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China Looks at the West: Identity, Global Ambitions, and the Future of Sino-American Relations

China Looks at the West

Identity, Global Ambitions, and the Future of Sino-American Relations

Christopher A. Ford

University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, Kentucky, 2015, 650 pages

Book Review published on: March 3, 2017

Christopher Ford’s book, China Looks at the West, explores a critical issue in our time, answering the questions, “How does China see America and itself?” “How have those perceptions changed over the past three decades?” And, “What are the implications for the future of what many have called the world’s most important bilateral relationship?” Over the course of twenty chapters, arranged in into seven sections, Ford attacks the topic through five hundred pages of dense, academic text supported by more than one hundred pages of comprehensive endnotes and a useful, thorough index. He cites the previous works of many of the top “China hands” in academia and U.S. foreign policy circles and their counterparts among Chinese “America watchers,” as well as a number of interviews he personally conducted. Ford’s work materially contributes to our understanding of how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) approaches and manages so-called “Taoist nationalism,” examines how the notion of China’s irresistible return to the world stage has evolved since 1979, and describes how the CCP’s use of propaganda has adapted to the challenges of new forms of media.

The first two sections of China Looks at the West are functional in nature. In the first, Ford examines how we know what we think we know about China, given the lengths to which its government goes to shape opinion using both internal and external propaganda. Controls both familiar (such as the so-called “Great Firewall of China”) and obscure create a “bounded information space” that significantly limits what information its citizens have access to on the Internet, in print, and via broadcast news.

Relevant to the readership is how the bounded information space created by the CCP also challenges the effective creation of budding Sinologists outside of China (for instance, foreign area officers, political–military advisors, intelligence officers, and others whose role it is to provide information and regionally-informed context to leaders and executives whose duties involve dealing with China). And, by extension, how that dearth of information limits the ability of these people to provide their leaders adulterated information about China or, worse yet, leaves them unprepared to rebut nonspecialists’ opinions that are based on compromised sources. Section two explores the vital linkage between China’s view of itself as a virtuous country repeatedly victimized by the West and how it relates to the United States on that basis. The middle five sections present a chronological treatment of developments in the so-called Chinese “information space” from the time of Deng Xiaoping’s “reform and opening” up to the present. The final section considers possible futures and implications.

While the book’s subject matter will be interesting to many readers, reading it is not easy. The prose is clearly written and analytical but contains more than a little specialized jargon, which may be unfamiliar to those not currently in the strategic communications, public affairs, or information operations realms. By the same measure, for the information operations planners and practitioners, foreign area officers, and intelligence officers amongst the readership, Ford’s comprehensive description of China’s informational challenges to the West should be on their bookshelves.

Book Review written by: Maj. Gary J. Sampson, U.S. Marine Corps, Okinawa, Japan