In perhaps the book’s most perceptive section, he offers a sophisticated analysis of China’s current leadership structure. While he acknowledges that much is unknown and opaque, even in China, about how the country’s leadership works, the party bosses nevertheless reveal an awareness of their need for adaptability. Most striking, the unelected party has developed an unusual system of regular, peaceful, predictable transitions of leaders; its ruling elite is both “permeable” and “meritocratic,” meaning outsiders with skills can and do rise; and it experiments constantly with levels of public discourse and protest, allowing both street demonstrations and fairly robust chat-room and social media conversations to take place.
“Maintaining legitimacy in an authoritarian state is extremely difficult,” Feldman writes. The surest way for Beijing to maintain public support is to pump up the economy, which creates opportunities and wealth that sate the masses. But when the economy gets wobbly, people pay attention to the leadership’s failures. That has been clear over the past couple of years amid a surge in scandals that Feldman sets in context — wealthy children of the elites demanding special privileges, the fall of a top party leader whose wife was accused of killing her British business partner.
At such points, to deflect attention from its foibles, the party often stokes the furnaces of nationalism. That’s where things get worrisome, Feldman writes. Recent territorial disputes with India, Japan and the many countries that claim various islands in the South China Sea show that Beijing isn’t above invoking historical rivalries to fan support at home.
In the end, Feldman concludes, the missteps that are most likely to heat up the cool war would entail reviving old grudges. He’s right on that, but his logic is at times oversimplified. He argues that China’s reacquisition of Taiwan would be “extremely valuable . . . both geostrategically and economically,” but he overestimates the likelihood that Beijing would risk warfare with the United States in an economic climate that has brought China nothing but benefit.
While the analysis of recent events in this book is generally astute, a recurring weakness is its acceptance of China-favoring narratives promoted by Beijing. Is the United States, as Feldman writes and many in China like to think, financially beholden to China, which holds 8 percent of U.S. Treasurys and thus helps indirectly to keep U.S. mortgage rates low? Sure, but never forget the adage that when you owe the bank a million dollars, the bank owns you, whereas when you owe the bank, say, a couple of trillion currency units that you created, you own the bank.
Such concerns about a rising China’s power serve the intertwined, self-aggrandizing narratives that Beijing often purveys — but equally often amends. They are shifting sands on which to build an argument. Consider the revisionist view of history evident in one of last year’s biggest movies in China, “Back to 1942.” A wartime drama set amid a famine that killed millions of peasants in central Henan province that year, the movie is unusual for its faintly nostalgic and surprisingly human treatment of Chiang Kai-shek, the aloof nationalist generalissimo long demonized by China’s Communist Party. Equally interesting, one of the film’s heroes is Theodore White, the American journalist, whose reporting on the famine in Time magazine embarrasses the nationalists into providing at least some relief to Henan.
It’s not a story line you would have seen out of the mainland a decade ago — or for that matter anytime since Mao Zedong’s communist revolution in 1949. That was the year Chiang’s nationalist regime fled to the island of Taiwan and set up a rival, U.S.-backed regime.
Yet the Communist Party’s Propaganda Department surely must have cleared the “1942” script. What can we — or, for that matter, Noah Feldman — deduce from that? Perhaps, to borrow a line popular from the Leninist set, that it’s not the future that’s in question, it’s the past. And that may be why Feldman’s book is a worthwhile and intriguing read, but hardly definitive.
, a vice president of The Washington Post Co. and former executive editor of The Post, covered China for the Wall Street Journal in the 1980s and ’90s.