Has China Won?: The Chinese Challenge to American Primacy
Real-time history can be cruel to books about international relations and one sentence in Kishore Mahbubani’s Has China Won? jumps from the page: “The prospect [for Europe] of a direct war with Russia is practically zero, although proxy wars may take place in territories like the former Yugoslavia and Ukraine.” Mahbubani got one thing right there but you’d need to be particularly dispassionate to see the war in Ukraine as a proxy one. But, on China, in particular, this is a jarringly dispassionate book.
Mahbubani, a former Singaporean ambassador to the UN, sets out to chart China’s coming challenge to the United States’s global supremacy. The initial chapter, where he recounts Beijing’s surprise that it found few defenders among US business leaders against Trump’s trade war, is promising. But the book soon gets muddled, far too often seeing China’s impending rise as a geopolitical given divorced from real-world contingencies. A big problem is the disparity between the author’s treatment of China and the US.
Mahbubani is lucid about the US, correctly identifying its rampant inequality, high incarceration rates, its foolish forays into overseas conflicts, its self-destructive domestic politics, and its à la carte attitude towards international commitments. When it comes to China, though, he is content to uncritically regurgitate Chinese government talking points: China has never been expansionist (news to the indigenous peoples of Tibet, Xinjiang, Mongolia and Taiwan); the 2019 Hong Kong protests were caused by income disparity and inadequate housing provision; the emphasis is on the 5,000-year history of China rather than the 73-year rule of the Communist Party.
This is because Mahbubani is clearly more at ease talking about the US. He cites extensive sources and statistics to back up his pertinent assertions about American society; sources about China, on the other hand, are much fewer, entirely in English and overwhelmingly Western in origin.
For a man well connected in China and convinced of its coming preeminence, Mahbubani is oddly incurious about the sociopolitical fabric of the country. There is little consideration given to China’s looming demographic clouds as it grapples with an ageing population or to its titanic property bubble, nor is there much said about China’s increasingly aggressive diplomacy that is prone to alienate a lot more countries than the US.
Has China Won? is a snappy title that might catch eyes in airport bookshops but anyone with a serious interest in China or its geopolitical future would be advised to look elsewhere.