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September 11, 2008 in The China Beat


Copyright September 11, 2008. Used by permission.


I was in the Chicago O’Hare Airport a few weeks ago and noticed that a re-release of Peter Navarro’s The Coming China Wars: Where They Will Be Fought and How They Can Be Won had made it onto that prized bit of airport-bookstore real estate, the shelf directly below the cash register. Anyone who has followed news on China in the past decade is familiar with the narrative Navarro, a professor of business, spins out here in hyperbolic boldface. His view, as one reviewer put it, is that “the Chinese will eat us for lunch” by building a massive military, manufacturing defective products, and undercutting American foreign policy. If, that is, China doesn’t crumble under the weight of its internal problems—pollution, corruption, disease—first.

The Scary China approach is tired and dangerous. It carries an undertone of glee at China’s potential demise and its proponents have a tendency to talk about “China” and “the Chinese” as a single entity that work in lock-step for the demolition of American power. Books like Susan Shirk’sChina: Fragile Superpower are important antidotes to the Scary China Syndrome.

Written, like China Wars, to be read in bite-sized pieces and also loaded up with facts and figures, Fragile Superpower instead portrays a China both strong and weak, preoccupied with its own domestic issues but eager to play a role as a regional and world leader. As Shirk, a political scientist based at UCSD, points out again and again, China has largely built its thirty-year economic miracle by cooperating with its neighbors and not making waves internationally. However, Shirk also outlines the potential trouble spots on the horizon for China, from domestic protests to media control to issues with Taiwan, Japan, and the United States. While outlining the many points where American and Chinese policy positions diverge, Shirk’s approach is one of measured diplomacy, not hyperbole and fear.