October 22nd Highlights


Why we don’t know what we do we know about China, mapping the Belt and Road, and figuring out what China spends on aid. Also, a little bit of Xi Dada and why thinking about him matters.

G20 Leaders Arrive For Hamburg Summit
(Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)


Choosing an article per day and selecting from articles published only on that date started to seem a little arbitrary and not entirely constructive.

From now on, ‘Highlights’ will pick a few very recent pieces in an attempt to curate a small selection of the web’s most enlightening, interesting, and well crafted reads.

The aim of this segment is not to stress you out, or make you feel guilty for not reading enough, It’s not a conclusive list of what’s been published this week, nor a summary of the week’s most important news. ‘Highlights’ simply aims to provide a manageable handful of the very best articles for your weekend perusal.

Why Do We Keep Writing About Chinese Politics As if We Know More Than We Do?

An absolutely necessary antidote to the maelstrom of Pekinology surrounding the 19th Party Congress, this ChinaFile article should be recommended reading for anyone inclined to speculate about Chinese politics.

It’s a little meaty, but it’s well worth chewing through. Jessica Batke and Oliver Melton make excellent points regarding the inevitably black box nature of Chinese politics and the tendency of international media to draw very certain conclusions from partial facts:

‘The one thing we do predict with high confidence is that media coverage of the events of the19th Party Congress will box Chinese politics into overly clean and confident-sounding narratives about Xi’s power, with little mention of the crippling information gaps that should temper our conclusions.’

Reconnecting Asia

Data sets don’t have a reputation for being exciting, but they can be, especially when they make pretty maps like this one.

The next two recommendations are not so much “reads” in the conventional sense, but they are both very useful, and very fun to explore.

The first recommendation is an ongoing project brought to you by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). The site is called ‘Reconnecting Asia’, and their mission is to map infrastructure projects on the Eurasian continent.

These guys are sitting on a hard-won wealth of data, and their site is well worth exploring, whether or not you follow the Belt and Road.

A particularly enlightening map is the one that explores the ‘competing visions’ of the great powers in the region.

China’s Global Development Footprint

The second exciting data set to recommend is on China’s global development footprint. This research made headlines earlier in the week, mainly because it found that Russia is China’s biggest beneficiary of foreign aid.

When considering only ‘Official Development Assistance’ Russia doesn’t come top of course, but Aid Data also take into account ‘Other Official Flows’ and ‘Vague Official Finance’.

This really is a pretty special insight into the usually opaque world of Chinese aid. And they have some pretty graphs.

1.3 Billion People Are in One Man’s Grip

There’ve been a whole bunch of pre and post-Congress pieces this week, and as the first recommendation suggests, you shouldn’t take any of them as the last word on Chinese politics.

Some of the first piece’s charges might be fairly levelled at this Foreign Policy article, but at least it’s really well written, and authored by two guys who really know their stuff, Victor Shih and Jude Blanchette. Past the slightly sensationalist headline, this is a really well situated, nuanced article.

We are obsessed with Brexit and Trump: We should be thinking about China

Martin Kettle is spot on here. He says that China is important to Europe, but that we don’t seem to care. No argument with Kettle here.

Kerry Brown, director of King’s College London’s Lau Institute, recently said that the number of Mandarin graduates in the UK hadn’t risen from 300 since 1999. That’s a shocking statistic, and one that represents a dangerous disparity between static interest in China’s and its growing relevance.

On the other hand, a friend recently made the point that one could say the same about UK interest in a fast-growing country like India. Maybe the truth is, that specialists will always demand more interest in their subject, and popular interests will always remain parochial.

If even a quarter of the media attention that is lavished on Trump’s America could be trained on Xi’s China, our part of the world would be the better for it.

For many of us, skipping the big read on China has become a dangerous habit. We know we ought to try harder because China so obviously matters. Give us China, Lord, we say to ourselves, but not tonight. After Xi’s speech in Beijing this week, that is no longer a serious option.

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