Book Review: Has China won already?

May 20, 2021Book Reviews

Review By: Prof. Bogdan Góralczyk

The West must share its power with Asia or abandon its domination outright, says Kishore Mahbubani. This author is a controversial one, but perhaps we should take a look at us in the mirror his works are
Little known in Poland but resounding in the west, albeit heavily controversial, especially in liberal circles, Kishore Mahbubani is a veteran of professional diplomacy, who was the Ambassador of Singapore to the UN. Having left that office, Mahbubani became one of the most recognised intellectuals in the West and Asia, and a specialist in the modern international affairs.

Mahbubani points to Europe which not only “has lost its common sense” through the processes of EU integration, but its global population potential has been shrinking (from 22% in 1950 to 7% in 2050, whereas Africa will grow from 9% to 39% in the same period) and it lacks a warrant of hard force

It is his hands-on experience, years of diplomatic baggage, and descent—an Indian hailing from Chinese-dominated Singapore—lifted Mahbubani to the status of a unique and independent thinker right from the very beginning of his intellectual adventure, marked by the volume “Can Asians Think?”, first issued in 1998. Mahbubani is believed to be a political realist in international relations or more generally, political sciences.

The end of the West?
A stout critic of liberal democracy for long before Donald Trump became one, Mahbubani is very active in the academia and the media in the recent years. He believed his time came along with a significant change in America, the turn of the recent U.S. administration away the policy of values (liberal democracy and free market without bounds or restrictions) and towards national interests and the policy of strength. In his response to this dramatic shift, Mahbubani presented two books in which he attempted to draw correct conclusions from what happened.

Published in 2018 and rather unimposing in size, Has the West Lost It? is the first of the two books and with the subtitle from the author which reads “A Provocation” (and only an ideological and intellectual one, naturally). In it, an argument is posed by Mahbubani: “No figure of importance in the Western world has the courage to define the essential truth of our times: that Western domination is coming to its natural end.” He adds another initial argument: “The West was the global leader for nearly 200 years. Now it needs to learn how to share power or abandon its domination outright and adjust to a world it no longer rules unchallenged.”

In his rationale for the two arguments, Mahbubani first points out to the great divide and polarisation in the USA under Donald Trump’s administration (and which have seen heavy exposure during the 2020 POTUS elections and afterwards). Mahbubani points to Europe which not only “has lost its common sense” through the processes of EU integration, but its global population potential has been shrinking (from 22% in 1950 to 7% in 2050, whereas Africa will grow from 9% to 39% in the same period) and it lacks a warrant of hard force, like a united armed force, or coherent foreign and security policies. Mahbubani points out the clearly growing importance of the “rising markets”, especially in Asia, which undermine the current dominator, the USA and the West allied to them; the undermining the leading role of liberalism as an ideological justification of the Western primacy; and finally, the key role of India and China, the most populous nations on the planet, in the ongoing veritably tectonic shift-like changes in the global theatre. Naturally, these countries should be in focus, the countries which—provided they will not steer away from their course to transformation—have the actual potential to “re-emerge as the first superpowers of the globe”.

Mahbubani does not properly depict the Chinese economic expansion into the rest of the world, including the geostrategic-by-design Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which the author only mentions in his book

Going East?
Mahbubani, an experienced diplomat and a down-to-earth pragmatist and realist, quickly understood that posing arguments as grand as these without any rationale in science is nothing more than purely intellectual provocation. It is why only less than two years later, in the first months of 2020, he published another and bigger volume (with 310 pages) under a similar yet different title, Has China Won? with a tell-tale subtitle: “The Chinese Challenge to American Primacy”.

Mahbubani was already known as one of the most defined and passionate advocates of that the centre of global economy and commerce is shifting, “irresistibly” at that, from the Atlantic to the Pacific. He argued it in probably his best known work, published in 2008 The New Asian Hemisphere. The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East. Already it this work he convincingly reasoned that this palpable shift dramatically transforms and changes the pre-existing political scene, which—in the wake of the dissolution of the USSR and the decay of the bipolar order—conformed to a “monopolar moment”, or the domination of the single superpower, a condition which was known as the Pax Americana.

For now, the COVID-19 pandemic seems to be the testament of a pre-existing trend which was fleshed out heavily following the 2008 bubble: that another empowerment of the Eastern Asia is coming, beginning with China. This also confirms the main arguments by Mahbubani and his prior convictions and findings. No wonder China is the subject of enhanced scrutiny in his latest work.

Granted, he is an expert in the Middle Kingdom, which can be felt repeatedly in the book. He still manages to present a still little known in Poland Asian perspective on the international landscape which undergoes a fast-paced rearrangement. His opinion, in which he is not alone, is that we entered a world less dominated by Europe and subsequently by the transatlantic area with the USA than it was in decades or even centuries before. The world is becoming multi-polar again, and disputes (not just political or publicist in nature, but also scientific) concern the number of poles (aside from the USA and China, the undisputed factors) and whether there is a new “concert of powers” played among them.

