The Dragon Roars Back: Transformational Leaders and Dynamics of Chinese Foreign Policy, Suisheng Zhao

Reviewed by Andrew Scobell

Individual leaders make a difference when it comes to a state’s foreign policy. This is the topline takeaway of this tour de force study of Chinese foreign policy and elite politics since 1949.

The author contends that “while leaders matter in all political systems, they matter more in more in totalitarian and authoritarian systems that allow for the propensity of leaders’ ambitions” (5). In the case of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), a series of individual leaders have over the course of seven decades exerted a disproportionately large influence in foreign policy formulation and implementation. While the PRC has during its existence had at least five senior-most leaders of note at the apex of the political system, only three of these top leaders have left indelible marks on the practice of Chinese diplomacy. Zhao identifies Mao Zedong (ruled 1949–1976), Deng Xiaoping (r. 1978–1997), and Xi Jinping (r. 2012-present) as having outsized influence on foreign policy. The author dubs the members of this exclusive club of PRC leaders “transformational” and differentiates them from lesser dictators—Jiang Zemin (1997–2002) and Hu Jintao (2003–2011)—who operated in a more transactional manner with much more modest aims and incremental impact.

The stated goal of The Dragon Roar

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