If any of the makers of modern China who agonized over their country’s enfeebled state and dreamed of better times during the past century and a half could have visited Beijing’s Pangu Plaza today, they would hardly believe their eyes. Pangu’s preening thirty-nine-story office tower, capped by a massive figurative dragon head in stone, stands high above the fourth ring road, like the king on an oversized chessboard, looming over three luxury apartment buildings and a hotel. Each apartment building is crowned with four ultramodern courtyard-style houses with roofs that open mechanically to the sky. And the lavish Seven Star Hotel at the end boasts inlaid Italian marble floors, personalized butler service, and a vast underground parking garage chock-full of Aston-Martins, Ferraris, Rolls-Royces, and Bugattis. Just across the street lies the sprawling Olympic Park, with its translucent National Aquatic Center changing colors at night like a giant pinball machine, and the National Stadium, better known as the Bird’s Nest, whose sinuous metallic superstructure is also illuminated after dark to look like a fantasy from another planet. It was here that the Chinese government kicked off the 2008 Summer Olympic Games with an opening ceremony as spectacular as any in history, the stuff of reveries such as neither Liang Qichao nor Lin Yutang could ever have dreamed. Yet here it was in granite, steel, and light, a manifestation in spectacular form of the People’s Republic of China’s new wealth and power. And, Pangu Plaza is only one small piece of the ever-startling tableau of progress that has issued forth from Deng Xiaoping’s bold blueprint for “reform and opening up.” It was he, the grand progenitor of this new affluence, who struck the spark that lit this latter-day capitalist prairie fire by telling his people in the 1980s that it was “all right for some people to get rich first” and even that “to get rich is glorious.”
When Jiang Zemin inherited the status of paramount leader from Deng upon his death in 1997, he emphasized not just “development” (fazhan, 发展) but also China’s need to “rejuvenate” (fuxing, 复兴), the latter a freighted word that harked back to Sun Yat-sen’s call in 1894 to “reinvigorate” (zhenxing, 振兴) the country and even further back to Feng Guifen’s hope in the 1860s that the Qing Dynasty would enter a period of “mid-dynastic revival” (zhongxing, 中兴).1 As Jiang summed up the logic of modern Chinese history for delegates to a meeting celebrating the seventieth anniversary of the CCP in 1991, “All endeavors by the Chinese people for the 100 years from the mid-twentieth century to the mid-twenty-first century are for the purpose of making our motherland strong, the people prosperous, and the nation immensely rejuvenated.”2
Jiang’s successor as president and party secretary during the 2000s, Hu Jintao (also handpicked by Deng), carried forward the torch illuminating the way to national wealth and power. “History and reality tell us that ‘Backwardness incurs beatings by others,’” he told visitors from Taiwan’s New Party in 2005, citing an old Chinese saying, luohou jiuyao aida (落后就要挨打).3 “China was bullied by foreign powers in modern times,” he said. “A major reason for that was that China was chronically poor and weak during that period. Since then, the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation has become the unswerving goal that each Chinese generation has striven to realize.”4
And when Xi Jinping finally took to the stage in the Great Hall of the People in 2012 to face the cameras as head of the new Politburo Standing Committee—the seven men who would rule 1.35 billion people for the next five years—he proclaimed, “Since its founding, the Communist Party of China has made great sacrifices and forged ahead against all odds. It has rallied and led the Chinese people in transforming the poor and backward Old China into an increasingly prosperous and powerful New China, thus opening a completely new horizon for the great renewal of the Chinese nation.”5
A fortnight later, Xi and the rest of the new Standing Committee went on a high-profile pilgrimage to view an exhibition at the National Museum, on the east side of Tiananmen Square, called “Road to Rejuvenation” (fuxing zhi lu, 复兴之路), which tells modern history as a morality tale, with China rising from the humiliations of the nineteenth century to a restoration of greatness in the twenty-first century. Xi used the occasion to pledge that he would do his part to continue the realization of this “Chinese dream” (Zhongguo meng, 中国梦). As the state press agency, Xinhua, reported: “Citing a sentence from one of Mao Zedong’s poems ... Xi said the Chinese nation had suffered unusual hardship and sacrifice in the world’s modern history. ‘But the Chinese people have never given in, have struggled ceaselessly, and have finally taken hold of their own destiny and started the great process of building the nation,’ he emphasized. ‘It has displayed, in full, the great national spirit with patriotism as the core.’”6 As Xi, echoing his precursors down through the decades, later elaborated, “To realize the great revival of the Chinese nation, we must preserve the bond between a rich country and a strong military, and strive to build a consolidated national defense and a strong military.”7 And when he was also appointed state president in March 2013, Xi returned to this idea of a “Chinese dream” that now he described as belonging to “the whole nation as well as every individual.” And to realize this long-cherished dream, he said, the country must take “the Chinese way,” which he proclaimed as being “socialism with Chinese characteristics.”8
Like a set of genes that is firmly implanted on a genome and is then faithfully transmitted from generation to generation thereafter, DNA coding for this dream to see China restored to greatness and a position of respect has been reexpressing itself over and over since Confucian scholars with Legalist tendencies such as Wei Yuan first began fretting over the Qing Dynasty’s early nineteenth-century decline. And it began to be articulated with even greater urgency as reformers like Yan Fu first left for Europe. Upon arriving in London in 1877 to study British thinkers and unravel the riddle of the West’s superiority and China’s backwardness, Yan wrote home from London with wonder: “It is no exaggeration to say that more has been accomplished [here] in a hundred years than in the previous millennium. As the states have become daily richer, their defenses have become ever more formidable ... The power or weakness of a state depends on various sources of wealth, and if one wishes to enrich the state, one must expand the people’s knowledge and improve its economic system.”9 Alas, at the time the increasingly desperate warnings of men like Yan Fu fell largely on deaf ears.
