The Chinese state has an impressive story to tell but Covid-19 and Hong Kong show the west shouldn't concede just yetby Rana Mitter / June 9, 2020 / Leave a comment
Kishore Mahbubani is one of Asia’s best-known policymakers and public intellectuals, who served for years as a senior Singaporean diplomat. Has China Won? is a compelling book on the tussle between the US and China for global supremacy. Mahbubani argues that China has an impressive story about its global role, if it just knew how to tell it. Whether it is the ability to lift millions out of poverty, or innovate in technology, the country has an alternative model that has attracted serious consideration, not least in the global south. He warns the US against thinking that its democratic values can be universalised. As the US declines under Donald Trump, China has gained influence by supporting the WTO and COP-26. Mahbubani is particularly good on his home region, southeast Asia, where China’s diplomacy often succeeds in playing states off against one another.
However, Mahbubani can overreach, arguing that China has “antimilitary DNA” unlike belligerent America, which would come as a surprise to guerrilla warrior Mao Zedong. Similarly, calling the ruling entity the “Chinese Civilisation Party” underplays its Marxist roots. And now, the Covid-19 pandemic seems likely to do significant damage to China’s global reputation.
Mahbubani’s case for China is a bracing corrective to western-centric views, and there’s scarcely a dull page. Yet it’s clear that there are still doubts about the country’s direction of travel. On the day I wrote this review, I saw in the news photos of protesting students in handcuffs in Hong Kong, and opened Jeffrey Wasserstrom’s new book Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink, a tender account of the city’s agonies that cites the “deep depression” and “sense of failure” of its youth. If Beijing can’t make its case by persuasion rather than force to the best and brightest in one of its most advanced regions, has it really won?
Has China Won? The Chinese Challenge to American Primacy
by Kishore Mahbubani (Public Affairs, £19.99)