From China to Cyberspace – The Best New Politics Books

Russia is the weather and China is the climate is the formula adopted by Jeremy Fleming, a senior British intelligence official, to explain why – even in the midst of Russia’s war – Western security services increasingly focus on China.

In a recent speech, Fleming, who heads the GCHQ – the branch of British intelligence that specializes in cyberspace – noted China’s advances in satellite navigation, digital currencies, artificial intelligence and a host of other cutting-edge technologies. Collectively, it could give China the ability to monitor and manipulate much of the world.

It is this threat that has underpinned the recent US decision to impose severe restrictions on the ability of US companies or individuals, or even foreign companies using US technology, to do business with the Chinese semiconductor industry. These new measures are so far-reaching that some consider them a declaration of economic war on China.

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The origins of the shift in the West’s approach to China are explained in Andrew Small’s fast-paced and deeply researched book. Rip off: China and the global race for the future (hurst £20). As Small reminds us, just four years ago, the UK still intended to allow Huawei, a Chinese company, to play a central role in providing 5G connections to Britain. GCHQ argued at the time that Huawei’s involvement posed no real threat to British security. But, under intense American pressure, the British have reversed course toward Huawei.

The battle over Huawei was a turning point, signaling a tougher and more unified Western response to the technological and security challenges posed by China. The European Union and India have also recently taken a considerably more cautious approach to Chinese technology. Using his extensive contacts, Small shows how Beijing’s mistakes have contributed to the backlash, including China’s handling of Covid-19 and its border dispute with India.

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It is tempting to attribute the deterioration in China’s political and economic relations with the West to President Xi Jinping, who has adopted more aggressive policies and rhetoric, both at home and abroad, since taking power in 2012. But, as Susan Sherk explains in Transcend: How China Derailed Its Peaceful Rise (Oxford University Press £19.99) Things were starting to go wrong, long before Xi took power.

In Beijing, as in Moscow, the “color revolutions” that rocked the former Soviet bloc from 2003-2005 were seen as evidence of an American conspiracy that could pose a direct threat to the Chinese and Russian political systems. The 2008 financial crisis, which began in the United States, created a sense in China that the West was in decline, and therefore easy to confront.

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The question of when and how things went wrong in China is also the focus of Julian Goertz’s important new book, Never Go Back: China and the Forbidden History of the 1980s (Harvard University Press £26.95 / $32.95). As Gewirtz explains, the “reform and opening up” associated with Deng Xiaoping led not only to an economic transformation but to a period of intellectual turmoil, in which all kinds of hitherto forbidden ideas were discussed.

At times, this had its own comical side. In 1982, the Communist Party leadership was concerned about young people’s newly acquired tastes both in pornography and in the works of Jean-Paul Sartre. What emerged during that decade was a Chinese version of the glasnost, or openness, that flourished in Mikhail Gorbachev’s Soviet Union. Wan Lei, Deputy Prime Minister, gave a speech in 1986 in which he said, “We must remove the ban on freedom of expression and encourage the free broadcast of opinions.” But that period of intellectual freedom ended abruptly with the crushing of the student protest movement in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Deng’s embrace of reform and opening never extended to challenging the Communist Party’s monopoly on power. Zhao Ziyang, the party’s general secretary, who also played a major role in the reform campaign in the 1980s, was more sympathetic to the student movement. He was placed under house arrest, for the rest of his life, after the Tiananmen movement was crushed.

As Gewirtz explains, even in the 1980s, the Chinese leadership had an “intense focus on advanced technology.” This installation has now paid off so spectacularly that China is now ahead of the West in some key technologies, such as 5G.

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Western concern focuses in particular on cyberspace, where both China and Russia have been active in a variety of ways, ranging from Russian hacking and the release of internal Democratic Party emails during the 2016 US presidential election, to China’s extensive industrial and political espionage.

In his new book The answer: The end of peace in cyberspace – and how to restore it (Yale University Press £20 / $28) Oxford University’s Lucas Kilo argues that Western governments have been slow to develop new doctrines and forms of deterrence to deal with the growing chaos in cyberspace. In a work sure to be studied closely in Western capitals, Kilo offers proposals to increase Western deterrence and restore “peace in cyberspace.”

Gideon Rachman He is the chief foreign affairs commentator for the Financial Times.

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