Category: Book Reviews

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.

The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited

A gulf exists between the average Chinese and average non Chinese view of the 1989 Protests in China. It seems obvious to us outside China that a great tragedy took place and then was intentionally covered up in order to protect CCP dominance. Many people in China though buy the CCP version that nothing happened and if anything happened it was unavoidable (or a CIA plot). In The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited the author Louisa Lim has done a great service to everyone by forgoing the talking points and finding facts. The result is an even handed view which shows that terrible crimes were committed by people on both sides of the situation – but perhaps only one side is continuing to commit them now.

The story which emerges from Lim’s investigation has two themes. First is that the events which took place in 1989 were more tragic in every way than people have heard before. Thousands died in Beijing including police, members of the military, and many thousands of protestors. Less reported is the many who died in protests across China. One horrifying situation from Chengdu is highlighted where there was brutality unlike anyone has heard before. Protestors were killing police when they could and police were catching and murdering any protestors they found. It seemed like it shoud be a story of Japan in the 1935, not China in 1989.

The second theme is that the CCP is willing to do most anything in order to hide from this situation. Not only has the official history been white washed but anyone who speaks out has been forced into silence. In an ideal world books like this would be the first step towards healing and taking steps towards ensuring similar tragedies don’t happen but that is not happening. The greatest tragedy is not that this blood bath took place but that the CCP is so actively trying to hide the truth.