Generational Churn and the CPC

You may remember a piece I wrote last summer. It was a review of Vladislav Zubok’s book, A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War From Stalin to Gorbachev. Zubok contends that the collapse of the Soviet Union should be understood as a consequence of generational turnover. I was attracted to the idea; generational turnover is the very mechanism I had identify as the key to American history in my essay “Culture Wars are Long Wars.”

A few weeks ago I came across an infographic that illustrates why the policies of the modern Chinese Communist Party are even more generationally bound than either the old CPSU or the current U.S. federal government:

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Why Chinese Culture Has Not Conquered Us All

Xi Jinping regularly exhorts China’s diplomats, propagandists, journalists, writers, filmmakers, and cultural figures to “tell China’s story well.”The slogan flows naturally from the operating assumptions of Party state strategists: in their telling, a central pillar of any nation’s “comprehensive national power” (综合国力) is what these Chinese have labeled “discourse power” (话语权).

Discourse power is the ability to mold the assumptions, conceptions, and values of foreign princes and peoples. The concept sits midway between Beltway talk of “soft power” and the sort of influence leftists describe with the phrase “cultural hegemony.” Discourse mirrors the instrumentalism of the first term—discourse power is not just a set of static social relationships or societal norms, but a tool to be wielded—but is far less associated with happy-go-lucky rhetoric about admiration, emulation, and attraction so closely bound up in American conceptions of soft power.

Triumphant victors of the Cold War would conceptualize the issue in such terms:  the victors of any given cultural conflict always believe they have won through the wide appeal of their vision and the free choice of those attracted to it.

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Ukraine, China, and the Shadow of the ’90s

Several days ago the U.S.-China Perception Monitor published an essay in both English and Chinese by Hu Wei, a prominent think tanker in Shanghai. It argues that the war in Ukraine is bound to go poorly for Russia and thus China must moderate its support for Putin’s failing regime lest the post-Putin world turn against the PRC.

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The Rise and Fall of Civilizations: A Reader Course

A Scholar’s Stage forum member reports that he and a friend recently finished reading John Darwin’s After Tamerlane. Enraptured by Darwin’s account of flourish and fall, they ask what else they might read to understand the rise and decline of peoples and powers over the course of human history.

              In my mind there are four central parts to this tale:

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Every Book I Read in 2021

Every year I post a list of every book I read the year previous, with my ten favorites bolded.. As in those posts, I list the books in the approximate order in which I finished them. Some of these books I read bit by bit over several months. Others I finished the day I started them. All include a url, but the ten best (according to nothing but my own subjective judgement) are bolded and given a link. I only count books that I finished for the first time this year as eligible for “ten best books of the year.” A more condensed list of books that I started but read only in excerpt (or did not finish) can be found at the bottom of the post.

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On the Party and the Princelings

Desmund Shum is a red billionaire. Red Roulette is his memoir, a tell all expose of his family’s climb to the summits of wealth and the foothills of power. The book describes how he and his ex-wife maneuvered to the top—and why they subsequently crashed back to earth. Their fall was as dramatic as their rise: Shum now lives in exile; his unfortunate ex now lives in prison. With nothing to lose, Shum lets loose: his memoir promises to hang Beijing’s dirty laundry for all to see. What a sight this laundry turns out to be! Read this book. Though Shum is unreliable narrator, his memoir is the best single introduction to elite Chinese life yet written.

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Sino-American Competition and the Search For Historical Analogies

In the most recent issue of American Affairs, Walter Hudson argues against “the pull of the Cold War analogy.”θ Cold War analogies for 21st century Sino-American relations are natural yet insufficient. A friend of mine recently complained to me about the thoughtlessness of these analogies. “It is not difficult to rail against lazy Cold War thinking,” I responded. “What is difficult is fleshing out a more illuminating analogy to fill the gap.” Hudson faces this challenge squarely. He argues that the mirror we seek will be found in the eclipse of the British Empire by the United States.

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As the Generations Churn: The Strategic Consequences of Cultural Change in Communist Russia… and China?

Vladislav M. Zubok’s A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War From Stalin to Gorbachev is a surprising counterpart to my essay, “Culture Wars are Long Wars.” That essay proposed a general theory of cultural change. Key to its thesis was the observation that most cultural change does not occur because people change their ideas, but because people with new ideas replace people with old ones. As most people form their essential political worldview by the time they are 30 and only adapt it on the edges to new circumstances, only the most earth shaking events have the power to fundamentally shift the frameworks and values that the majority filter their politics through. Large scale cultural shift is largely a story of generational churn.

While the focus of that piece was on American domestic politics, this is a general phenomena that applies across cultures and time periods. Vladislav Zubok understands this. The generational nature of political change is a recurring theme of Failed Empire, which chronicles the ups and downs of Soviet diplomacy from the end of World War II to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. While we often describe Soviet history in terms of the leader reigning at the top of the system, Zubok argues that shifts in Soviet strategic behavior reflected not only the differing leadership styles of the various CPSU General Secretaries, but broader transitions from one generation of leaders to another.

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“How Xi Jinping’s New Era Should Have Ended U.S. Debate” With Peter Mattis

What kind of world does the Communist Party of China want? How can we know what they are thinking? These questions are the subject of “How Xi Jinping’s ‘New Era’ Should Have Ended U.S. Debate on Beijing’s Ambitions,” a report by National Intelligence College professor Dan Tobin that was originally published as testimony to Congress. This episode uses Tobin’s research as a starting point to discuss a web of issues at the core of Western attempts to understand the Chinese system. We talk about why Western analysts often struggle to understand the Communist Party, which parts of the “China watching” world are most successful doing this, and why any of this should matter to the “average” American citizen with no particular stake in China.

Joining me (Tanner Greer) to discuss this report is Peter Mattis. Mattis is a Senior Fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and most recently was the Senate-appointed staff director at the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, where he was part of the legislative team that passed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, and the Tibetan Policy and Support Act. He is the coauthor of Chinese Communist Espionage: An Intelligence Primer and the author of Analyzing the Chinese Military: A Review Essay and Resource Guide on the People’s Liberation Army (2015).

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Scrap the Myth of Panic

If there is one lesson the world should learn from the great pandemic of 2020, it is this: we must discard the myth of panic.

Or at least this is the case I make in an essay I have just published in Palladium. Fear of mass panic was key to delayed action against the epidemic in the PRC:

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