Book Review: The World According To Xi by Kerry Brown

Despite being the guiding ideology behind the world’s most powerful economy, Chinese communism (or “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics”) remains an enigmatic and misrepresented force here in the West. Although we vaguely understand that China’s impact on the global order in the 21st century will be enormous, we tend to put it in the same category as the moon and the tides. A distant fact of nature, so huge as to be mostly imperceptible and irrelevant to our daily lives.

Critics of China’s belligerent insistence on maintaining itself as a one party communist state perform the most bizarre mental acrobatics in order to cope with the fact of its existence. Everyone knows that communism is a failed system that collapsed decades ago, incapable of generating and sustaining wealth and modernity. Thus, the Chinese system must simply be a hoax, or a red veneer disguising a fundamentally late capitalist society. Maybe we expect the 88 million members of the Communist Party of China, with its origins in Revolution and a leadership baptised in the fires of Maoism, to simply yell “surprise!”, put on top hats and admit they’ve believed in western capitalism all along.

In this wonderfully concise and accessible book, Kerry Brown gives us a short overview of the global outlook of modern China. For those struggling to draw a line between the enduring images of the Maoist era and our current conception of a superpower which is capitalist in all but name, and then again struggling to understand why such rapid development has produced the neo-authoritarian figure of Xi Jinping, rather than the liberal democratic reforms that were so complacently predicted, this book is an essential crash course.

The book is especially poignant in an era when the western systems which we had assumed China would one day seek to emulate appear to be falling apart. European capitalism is straining under pressure of internal forces which range from progressive separatism to barely disguised fascism. The American empire also appears to be collapsing under its own weight, unable and unwilling to sustain its oversized presence in the world and turning to deeply disturbing political obsessions at home.

Kerry Brown’s analyses of the implications of Xi Jinping Thought (a body of political theory recently added to the Chinese constitution in the tradition of Mao Tse Tung Thought and Deng Xiaoping Theory) is engaging but professionally dispassionate. The book neither advocates nor criticises Chinese governance, offering a digestible explanation of the current reality and allowing the reader to make their own moral and political judgements.

Although The World According To Xi is plainly intended as a short primer, there were many areas I felt could still have been discussed in greater depth. Brown confines himself to describing China’s huge economy as “complicated”, but we  might have benefited from some illustrative examples demonstrating how the relationship between the state, private business and workers actually functions. Although we learn a fair bit about the wider political context in which Xi Jinping exists, we’re no clearer on what party political mechanisms are actually at work. Brown talks a lot about China’s variously hot and cold relationship with Marxism-Leninism, but assumes a great deal of knowledge on behalf of the reader in terms of what Marxism-Leninism actually is. We also get a broad look at how China views itself and its own ascension to superpower status, and some discussion of how this may relate with existing global systems, but we get almost nothing on China’s relationship with its communist neighbours – Vietnam, Laos and North Korea.

The World According To Xi is a fantastic report on the current outlooks and attitudes of the People’s Republic of China under Xi Jinping. I would highly recommend it to anyone looking to improve their knowledge of the subject quickly. For those not especially interested in the nuts and bolts of China’s political economy, this book will provide more than enough information to satisfy. However, if you’re looking for a comprehensive answer to the question of what the PRC really is, it barely scratches the surface.


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