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Four Takes: If few of us know about China, it is not for lack of books, The Boston Sunday Globe


October 25, 2020

A few months into his presidency, Donald Trump wooed Chinese president Xi Jinping with cake. “We had the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake that you have ever seen,” he said after the two leaders met at Mar-a-Lago.

Since then, according to Wall Street Journal reporters Bob Davis and Lingling Wei, the two leaders’ relationship has resembled a stormy romance, sending shudders through the global economy and hardening attitudes on both sides.

If few of us know enough about China, it is not for lack of books. A shelf-full stand ready to assist. In “Superpower Showdown: How the Battle Between Trump and Xi Threatens a New Cold War,” Davis and Wei provide an essential overview of how the United States and China became so entwined, and the challenges ahead.

China’s dramatic rise over the past several decades is by now a familiar story. Davis and Wei credit Trump with noisily drawing attention to the nation’s sharp-elbowed tactics, which include stealing intellectual property, forcing companies to hand over technology to Chinese firms, and hacking American trade secrets. They fault him, however, for a limited understanding of China, and of the economic tools at his disposal.

Hailing tariffs as an obvious solution, Trump launched a trade war that has proved costly to both nations. By shunning political alliances with other countries, the authors argue, Trump weakened American negotiating power.

Robert Lighthizer, Trump’s chief negotiator, underscored a deeper difficulty. After long hours studying Chinese history, he acknowledged to his Chinese counterpart: “I know enough … to realize that I don’t have any idea of how you think about things.”

Davis and Wei regard China’s 2001 entry into the World Trade Organization as pivotal. Since then, China has largely flouted the capitalist principles it agreed to follow.

“Superpower Showdown” is especially insightful on how the contradictory natures of Trump and Xi have impeded understanding. Xi, who took power in 2012, has embraced markets yet remains an ardent believer in Communist Party rule. Trump, the authors argue, has a blue-collar self that lashes out on workers’ behalf, and a white-collar self that responds to corporate interests.

Years of tumultuous history placed China on its current path. One absorbing way into the story is through the three Soong sisters, whose lives closely mapped onto the struggles preceding China’s ascent. In “Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister: Three Women at the Heart of Twentieth-Century China,” Jung Chang illuminates the rise of Sun Yat-sen, venerated for his quest to create a Chinese republic, and the subsequent triumph of Communist rule.

One of Sun’s key supporters was Charlie Soong, a Shanghai businessman who had improbably received a Methodist education in the United States, and later would send all three of his school-age daughters there (the youngest at 9). In 1912, following a revolution that toppled the Manchu dynasty, Sun failed in his bid to become president. Welcomed into the Soong household to regroup, he fell for the oldest daughter, Ei-ling. Her reverence for him gradually faded, but middle sister Ching-ling was sold. She married him against her parents’ wishes, and after his death, became a passionate Communist.

Meanwhile, the youngest sister, May-ling, married Sun’s successor, Chiang Kai-Shek. Routed by the forces of Mao Ze-dong, Chiang and his Nationalists fled to Taiwan in 1949.

Permanently estranged from their middle sister, Ei-ling and May-ling opted for a comfortable exile, mostly in New York. Thanks to her prominence as the former Madam Sun, Ching-ling also lived well, becoming a vice chairman in Mao’s regime. But his Cultural Revolution took a disastrous toll on practically everyone else.

In a captivating essay collection, “China in Ten Words,” the writer Yu Hua describes experiencing those years as a boy. Elementary school children were denounced as counterrevolutionaries and driven to tears over absurd slips. Yu struggled desperately not to laugh when Mao’s death was announced at a high school assembly.

With one of his chosen words, rendered by translator Allan H. Barr as “disparity,” Yu reflects on China’s shift to materialism, and the yawning income gap that resulted. “Invisible China: How the Urban-Rural Divide Threatens China’s Rise” picks up the story, fast-forwarding to the current moment. Authors Scott Rozelle and Natalie Hell warn of an uncertain future in which China must reckon with a vast unskilled workforce.

The plants that these workers helped build are now automating. Seeking a new cheap-labor pool, many companies are leaving China altogether. An outsize migration from the country to the city seems to be reversing itself, potentially leaving millions of undereducated Chinese in a jobless limbo.

Americans may want to divorce themselves from these troubles, but the authors argue that a significant downturn in the world’s second largest economy could throw multitudes of Americans out of work and ravage 401(k)s. For good or ill, China’s future appears inseparable from our own.

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