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Book Review: Cina. Prospettive di un paese in trasformazione

- Edited by Giovanni B. Andornino, Il Mulino, 2021, pp.358. Series "Le vie della civiltà"

pp. 352, 978-88-15-29212-4. Publication year 2021.

- By Raffaele Marchetti and Silvia Menegazzi

 

Writing in the Harvard Business Review Rana Mitter and Elsbeth Johnson affirmed that unless Westerners revise their views – according to which political freedom would follow new economic freedoms and China’s economic model would have to be built on the same foundations as in the West – they will continue to get China wrong.[1] The false myth about China, they argue, refers to three main narratives: (i) economics and democracy are two sides of the same coin; (ii) authoritarian systems cannot be legitimate; (iii) the Chinese live, work and invest like Westerners. It goes without saying that numerous experts have proven to be affected by different, often opposite, narratives when trying to interpret – or misinterpret – China’s place in the world. At this moment in history, the debate concerning the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is lively yet increasingly polarized, where the PRC is presented either as the next hegemonic superpower – one that will dismantle every pillar of the international system’s architecture, from global finance to the international human rights regime – or as the only “alternative” model of development, considering that the West, according to the views of the Chinese media, is soon faces imminent risk of collapse.[2] This book, Cina. Prospettive di un paese in trasformazione, edited by Giovanni Andornino, Professor of International Relations of East Asia at the University of Torino, works against this trend by providing a solid scientific approach with the purpose of avoiding stereotypes and polarized narratives, and by presenting a picture of a country that is transforming the dynamics of global politics more than any other in the international system.


The volume is divided into seven sections, each of which explores the current transformation of China with regard to its politics, institutions, economy and society, and with the aim to assess the PRC’s influence and implications at the global level. Section I, which comprises contributions by Giovanni. B. Andornino, Anna Caffarena and Simone Dossi, delineates the political-institutional profile of the PRC. In his chapter, Andornino discusses the political-institutional context of the Xi Jinping administration. A critical moment, according to the author, was the ideological shift marking the Xi Jinping Era. Chinese Marxism-Leninism saw the Marxist component progressively downsized and the Leninist component strengthened. Thus, the starting point for understanding the determination through which Xi Jinping pursues the optimization of his capacity to govern results from the Leninist variable that characterizes Chinese domestic politics today. For Caffarena, determination and proactivity also define China’s behavior at the international level. Beijing is increasingly active within major intergovernmental organizations. Nevertheless, it is often the Party’s strategic planning in terms of long-term strategies that differs from the behavior of other states – perhaps one of the explanations behind the growing confrontation between Washington and Beijing. This is the type of strategic planning that, as evinced by Dossi, did not spare the progress and informatization process guiding the modernization phase of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), and indeed is China’s third and most important institution (together with the Party and the Government).


Section II provides a scenario for China’s domestic and international economic challenges. At the domestic level, the dilemma of the Chinese economy is the choice between economic growth and social stability. China’s economic transition from being an economic powerhouse economy to a ‘New Normal’ economy requires the central Government to implement reforms while protecting social security and improving the lives of citizens. Furthermore, now that China is fully integrated within the international system, its external challenges have also increased significantly. For example, as showed by Gabusi, EU-China relations and relations with the US, in the second decade of the 21st century, were negatively affected by China’s rising role as the external innovator in the international financial regime, that is, with the establishment of new multilateral development organizations (MDBs) like the AIIB. Similarly, China’s bilateral relations, that is, Sino-Italian relations, can be affected by international systemic crises such as the commercial and technological competition between the US and the PRC or the Covid-19 pandemic.


Section III of the book is about innovation and the internationalization of the media sector. Prodi believes that the awareness of being at the helm of the second economy in the world – thanks to the period of opening and reforms inaugurated in 1978 – is the result of the initiative (perhaps already in the 1990s) of Chinese political elites to increase the synergies between markets and research in innovation, while safeguarding Chinese state capitalism, as it was, after all. However, the evolution and changes regarding China’s image at the global level would never have been complete without the reorganization of the Chinese media system, established with one main goal: to set up a fully internationalized machine capable of speaking to the foreign world, but even more importantly, effectively relating to the world the story of China (Lupano, p.173).


As demonstrated by the chapters in sections IV and V, when it comes to China’s global image and its misinterpretations, debates such as those related to civil society or environmental governance greatly contribute to fueling anti-China narratives, often with a focus on different normative interpretations between China and the West. With reference to the former, the conundrum rests on the development of a Chinese civil society within an authoritarian context – a contradiction of Western scholarship working on civil society. In the Xi Jinping era, new laws about the regulatory framework of non-governmental organizations and philanthropic associations contributed to reinforcing synergies between the Government and the third sector in China. However, the political space also shrank amid growing repression of protests and dissent all around China, with hundreds of activists and advocates having been arrested for the defense of human and labor rights since 2012 (Poletti and Mariano, p.199). The last two sections of the book return to China’s external relations, with a focus on Italy and Beijing’s priorities in the Indo-Pacific. Within the European region, Italy provides an interesting case to assess China’s presence in Europe. According to Brigadoi-Cologna, Italy ranks first in Europe as far as the number of Chinese citizens is concerned. Remarkably, Italy possesses one of the oldest migration waves from China. Even today, Chinese nationals from the PRC often belong to the same family lineages (p.232). Moreover, Italy remains a fundamental country for the relationship which the PRC maintains with the Holy See, which according to Giunipiero, today appears rather complex, despite the agreement signed in 2018 and reached after centuries of difficult relations (p.251).


In conclusion, these authors, and those not mentioned in this review, have attempted to highlight the relevance of generating new knowledge about China by integrating different approaches, meaning bridging Chinese studies with the study of other disciplines, that is, International Relations, Political Economy, History and Sociology. Last but not least, they concur in offering their balanced views on China. They agree, after all, that to interpret, rather than misinterpret, China’s place in the world, some landmarks – regardless of the approach – still matter. Economics and democracy in China are not part of the same coin: the Chinese Communist Party, which celebrated its centenary anniversary in 2021, is not facing a crisis of legitimacy anytime soon; and people in China now have their own dream – a China Dream.

[1] Rana Mitter and Elsb Johnson, ‘What the West Gets Wrong About China’, Harvard Business Review, May/June 2021, retrieved at: https://hbr.org/2021/05/what-the-west-gets-wrong-about-china. [2] ‘Is the West facing a looming risk of collapse?’, Global Times, 14 October 2021, retrieved at: https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202110/1236355.shtml.




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