China from the Inside out: Fitting the People’s Republic into the World

China from the Inside out

Author(s): Ronald C. Keith

ISBN: 978-0-7453-2854-6

Publisher: Pluto Press

Year: 2009

Price: $29.95

Reviewed by Hong-Ming Liang, Ph.D., Department of History, The College of St. Scholastica, Duluth, U.S.A. 

Given China’s prominence in the world, and the complexity and rapidity of its changes, this is an important and difficult moment to write about China.  The author of this book, Ronald C. Keith, synthesized the historic contexts of China’s geo-strategic thinking, the connections made by the Chinese between the rule of law, human rights, and democracy, and China’s attempt to balance between socialism and capitalism. Finally, this book ponders the implications of many factors – historic, cultural, geo-strategic, ideological, economic – for a new world order as envisioned by the Chinese political leaders. Essentially, Keith argues that this is an unfortunate moment for area studies of China to undergo a visible decline. He further argues that proponents within and outside of academe, loosely under the “China Threat” label, have wrongly asserted China’s propensity to emerge as a malignant superpower. Instead, the author urges for a historical, contextual, seen-from-within China interpretation of the rationalities and priorities held by generations of leaders within the People’s Republic.

     The book begins with a chapter length introduction, “Understanding China Once More,” and ends with a conclusion, Chapter Six, “China Redux?” In between are four main chapters where Keith outlines the major areas of analysis. Chapter Two, “Fitting the People’s Republic of China into the World” puts the fundamental approaches of PRC foreign policy into the historic context of the Cold War. This is a particularly useful reminder for anyone with an ahistorical view of the People’s Republic as irrationally isolationist or unduly aggressive. Chapter Three, “Connecting the ‘Rule of Law’, ‘Human Rights’ and ‘Democracy’ in China” is a fascinating discussion of ways in which leaders of the People’s Republic, particularly those of the Communist Party, have had to balance these “Western” concepts, and fuse them within a domestic and cultural context while managing China’s rapid pace of evolution. Chapter Four, “‘Socialism’, or ‘Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics’?” covers the economic dimensions of the People’s Republic. Chapter Five, “China’s New ‘Model’ of International Relations “ returns to the theme developed in the earlier chapters with an eye on future prospects – narrowly in terms of diplomacy, but more broadly in terms of “fitting China into the world,” as perceived by China’s leaders.

     Keith’s main arguments are: First, China’s relative prominence and its rise or resurgence since the late 1980s has been met with a relative decline and neglect in China as an area for area studies – and that is to the detriment of everyone. The book’s claim to the understanding of China from the “inside out” is a direct call to return to the area studies approach. His call for greater resources devoted to the study of China, and towards greater multilateral understanding is well taken; the emphasis that an area studies approach is best is subject to different opinions. Second, Keith believes that outside of China, particularly in the so-called Western world, there is a fundamental misunderstanding of China’s approach, and hence, a misreading of China’s reemergence as a prominent global economic-political-security player. In particular, Keith argues that generally there has been a mixture of belief that post-liberation China has been unpredictably aggressive yet at the same time mysteriously isolated and cut off from the world. On this point Keith makes the most convincing argument, and provides a welcomed reminder to all that China’s relative isolation during the Cold War was imposed from without – not as a result of deliberate policy decisions by its communist leaders. Finally, Keith argues for a more dynamic, sophisticated understanding of how China’s political leaders approach ideas such as democracy, rule of law, and democracy.  Keith portrays these leaders as pragmatic and intellectually curious and thoughtful. This will be a matter of great debate, and in some ways, just like Keith’s argument for China’s likely emergence as a non-expansionist power because of its consistent disavowal of the realist school of power politics, we can only see the validity of this assertion through the passage of time. What one would have liked to see more of in this book – given the premise of understanding China from the “inside,” is a greater sense of the complexity and vastness of what “China” may be. For example, outside of a handful of the leaders of the communist party, and a few academics, one does not get a very full sense of the human rights activists, feminists, so-called ethnic minorities (or, depending on one’s perspective, occupied and oppressed foreign nationals, such as the Tibetans), environmentalists, and so on actively attempting to redefine these critical issues within present-day China. The China that this book delivers is, therefore, decidedly top-down and leadership focused

     For most specialists this book will not be a source of new information. It is a synthesis and summary. Students of Chinese history, politics, legal systems, diplomacy, and the economy will have plenty of other sources to access. What this book does provide, however, is a relatively quick summary of one particular set of arguments and assertions regarding China’s contemporary and future development. Students, in mid to high level college courses on East Asian or Chinese politics and diplomacy will find this a useful and accessible book. This is particularly true if it is paired with other reading materials to represent other interpretive models and conclusions.