The current powers are just giving way to the dominators and civilisations of old, starting with the two most populous countries of the world, China and India (and with Indonesia following in their wake). These countries are again on the road of growth and boom. China, which has been changing quickly since its original transformation (in the end of 1978), is a scene of spectacular, previously unseen and general growth (with the global nominal GPD share growing from 4.5% at the onset of the reforms to 17.4% now, compared to 22% for the USA in terms of the buying power, where China has been the largest economy on the planet for half of the decade), and flash-flood modernisation and flourishing.

China on the road to primacy?
This is the phenomenon examined by Mahbubani and which he tries to unravel and provide answers—not just those political, economic, or geostrategic, but also cultural and civilisational, and the latter two are of high importance. This is the huge added value of his work; most analyses of the modern China published in the West are limited to copying and pasting from one another the arguments, perceptions, and projections of what is now happening in China rather than being founded in the domestic discourse and calculations from Asia.

Looking at Mahbubani’s volume like this, it has many intellectual strengths. I would personally first consider the Asian perspective of explaining the world’s scene of today, a perspective nearly non-existent or very poorly outlined in Poland. Secondly, the author’s individual approach to the phenomenon of the Chinese growth and boom which is definitely poorly known or understood in our country. Thirdly, the criticism of the current, liberal, value-based order of the world, viewed by Mahbubani as “departed” in comparison to the balance of forces between the superpowers as it is emerging now. Fourthly, the exposition of the greatest strengths and weaknesses of both China and the USA in the quickly approaching showdown for global primacy. Fifthly, a compelling proof for the argument that the USA are no longer the sole, omnipotent superpower of this planet backed by reasoning about history (the famous argument of “the end of history”). Finally, Mahbubani provides a considerable load of political realism which points out facts, data, phenomena, and processes often inconvenient to the West, including the EU countries.

The idealisation of the main hero
The way his knowledge is served, the “Asian” perspective, and his firm planting in the school of political realism have always made the author viewed as “controversial”, especially to Western liberals. It is not unlike so with his latest book. The main objection to this work is about the overly critical approach to the current leadership and hegemon, the USA and the too lenient, if not non-critical, treatment of China, its premises, objectives, practices even.

The criticism of the USA is usually well known and widely commented in Poland, especially in the context of the controversies around the last presidential elections in America and even more questionable response of Donald Trump afterwards. The matters of China are far more remote to us and incomparably less understood, but there are contentious questions about that country, questions difficult to evaluate unambiguously, and questions outright controversial. Not unlike the controversial arguments made by Mahbubani.

Mahbubani idealises the CCP and its governance, stressing out its pedigree in civilisation, not in Marxism-Leninism or Maoism

While heavily criticising western liberal solutions, he almost resorts to an apotheosis of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), depicting it as a congregation of technocrats and an efficient meritocracy (and as such, enlightened elites), going as far as to propose that CCP is renamed to the ‘Civilisational Chinese Party’. Mahbubani idealises the CCP and its governance, stressing out its pedigree in civilisation, not in Marxism-Leninism or Maoism, the schools of CCP’s origin which have been greatly exposed in the West, including Poland, of late. It is a fact that the increasingly singular and autocratic rule of Xi Jinping (from the end of 2012), which Mahbubani does not present, has been clearly steering China towards the origins of Chinese communism.

In this context, the author of Has China Won? almost fails to see—and most certainly fails to expose—the immense technological shift now in progress in China which is greatly transforming the Chinese society and its behaviours, while lending the autocratic top officials with a new tool for the control of the masses (as it is suggestively shown in the book from a former German correspondent to the PRC, Kai Strittmatter, “We Have Been Harmonised: Life in China’s Surveillance State”).

It is just to stress out the argument that the Chinese civilisation is “not on a mission” to impose its model and solutions to other countries. Mahbubani does not properly depict the Chinese economic expansion into the rest of the world, including the geostrategic-by-design Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which the author only mentions in his book. It is not unlike the argument by which as the power of the USSR grew, the Soviets would increasingly interfere with the internal affairs of other states, while in Mahbubani’s words China seemingly “does quite the opposite, it intervenes less the stronger it becomes”. However, there is clear evidence to the opposite, as proven by the sequence of events during the COVID-19 pandemic or the new diplomatic assertiveness which China has just implemented. Several naturally anti-liberal philippics and arguments by Mahbubani are unacceptable, and not only in Poland; the author claims that the Chinese authorities were “justified” to unleash criticism on Liu Xiabobo, a Chinese dissident and a Nobel prize winner. It is simply the entire Western canon which commands us to oppose incarceration of people for their beliefs, as was the case with Liu, who indeed died in isolation—released from prison too late for to be saved from his advanced cancer.

