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knowing China

Book Review: Knowing China, Frank N Pieke, Cambridge University Press

By Fraser Cameron

27 December 2016

Given the enormous implications of China’s rise for the global system this is a timely review of the political system of contemporary China. Taking into account recent research Professor Pieke has produced a highly readable account of how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has managed to transform itself and China.


Pieke decries the simplified picture portrayed by some about China today. It is not an all-encompassing authoritarian state nor a socialist paradise. Indeed, the author coins a new term of neo-socialism to describe the CCP’s efforts to manage the economy.  In recent official statements there is very little mention of socialism although the CCP remains an essentially Leninist organization. The main characteristics of the party are its adaptability and its ruthlessness when necessary to preserve power.


As throughout history the leaders in Bejing only have limited sway over what happens in the provinces. Local party bosses have considerable room for manouvre as they experiment with what works best for their locality. Xi’s anti-corruption may make headlines but the system would not work without bribes and few officials are actually punished for transgressions.


The big challenges facing China are demography, the environment and the transition to a knowledge economy. These will test the ability of the CCP to adapt and ensure continued economic success. The author suggests that future success will require a more radical separation of party and society; and greater transparency and accountability. But these very changes could undermine the leading role of the CCP and are likely to be resisted.


The book covers several key issues of interest to the EU including the difficulties of economic reform, the increasing Chinese global footprint and the Chinese view of human rights. Pieke pleads for the West to accept China as it is and not seek to view the country as many in the West would like it to be. Sound advice for all policy makers.