[Book Review] 施展《破茧:隔离,信任与未来》(Shi Zhan: Breaking out of the Cocoon. Isolation, Trust, and the Future)

Shi Zhan 施展, Pojian: Geli, Xinren yu Weilai 破茧:隔离,信任与未来 (Breaking out of the Cocoon: Isolation, Trust, and the Future). Changsha: Hunan Wenyi Chubanshe 湖南文艺出版社, 2021. ISBN 978-7-5404-7973-2, 275 pages, 58RMB.

by David Ownby (Université de Montréal)

Shi Zhan (b. 1977) is a professor of political science at the China Foreign Affairs University 外交学院 in Beijing, and director of the Research Center on World Politics at the same university. In 2009, one year after completing his Ph.D. in history at Peking University, Shi joined a group of liberal scholars that called themselves Daguan 大观, which might be translated as “The Big Picture,” or “The Grand Vision;” they ultimately launched a journal that bears the same name (and which is quite difficult to find, at least in North America).

In Shi’s telling, the Daguan group was inspired by Alexandre Kojève’s New Latin Empire, the rudiments of which Kojève composed at the end of World War II as part of a memo addressed to Charles de Gaulle, and which was published in Chinese translation in 2008. To oversimplify, Kojève proposed that the “Latin” countries of Europe bind together in a pact that would ward off American pressure from the West and Soviet pressure from the East. Although a philosopher by training—he did his Ph.D. under Karl Jaspers and influenced much of the French postwar intellectual elite through his lectures on Hegel—Kojève ultimately worked in the French Ministry of Foreign Relations throughout much of the post-war period, and helped to create the European Union and the European Common Market.

Kojève’s preoccupations appealed to Shi and his colleagues because many Chinese intellectuals have experienced China’s rise as a world-historical event of equal importance to World War II. As chronicled on my blog, China’s rise, together with the eclipse of the former Soviet Union and the apparent decline of the United States, have convinced many Chinese thinkers that a new world is a-birthing, and that the ideologies of capitalism, liberal democracy, and Soviet Communism are obsolete. Some Chinese intellectuals believe that socialism with Chinese Characteristics and Xi Jinping Thought are already charting the direction this new world will take. Others, like Shi Zhan and the Daguan group, are less convinced that China’s current regime represents the wave of the future, even if they remain committed to rethinking China’s—and the world’s—past, present, and future in new and exciting ways.

Shi Zhan’s career has displayed precisely this kind of ambition. After publishing what appears to be the book version of his doctoral dissertation in 2012 (The Political Philosophy of Joseph de Maistre: Blood, Land, and Sovereignty 迈斯特政治哲学研究: 鲜血大地与主权), Shi’s next project was nothing less than a complete re-evaluation of “China,” a 700-page volume entitled The Hub: Three Thousand Years of China 枢纽:3000年的中国, published in 2018. I have yet to read this book, but reviews and online presentations of the work suggest that one of its major preoccupations is to rethink the enduring notion that the “culture of the Central Plains 中原文化” is at the heart of Chinese historical identity. In an online interview, Shi explains that he sees the “hub” as connecting any number of regions and cultures: “In the past, we have generally equated the history of China with the history of the Central Plains, but in fact China is a concept that goes far beyond that one region. China it is a large system composed of the Central Plains, the grasslands, the Western region, the Tibet-Qinghai highlands, etc. What we call the history of China is in fact the evolutionary history of this large system.”

The sub-title of the Taiwanese edition (2019) of The Hub actually reveals the author’s ambitions: Exploring China’s Role in the Contemporary World through a Survey of Three Thousand Years of History 縱覽歷史3000年,探索當代世界的中國. In other words, we study history to understand the present and the future, and the point of understanding is to allow us to change the world. Accordingly, Shi writes in an engaging, accessible style, and makes his lectures available (for a fee) on the popular Dedao 得到 app (some of his talks and interviews are also available on YouTube). Just as Kojève shaped the future of Europe from within the French bureaucracy, Shi Zhan hopes to change how the Chinese people think about themselves and the world through his work as a public intellectual.

