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Everything You Wanted to Know About China but Were Too Afraid to Ask (Review)

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Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom & Maura Elizabeth Cunningham. 2018.
China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know®, 3rd edition.
Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press
ISBN 9780190659080

It is always difficult to find a good introduction to contemporary China that does not deter newcomers into the field. It is particularly excruciating to recommend a book that assesses the to-and-fro of China’s history with easiness and academic rigour. Happily, Jeffrey Wasserstrom and Maura Cunningham’s third edition of China in the 21st Century gives us that and much more. The colossal task has been taken with unflappable conviction, fulfilling the wishes of the neophyte and satisfying the critical eye of the seasoned China hands.

The book consists of 204 pages of content and references divided into two parts. In the first section, the authors navigate China’s historical legacies providing a review of its philosophical, historical, and political developments since the early dynasties and from Confucius to Mao Zedong. In the second, the book poses a bet into the present and future of the country, with an emphasis on China–US relations and Xi Jinping’s administration.

Questioning China in the Bigger Picture
The fruitful synergy created by Wasserstrom and Cunningham has resulted in an essential reading where they address the most pressing questions about China today, literally. In a way, it portends an extremely useful and stimulating reading for new students of China, backpackers or tourists facing a new adventure, and businesspeople seeking for an overview that gives context to their portfolios.

Clearly, the juiciest bit lies in its last section, where the historians assume the hard task of predicting the unpredictable. The authors do so gracefully and justifiably with a great deal of knowledge and caution in order to provide the reader with the opportunity to make up their own minds. As with the other chapters, the book is complemented by an up-to-date list of resources and commentaries that enable the reader to dig further into these points.

In itself, the book portends a very comprehensive introduction that fares well as a complement to other similar publications, such as Arthur Kroeber’s China’s Economy (Oxford University Press, 2016), from the same Oxford series; or the edited volume by Jennifer Rudolph and Michael Szonyi The China Questions (Harvard University Press, 2018). While the former provides a comprehensive view into the current condition of China’s economic system, the latter compiles a series of very critical questions answered by leading scholars associated to the Fairbank Centre for Chinese Studies at Harvard University.

Very Accessible but Limited in Scope
China in the 21st century excels at its erudition in an accessible language. It provides a well-balanced view of contesting issues such as the role of Mao in contemporary China, what happened at the Tiananmen Square in 1989, the suppression of the Falun Gong movement, the state and prospects of China–Taiwan relations, and the mediatic cases of Liu Xiaobo’s imprisonment and Chen Guangcheng’s defection to the United States. In every question, the authors provide inside and outside perspectives that do justice to an informed judgement of the issues addressed.

However, as much as complete as it is for an entry-level book on the politics of contemporary China, the work falls short in the scope of its audience. It is clearly intended to satisfy the curiosity of the US reader, not only through the dedication of one of the six chapters to US–China Misunderstandings, but also through insisting on the consequences of certain events or policies to the United States. There is no doubt that the relationship between these two countries weighs heavy in the international system, but this point of view could be frustrating at times for different readerships around the world. Such limitations in scope have stifled the possibilities to address other fundamental issues with global scale implications. Particularly, an assessment of Chinese investments in South Africa, or of the Belt and Road Initiative are largely missed. Also, there is no mention of matters related to ethnic tensions or the changes in terms of social composition and interests.

Overall, the book results satisfactory to its declared task. The authors acknowledge the hardships and limitations of producing an account of events ‘on-the-go’. There is much uncertainty amongst observers of China about where China is heading. This new edition of the book faces a particularly more difficult context where the consolidation of Xi Jinping as ‘core leader’ and the enshrining if his thought in the constitution collides against the erratic behaviour of Donald Trump at the helm of the United States. However, in these times of uncertainty, a book like this results extremely helpful in order to provide the background to the multiple stories coming out of China. After such praise, would it be possible to think of a similar publication that helps us to make sense of US politics these days?

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