The idealisation of the Chinese model and solutions is very advanced in Mahbubani’s work, and it is certainly very debatable. But it most likely is, or should be, a certain added value of his work: to compel us to think differently, to view the world around us with criticism, to see other perspectives, analyses, and concepts without qualifying for our mindset only those we have grown accustomed to and which we often deem to exist without any alternatives.

It is the case of China and its instant growth in over four decades that veritably forces to make a certain balance sheet or inventory of our (Western and domestic) advantages and drawbacks, of what we have done well and what we have done wrong.

The growth of China has been accomplished in somewhat opposition to the West and its entrenched arguments and mental codes, while remaining in very close relationship to the Western markets (especially after 1992, when China opened its vast market to the world, and even more so when it accessed the WTO in December 2001). This spectacular case definitely proves that there are different ways and solutions no less effective and efficient than those postulated and applied by us in the West.

Two protagonists
There is seemingly one protagonist of Mahbubani’s book, China, but in reality, there are two, China and the USA. The author himself feels he is not an excellent analyst or expert on China; he somewhat instinctively ventures to the outer scene as the soul of seasoned diplomat takes over his nature.

Kishore Mahbubani accuses the United States of America to have had “no strategy for China for a long time”. This way unlike others, Mahbubani does not develop or expose an acute caesura at the turn of 2017 and 2018, when the pre-existing concept of commitment towards the Middle Kingdom was replaced by “strategic rivalry”. The strategic rivalry bothers or even extremely worries the author, which he points out more than once. However, at the end of his book, Mahbubani draws what he calls an “ironical conclusion”. It is that the future rivalry between America and China is “inevitable yet avoidable”. “Inevitable” because China is incessantly growing more powerful while America is losing its power. “Avoidable” if both sides of rivalry will not only be driven by their national and particular interests, but they reach accord and began working in concert to combat the global challenges (of the climate change, the environmental protection, the overpopulation, or the access to the vaccine to the unforgiving virus which has attacked us and has been afflicting the planet).

Unfortunately, the events so far, and firstly the COVID-19 pandemic seem to strongly contradict the optimistic vision of “the avoidable”. The nationalism of China and the USA have grown stronger despite the concept of “community of shared future for mankind” China formally promotes.

The image of America has been severely tarnished by the particular behaviour and statecraft of Donald Trump. As for China, its prestige and international impact have been greatly weakened by the Chinese assertiveness and the increasingly dictatorial governance by Xi Jinping (as recently and strongly proven in a survey by Pew Research Center, a prestigious American polling agency). It is even more so that more often than not, China has been supported by “wolf warrior diplomacy”, the style and nature of which stems from the Chinese blockbuster film in which a Chinese special operative, codename Wolf Warrior (Zhan Lang) dispenses a lot of pummelling to American soldiers and mercenaries.

It is that the future rivalry between America and China is “inevitable yet avoidable”. “Inevitable” because China is incessantly growing more powerful while America is losing its power. “Avoidable” if both sides of rivalry will not only be driven by their national and particular interests

Obviously, it is yet to be known what will come of the increasing controversies; however, we are now closer to a solution touted during the pandemic and called the “decoupling”, or a divorce or parting of the two strongest economies on earth. There are multiple factors which suggest that the seemingly more conciliatory administration of Joe Biden might not be able to oppose the process.

If both sides do not elect concessions and such scenario is more likely, the understanding expected by Mahbubani will be replaced with two different global models, or even two different Internets, one Chinese and one American. There are more examples to provide and all of them will not bode well for a planet divided into two camps, or perhaps engulfed by a “new cold war”, an increasingly known concept.

Kishore Mahbubani does not expressly answer the question posed in the title of his book or foredooms that China have already won with the West (meaning the USA). The whole book by the author (or rather the last two volumes) proves that China are becoming a veritable existential threat to the current American domination and the Western world and the values, concepts and ideas it has preferred so far. The symptomatic subtitle by which China challenges the American primacy testifies to this.

It is even more so recommended to absorb the knowledge served by Mahbubani, even if we do not and will not disagree with many arguments it contains. It is simply a good idea to look at ourselves in a different mirror, a facility readily provided in all works of the Singaporean author. It is up to us how much of this critical approach to our mental habits and arguments we will use for our well-understood interests and goals.

Kishore Mahbubani, Has China Won? The Chinese Challenge to American Primacy, Public Affairs, New York 2020.

Translation financed by the National Freedom Institute – Centre for Civil Society Development from the Civil Society Organisations Development Programme for 2018-2030