The Party, the Power and the Praxis

Mike Cormack reviews China’s Dream by Kerry Brown

Kerry Brown’s productivity puts the rest of us to shame. Just in the past few years the Professor of Chinese Studies at King's College London has published CEO, China: The Rise of Xi Jinping (2016), China's World: What Does China Want? (2017), which I reviewed in these pages, The New Emperors: Power and the Princelings in China (2018) and The World According to Xi (2018). All have received strong plaudits, too, making Brown a one-man cottage industry informing, educating and entertaining us about modern China.

Last year he published China’s Dream: The Culture of Chinese Communism and The Secret Sources of its Power. Looking at the title, I wondered if the book might perhaps retread parts of CEO, China and The New Emperors. (How else could he maintain this output?) But I was wrong. China’s Dream is a deep analysis of the culture of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and how it uses this to maintain power. If the renowned The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers (2012) by Richard McGregor established the skeleton of the CCP and its links to the broader Chinese state, Brown’s book is an attempt to put flesh on those bones. It does this by a deep-bore examination of the party’s moral and ethical stances, as well as its use of culture to maintain a remarkable hold on power and sustain its appeal to Chinese citizens – whether urban or rural, Party members or the broader masses.


China’s Great Wall of Debt

Mike Cormack reviews China’s Great Wall of Debt by Dinny McMahon

Debt has replaced unbalanced growth as the great fear afflicting the Chinese economy. Following the 2008 financial crash, this is understandable: the figures are enormous, and often unparalleled. Between 2007 and 2014, Chinese firms went from owing a total of $3.4 trillion US dollars to $12.4 trillion. Tell-tale signs of financial distress resound, even when muffled by the damper of Party news management. And though the economy keeps on growing by a hefty 6.5% or so a year, the vast surge in debt over the last decade suggests an economic system with deep-rooted problems – from inefficiencies to misallocation of capital and irrational priorities, led more by political constraints than economic imperatives. Deciphering these signals is a tricky game: growth remains substantial (if the data can be trusted, which is also doubtful), and interested parties are working to minimize the impact of market realities as industries decline and fall in the global marketplace. The fog of economic war is thick and hazy.

In his new book China’s Great Wall of Debt, former Wall Street Journal reporter Dinny McMahon dissects the Chinese economy through the prism of debt.


Money Speaks

Mike Cormack reviews The War For China’s Wallet by Shaun Rein

Written by a businessman rather than an academic or economist, The War For China’s Wallet looks at China’s use of its economic power and huge consumer market for political and strategic goals. The author, Shaun Rein, is the founder and managing director of China Market Research Group, and the author of The End of Cheap China and The End of Copycat China. His previous books have proved highly prescient, outlining incipient economic trends and their consequences at a time when proclaiming them seemed bold, if not foolhardy. The War For China’s Wallet takes a broader perspective, delineating China’s efforts to use its power over consumer spending for its own purposes.


Against the Grain

Mike Cormack reviews Cracking The China Conundrum by Yukon Huang

The opening of the Chinese financial and service sectors – or at least, the Chinese government’s pledge to do so – and the sometimes cynical, sometimes overeager response to it serves as a reminder of the fallibility of Western economic analysis. Never in the history of prognostication have so many people been so wrong about so much so regularly as with the modern Chinese economy. But this is understandable. The Chinese economy presents a huge number of difficulties for analysts.

For one, the scale and length of its growth is unparalleled, leaving those who predict downturns looking ill-informed if not ideologically driven. Its closed capital account means it can withstand external shocks that would knock most countries for six. It is run by an authoritarian government which nonetheless leaves most sectors mostly free to make profits. Its state-owned enterprises are lumbering behemoths, inefficient but largely profitable, albeit able to access capital with velvet ease. The banking industry is huge, if largely cosseted from competition, and run for the good of the state, rather than for financial imperatives. And the whole system is underpinned by a Leninist party structure which moves state executives from position to position for political concerns rather than managerial or business motives.


What Does China Want?

Mike Cormack reviews China’s World by Kerry Brown

With Xi Jinping making a bid for global preeminence and the effects of China’s foreign policies seen everywhere from Australia to Iran, the question “What Does China Want?” – the subtitle of Professor Kerry Brown’s new book, China’s World – has never been so pertinent. (The echo of Mark Leonard’s 2008 book What Does China Think? is instructive. The subject has changed from Chinese opinion and feeling to Chinese action and desires).

The very fact that this question is being asked in global capitals might give us pause. A highly-regarded China watcher, Professor Brown reminds us that just forty years ago, China had almost no interaction with the outside world, with very few foreign embassies and even less foreign travel. To go from that to becoming the biggest trading partner of almost every country in the world, with the largest proportion of foreign students in many countries, active in ASEAN and G20 not to mention its own Belt and Road strategy, is a remarkable journey. But the point, which Brown steadily keeps his eye on, is “Where does it go from here?”