Breaking through the Cocoon is part of a two-volume side-project, after which Shi plans to return to his original work on China as a concept. The side-project was inspired by the election of Donald Trump and the trade war he launched against China, or, more broadly, by the rise of populism and anti-globalization sentiment in many parts of the world.

The first volume in the two-volume set is Spillover: The Future History of Made in China 溢出:中国制造未来史, published in 2020, in which Shi and his team set out to investigate the effects of American tariffs on manufacturing and supply chains in China and in Southeast Asia.  The project required considerable fieldwork in the Yangzi Delta, in the Guangzhou-Shenzhen region, and in Vietnam. His chief findings (again based on reviews and other comments, as I have yet to read the book) were: first, that nationalistic trade policies are a clumsy weapon in an age where global supply chains make it difficult to identify the “country of origin” of a product made up of a multi-national collection of parts; second, to the extent that Trump’s tariffs caused any inconvenience in China, it was usually to the last, generally least consequential link in a supply chain, which relocated from China to Vietnam, while remaining tied to the original Chinese supply chain—for obvious reasons; and third, profit-motivated merchants and merchant networks are craftier and more inventive than nationalistic politicians trying to score political points from a distance.

While this was a preliminary study based on limited fieldwork, Shi’s conclusions are that to the extent that the tariffs caused any “decoupling” of the Chinese and American economies, the decoupling led to the spread of Chinese supply chains—and presumably Chinese influence—to Southeast Asia, but for the most part, the policies were largely inconsequential, except for costing all concerned time and money.

Breaking through the Cocoon is a broader, more far-reaching reflection based on Spillover. I at first thought that the “cocoons” in question were the information bubbles created by today’s social media (which exist in China as well, despite the state’s more aggressive presence), but it was soon clear that Shi has bigger fish to fry, and in fact is attacking the cocoons or “blinders” that keep us from seeing the world as it is, principally nationalist, populist, or chauvinistic ideologies or impulses that keep us from seeing both the greater good and our own best interests. These larger cocoons function according to the logic of social media cocoons, in that they are fueled by emotion, rush to judgement, and wishful thinking, and not by understanding and analysis.

The broad context of Shi’s book is Sino-American economic and political rivalry, and the primary audience Shi addresses is the Chinese public that is anxious to surpass the Americans and become the world’s premier power. Shi’s basic message consists of two observations: First, by dint of luck, intelligence, hard work, and certain factor advantages (the size of China’s population and market), China has performed very well in the American-dominated liberal world order. As things stand now, in Shi’s blunt summary, the United States (or the West, more generally) innovates, China produces, and the world consumes (and Africa sends China raw materials). For any number of reasons (including U.S. domination of the oceans), this situation is unlikely to change in any important way in the foreseeable future, unless the United States overextends itself in additional pointless wars. Second, the tools conventionally employed to attempt to advance China’s interests and blunt the United States’ advances—nationalistic economic policies, Wolf Warrior diplomacy—no longer work, because the economy (particularly but not exclusively the digital economy) has escaped the bounds of the nation-state. This does not mean that nation-states are powerless, but it does mean that the forces that will propel the world forward are largely beyond the reach of policy-makers (or the bureaucrats of the IMF or the World Bank). These same forces (massive data harvesting, or the development of AI, for instance) are in any event changing the nature of governance in both China and the United States in ways that we are only beginning to imagine.

