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Book Review: Overreach: How China Derailed Its Peaceful Rise

24 Jan 2023
Reviewed by Dr Bryce Wakefield

It has recently become fashionable in Washington and other defence and foreign policy establishments to view China as eternally devious. Susan Shirk rejects this as historical revisionism, emphasising how domestic politics have pushed China towards overreach.

In light of increasing international tension, some now surmise that a period where China was rising peacefully and might be persuaded to liberalise was always a fabrication of the Chinese state. According to this view, China managed to lull the United States and its allies into a false sense of security, while agents in Beijing focused on augmenting national power for a bid at global primacy.

In her new book, Overreach: How China Derailed Its Peaceful Rise, Shirk points instead to the domestic determinants of Chinese foreign and security policy. She takes a contrary view to those who would locate the source of Beijing’s behaviour purely in terms of Xi Jinping’s mission to centre China on the world stage. Instead, she notes that friction over the same issues analysts now frequently associate with Xi began much earlier than his term. These tensions have worsened under Xi, but they are not merely a product of his leadership. Nor, she argues, is Xi totally in control.

Overreach is an empirically rich account of China’s recent behaviour on the world stage, often interlaced with the author’s on-the-ground insights. As chapters are arranged thematically to highlight Shirk’s argument, there is a small amount of repetition, though this is a minor criticism. The book is well written and will appeal to policymakers, students, or anyone interested in understanding the motivations behind Chinese movements on international and domestic security.

What has been driving China’s behaviour and rendering it often erratic is, according to Shirk, a set of institutional imperatives, first under a declining system of “collective leadership,” and then under a system of “strongman rule.” While Xi now certainly has outsized influence, Shirk argues against the notion of China as rational unitary actor. The state behaves in ways that are not directed by and are sometime at odds with the preferences of the leader, particularly in the areas of weiquan (sovereignty rights defence) and weiwen (stability maintenance), or, broadly, international and domestic security.

This was most notable under Hu Jintao, Xi’s predecessor. Hu inherited a system of collective leadership initially established by Deng Xiaoping, the architect of China’s “reform and opening” period. Collective leadership addressed the excesses of the Mao era, with its cult of personality, purges, and disastrously chaotic and ideological policies, by distributing responsibility for decision making around the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China Central Committee and by making leadership subject to term limits. This led to more pragmatism in Chinese decision making and a period from the 1980s where analysts could be reasonably optimistic about Chinese liberalisation. Rational reforms that cleaved the state off from the party and encouraged private business also allowed more room for technocrats and entrepreneurs to shape Chinese policy.

Nevertheless, according to Shirk, the system of collective leadership still required a relatively strong central figure to prioritise interests and coordinate a national agenda. While collective leadership worked well under Deng and his successor, Jiang Zemin, Hu lacked the charisma or leadership skills to avoid what Shirk has described as “logrolling.” Instead of managing state business collectively, Standing Committee members under Hu advocated strongly for interests relevant to their own portfolios, thus giving “free rein to various interest groups to pursue their own agendas without considering the consequences for China’s peaceful rise” (p.119). Instead of crafting consensus-based decisions around collective deliberation, they would otherwise work to stay out of each other’s way.

Hu’s weak leadership was compounded by Jiang’s decision to expand the Standing Committee from seven members to nine in 2002. This may have allowed Jiang to keep more of his supporters on the committee after the 2004 transition. It certainly made the committee more unwieldy. Further, the two new slots were awarded to leaders of the police and propaganda departments, members Shirk labels as part of the “control coalition.”

In Shirk’s view, the “watershed” year for China was not 2012, when Xi took power, but 2008. The global financial crisis severely undermined the position of moderates who looked to the United States for models of corporate governance, and, indeed, the notion of US global leadership in general. State bureaucrats played the card of economic security and “pivoted to a nationalist strategy of indigenous innovation” (p.175). At the same time, the control coalition seized on the Beijing Olympics to make a case for greater internal security, clamping down on protesters in Tibet and enforcing strict cultural obedience policies that would be a model for later operations in Xinjiang.

After 2008, agencies often overreacted to incidents they could construe as international slights in order to make the case for more resources. Hu took a relatively conciliatory approach to Japan and successfully courted Taiwan’s leader, Ma Ying-jeou. Nevertheless, from 2009, maritime agencies, probably acting independently, harassed American and other ships in the South China Sea. American diplomats were left confused by such erratic and contradictory behaviour, and their Chinese counterparts often displayed no knowledge of activities that were taking place outside the remit of their own ministry. Shirk quotes Chinese analysts at the time as noting that the system was in disarray.

When Xi took power in 2012, it was assumed by many in China and abroad that he would get a handle on the interest groups and steer China in a more liberal direction. Instead, Xi took advantage of reforms to soften collective leadership and a public thirst for anti-corruption measures to purge political rivals. At the same time, he consolidated his control over the People’s Liberation Army and made sure it was loyal above all to himself and the party, eliminating the threat of a military challenge to his rule. In short, Xi has become the consummate strongman.

In Shirk’s telling, however, China has now succumbed to the classical pitfalls of totalitarianism. State and party agencies fall over themselves to follow Xi’s broad directives and have doubled down in the areas of international tension left to him by a crumbling system of collective leadership. This leads them to exaggerate their loyalty to the leader in ways that may well be beyond what he wants, and which have come to harm China’s international position by entrenching a backlash against Beijing. Shirk points to wolf warrior diplomacy as an obvious example of this phenomenon, but also suggests that other policies, such as the construction of military bases on features in the South China Sea also fit the bill.

Meanwhile, the disincentive to criticise Xi’s leadership is so strong that Xi is isolated from critical information on the one hand and, on the other, cannot trust expressions of support as sincere. This has led to a system of paranoia and eternal purging, where anyone could be a potential enemy. It has also led Xi to double down on weiwen — stability maintenance.

For those of us depressed about the prospects for what this might mean for future relations with China, Shirk offers up a quick series of policy proposals at the end of the book. Interestingly, perhaps, for Australians, she rejects the notion of “primacy” as a sensible goal of US foreign policy, as it “smacks of a playground fight instead of principled support for peace and order” (p.301). Diplomacy is possible, but it should be conducted through tightly focused, regular dialogues by senior actors. To some degree, it will be reliant on summit meetings to garner true commitment.

The prognosis is then not necessarily all bad. Shirk notes that instead of an inexorable slide towards ever more totalitarianism, or a shift toward a liberalised China, the Chinese system may eventually be one that oscillates between soft authoritarian collective leadership and strongman rule.

Mao’s “cult of personality” and Deng’s system of “reform and opening” each lasted roughly three decades after the People’s Republic was founded in 1949. We’re under a decade into Xi’s rule, so we may want, however, to bide our time.

This is a review of Susan Shirk, Overreach: How China Derailed Its Peaceful Rise (Oxford University Press, 2022). ISBN: 9780190068516 (Hardback)

Dr Bryce Wakefield is the National Executive Director of the Australian Institute of International Affairs.

This review is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution