone on earth who speaks about the 20th century should know and yet is normally cast to a sideline. This book is an important step to correct this misconception and so is a great book to read.

Asia’s Cauldron

asiascauldronWhy China does what it does on the internation stage is often a mystery to us outside China. Many books I’ve read attempt answer that question by  looking at China’s internals – the players, power structures, zeitgeist, etc. In Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific Robert D. Kaplan takes another approach.

By looking purely at the history, politics, and economics of the countries bordering the South China Sea I’ve found Kaplan offers a compelling narrative explaining the modern actions of China and many of the other countries in the region. Simply reviewing the modern history of Vietnam, Malaysia, the Phillipines, China, and Taiwan explains many of the most basic biases of the region.

The most interesting and novel story Kaplan stresses in this book is the incredible impact Singapore and it’s legendary leader Lee Kuan Yew (Harry Lee) has had on the region. Leading Singapore for forty years starting in 1959 (and “advising” the president from 1990-2015) Lee lead Singapore from it’s beginning as colony of England through Independence and all of the incredible challenges of the latter half of the twentieth century, eventually crafting an economic and cultural powerhouse. The most fascinating and – to freedom loving westerners confounding aspect of a Lee Kuan Yew Singapore is that this wealthy, powerful, safe, and vibrant city-state is based on his strict authoritarian rule. Many of the neighboring countries such as China have called out Singapore’s government as their model for a functional authoritarian state.

If nothing else this book is worth reading for it’s fascinating introduction to Lee Kuan Yew.

By All Means Necessary: How China’s Resource Quest is Changing the World

byallSome books on China are epic, they are attempts to explain China itself, they want to give their readers an insight into who China is. Other books have a smaller scope, they are focused on some lesser aspect of China. This doesn’t mean that the books are worse, many books which attempt to explain the China psyche fail and many books which are more focused succeed both in their goal and indirectly in giving insight into the broader Chinese mind. By All Means Necessary: How China’s Resource Quest is Changing the World by Elizabeth C. Economy and Michael Levi is a more focused book where they look at China’s expanding resource needs.

The book focuses on aspects of China’s resource quest which effect the rest of the world. First it looks at the expanding Chinese consumption of natural resources. It contains fascinating examples of how China has changed the international market for resources including the staggering statistic that China alone consumes the large majority of the world market in iron. Second they look at China as a resource supplier. Their most interesting point of view is that China has shown itself to be willing to aggressively use its export markets as a weapon, for example with rare earth metals. Finally it looks as China as an investor in international natural resources. They show that China’s internal corporate management is exported widely, not only in their willingness to work with international pariahs like Iran, Venezuela, and North Korea but also in work conditions, callousness to local economic and political conditions, and obliviousness to internal standards on pollution, corporate transparency, and safety.

I recommend this book along the same lines as Factory Girls – it’s an interesting book which explores an interesting topic. Contrary to the idea that every book has to explain everything about China, By All Means Necessary has the humility to not overreach.

The New Emperors: Power and the Princelings in China


The New Emperors: Power and the Princelings in China by Kerry Brown is the kind of book that I’ve been waiting for since I started reading about China. The Chinese government seems like this inscrutable black box outside of a handful of highly visible leaders – the politburo standing committee. They have immense power but why? Who are these leaders? How are they chosen? What do they do? The 10,000 ft view of the CCP is well given in The Party, but The New Emperors gives real insight into the real CCP by looking in detail at the current standing committee members and their path to power.

The book looks at the most common perceptions as to how people come to power, including common backgrounds (e.g. Shanghai clique), nepotism (e.g. princelings), governing ability (e.g. GDP growth under their command), and political subgroup allegiance (e.g. Jiang Zemin’s protege Li Keqiang) . Brown finds that each member’s path to power has been different and includes each of these in different amounts.

I was struck after reading this book how many parallels their are between the CCP and an American political party. Imagine if the Republican or Democratic party outlawed the other party and took over government. There are many things that might work well but also many things which would be bad, no one in the US would want such a thing. Why does China?

China 3.0 (ECFR policy report Book 66)

china3.0China 3.0 (ECFR policy report Book 66) is a collection of white papers by Chinese intellectuals as compiled by the European Council on Foreign Relations and edited by Mark Leonard. The diverse authors come from the CCP, the PLA, and scholastic positions and are obviously writing for both an internal and foreign audience.

Reading this set of papers is fascinating because of what the authors are saying but also because a look at the Chinese point of view. The language, physical, and political distances between America and China are large and plainly visible. I was struck by the platitudes that these Chinese authors repeated (e.g. anti-imperialism) compared to what Americans repeat (e.g. liberty).

Read this book half for what the authors are saying and half for a view of the mindset behind their arguments.