Review - The Politics of China


Now in its third edition, The Politics of China has become a standard single-volume history of politics in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). A quick perusal of the table of contents shows the inestimable scholarship Roderick MacFarquhar has drawn together. It could be considered hubris to attempt to review such formidable deans of China studies and so this review is not so much about critiquing the details of their works, but to note the strengths and weaknesses of the book for use by a student of Chinese politics.

The first four chapters come from the Cambridge History of China, with Frederick Teiwes covering the early years of the PRC (1949-1957), Kenneth Lieberthal on the Great Leap Forward (1958-1965), Harry Harding on the Red Guard period of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1969), and Roderick MacFarquhar on the conclusion of the Cultural Revolution, through the brief Hua Guofeng era, up to the ascendance of Deng Xiaoping (1969-1982). Richard Baum’s chapter on the 1980s under Deng’s opening and reform regime appeared in the first edition of Politics and Joseph Fewsmith’s analysis of party politics immediately following the Tiananmen incident (1989-1995) appeared in the second. This third edition includes a new seventh chapter written by Hoover Institution’s Alice Miller covering roughly 1995-2009.

While the first four chapters are more of a history of CCP politics, Baum’s chapter on the 1980s straddles the two approaches of history and systematic analysis. Fewsmith and Miller’s chapters on 1989-2009 use a much more analytical lens. This makes sense knowing that the CCP has not released as many documents regarding more contemporary politics.

The fact that Politics is updated with new editions means that noteworthy China scholars are commissioned to produce new work on more contemporary politics. This makes Politics particularly useful for students who generally do not have as many definitive texts on recent developments in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Aside from biographies of Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, most tomes focus on CCP politics up until Deng Xiaoping’s withdrawal from party life. Politics thus maintains its position as a useful go-to text for a broad understanding of the historical evolution of the CCP.

The portrayal of Mao Zedong in the first four chapters is level-headed, avoids pitfalls of psychological history, and puts him in context of the give-and-take inherent in the CCP. Teiwes and Lieberthal demonstrate the transition from intra-party discussion in the early years to a more dictatorial style, which parallels the emergence of disastrous initiatives (e.g., Great Leap Forward, Cultural Revolution). Mao comes across as making horrible mistakes, leading to the death of thousands, yet having a goal and using what he unfortunately considered appropriate means.

Overall, Politics focuses on intra-party dynamics, factions, and struggles, with occasional extra-party issues whenever they intersect, but little to no space is given to foreign policy. It would be interesting to see the role of intra-party politics in determining the PRC’s foreign overtures. The Nixon-Kissinger opening to China is mentioned hardly at all. Similarly, Deng’s war with Vietnam is never discussed. This emphasis on intra-party dynamics is both Politics’ greatest strength and a major weakness.

Foreign and domestic politics are often intertwined, but the relationship between the two is left untouched. Undoubtedly the United States, among other countries (e.g., Japan, Singapore, etc.), had an impact on political calculations. Moreover, the Guomingdang’s presence in Taiwan was perhaps mentioned once, but never again. It may be considered bad taste to criticize a book not on its own merits, but on what it fails to include. The exclusion of foreign policy issues was surely a premeditated stance. Students merely need to know what to use and not use Politics for.

The length of Politics may discourage readers from going straight through, cover-to-cover. As each chapter builds on the other, it is helpful to read the chapters in order (they are ordered chronologically), but the chapters are written in such a way that they can be read alone. The Politics of China deserves a fourth edition once Xi Jinping has fully opened his own chapter in the history of Chinese politics.

*Unfortunately, the book contains an appalling number of typos. Being the third edition, it is surprising that these typos remain.