Breaking through the Cocoon attempts to convey this basic message by teaching people how to see and understand the world properly. Individual chapters function less as arguments directly defending Shi’s thesis, and more as lectures from a course devoted to the topic. Shi draws on international relations theory to explain why great powers simultaneously enforce the rules and flout them, and why China will probably never be a major maritime power (too many troublesome land borders and neighbors). He draws on economics to illustrate why China must remain open to the world to improve its capacity to innovate—as well as to expand its markets—because otherwise China will remain mired in the production of low-level industrial goods. He draws on history to illustrate how the leaders of post-war Germany sacrificed national interests to rebuild trust among its neighbors after two disastrous wars, warning the Wolf Warriors throughout Chinese society that in the absence of trust, people make calculations based on considerations of safety rather than considerations of cost. In other words, without trust, markets do not function.

Throughout the book, Shi counsels patience and wisdom, without nagging or haranguing the reader. If the book had a slogan, it might be: “Don’t give in to populism, no matter how good it feels, because it is not serving your interests.” At one level, Shi’s book is profoundly liberal (in a classical sense), in its belief in the logic of markets and commerce, its conviction that rational, enlightened people will do the right things, and its faith that intelligent pursuit of self-interest is a profitable path to follow. Neither the Chinese Communist Party nor Xi Jinping receives a single mention in this volume.

At the same time, Shi’s work is hardly a paean to the American liberal-democratic order (I remember having read somewhere that Shi is, or was, a Trump supporter, but I have seen no evidence of such in his writings). The final part of the book, which is given over to a consideration of the changes the digital age will bring to politics and economics, suggests that the West is no more prepared for this than China. Here, Shi strikes me as optimistic (more optimistic than I am, in any event), imagining that Facebook, Tencent, and the other big data players will figure out the big issues facing their industry and the world (privacy, security, taxes), in the same way that China’s merchants figured out how to build supply chains and respond to Trump’s tariffs. Shi even allows himself to imagine a regional or global “merchant order,” an enlarged version of the “New Hanseatic League,” which was established in February 2018 by European Union finance ministers from Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands and Sweden to deal with common issues of finance and trade. “Governance” is an extremely common topic addressed by many Chinese intellectuals these days, and I have read any number of analyses of how 21st century China is re-engineering “governance,” but this the only proposal I have read that basically leaves the government outside the picture. Shi’s final chapter, on “Global Redistributive Justice in the Digital Era” is remarkable in that it draws largely on Eric A. Posner and Glen E. Weyl’s Radical Markets: Uprooting Capitalism and Democracy for a Just Society. I don’t know whether Shi’s readers will appreciate the complex proposals offered by Posner and Weyl (I bought the English-language version, and had a hard enough time with that), but it is impressive that the Chinese translation of Radical Markets, the English-language original of which was published in 2018, was already on the market and available for scholars like Shi by 2019. The asymmetry between what Chinese intellectuals know about us and what we know about them is stunning, and disturbing.

In sum, Shi Zhan’s Breaking through the Cocoon is not at all what most people would expect from a book written and published in mainland China. Shi appears to possess considerable intellectual independence. Following Trump’s election, Shi recast his research agenda apparently at the drop of a hat, and over the next four years carried out field work in China and Vietnam and published two important books, which speaks to the freedom (from teaching obligations) and resources available to scholars at elite institutions and China. By contrast, my university often refuses to grant course leave even to scholars who obtain outside funding, citing concerns about equity. Moreover, neither of Shi’s books parrots the Party line or sings the praises of the “China model.” I of course have no way of knowing what Shi did not say, because self-censure is often invisible, but my impression is that Shi largely speaks his mind, although he does not call out the Chinese government for its occasional flirtation with populism, nor does he criticize colleagues who engage in chauvinistic chest-thumping. In any event, to my North American eyes, Shi’s book was a refreshing break from the partisan theorizing that makes up so much of our intellectual discourse.

Of course, Shi Zhan has an agenda, which is to defend liberalism—classically defined—from its detractors in China and elsewhere. His agenda is elitist and pedagogical as well; he believes he (or more broadly, intellectuals like him) can teach his readers to live more rational lives. That he has the freedom to pursue these agendas in China is striking.


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