Today, however, after weathering a century and a half of “domestic rebellion and foreign aggression,” China has finally learned how to borrow effectively from the West. With the skylines of the Central Kingdom’s countless boomtowns bristling with high-rise buildings, China now boasts the world’s second-largest economy and a rapidly expanding military, and its diplomats increasingly throw their weight around the world. Power has at last begun to flow in wealth’s trail eastward. Instead of being forced to sign humiliating “unequal treaties” and endure endless foreign exploitation, Chinese are forging plans of their own abroad in which they are the initiators and financiers of projects across all Africa, Latin America, and even North America. At home, they are putting astronauts in space, launching aircraft carriers, building supercomputers... the list is long and keeps growing.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, when China was still recovering from the aftereffects of 1989, Deng Xiaoping cautioned the next generation of leaders to “avoid the limelight.” But today there is wealth to consume and power to wield, and not a few Chinese are both pleased and proud to have the opportunity to be at last tempted by the prospect of joining in on this long-withheld “great power” exercise.
Creative Destruction to Construction: Mao to Deng
A few intrepid historians are now beginning to wrestle with the question of why, after so many generations of failure, China’s period of economic dynamism only began when it did, and has now been as successful and durable as it has. Curiously, one of the most interesting and paradoxical explanations originates with the very person who is deemed also to have had such a destructive effect on China’s earlier progress, namely, Mao Zedong.
First, by seeking to raze the edifice of old China as relentlessly as he did, the argument goes, Mao may have actually helped clear the way for Deng Xiaoping’s subsequent reforms, thereby playing a role in China’s rebirth that he never could have quite imagined while alive. No leader in twentieth-century China was more totalistic and unrelenting in attacking traditional culture than Mao, and under his leadership China’s inherited Confucian heritage and old social value system, which so many reformers before him saw as China’s major impediment to progress, was subject to a series of assaults unequaled in history.
A few early reformers such as Liang Qichao and Sun Yat-sen had recognized that the first steps in China’s modernization process would necessarily require destruction of the old to make way for the new. But none of Mao’s predecessors had been able—or really willing—to muster the same ideological boldness, much less the organizational fortitude and leadership ruthlessness, to challenge China’s thousands of years of continuous culture and history aggressively enough to finally neutralize their drag on modernization. Early on, Mao was a disciple of both Liang and Sun, but he turned out to be made of far sterner stuff, and ultimately came to embrace a far more extreme and tectonic form of revolution, one that insisted on constant, violent upheaval. As he had predicted in 1927, first the rural dispossessed and then the urban masses would rise up in a manner that “no power however great will be able to suppress.”10
So, where others succeeded only in muting the influence of China’s ancient culture, Mao came close to extirpating its very roots and thus its hold on several subsequent generations of Chinese. By doing so, he all but severed the bonds of tradition that had fixed father over son, husband over wife, master over student, family over individual, past over future, and continuity over change, bonds that had so tormented earlier reformers, including Chen Duxiu and Lu Xun. Lu had written with anguish about the “odious thoughts that the ancients recorded in their works,” which he was “constantly rediscovering in myself.”11 What depressed him even more was the prospect that, despite the efforts of the May Fourth generation, this culture of oppression might also be passed on to China’s youth. In near desperation, he cried out, “Let the conscious man assume the heavy burden of tradition, let him arch his back under the gate of darkness to allow his children to escape into the free space and light where they may spend their days in happiness and lead a truly human life.”12 Indeed, so powerful did the hold of the past prove to be, that later in their lives the first generations of reformers like Liang, Sun, Chen, and Lu all finally ended up being irresistibly drawn back into the very “gate of darkness” of traditional values and culture from which they had once so energetically sought to escape. Seen through such a historical lens, the wrecking ball of Mao’s revolution can appear in a somewhat different light, as an instrument necessary to clear the way for whatever might follow.
It is true that Mao’s final two decades—from the Anti-Rightist Campaign and Great Leap Forward through the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution—were to a horrifying degree “lost” years for China. As Chen Yun, a comrade-in-arms from the early days of the Long March, was quoted as saying in the newspaper Ming Pao in 1979, “Had Chairman Mao died in 1956, there would have been no doubt that he was a great leader of the Chinese people ... Had he died in 1966, his meritorious achievements would have been somewhat tarnished, but his overall record was still very good. [But,] since he actually died in 1976, there is nothing we can do about it.”13
Looked at through the cold eye of history, however, it may have been precisely those periods of Mao’s most uncompromising nihilism that finally managed to bring about what no previous reformer or revolutionary had been able to, namely, a forceful enough demolition job on China’s “old society” to finally free Chinese from their traditional moorings. Seen this way, Mao’s brutal interim was perhaps the essential, but paradoxical, precursor to China’s subsequent boom under Deng Xiaoping and his successors, the antecedent to the Chinese people being able to free themselves at last from their past and catapult themselves into their present single-minded and unrestrained pursuit of wealth and power.
Even the founder of modern Chinese studies in America, Harvard’s John King Fairbank, by no means a Mao enthusiast, could appreciate the purgative virtue of the Chairman’s permanent revolution. “In the old society teachers were venerated by students, women were submissive to their husbands, and age was deferred to by youth,” wrote Fairbank. “Breaking down such a system took a long time because one had to change one’s basic values and assumptions accepted in childhood. The times called for a leader of violent willpower, a man so determined to smash the old bureaucratic establishment that he would stop at nothing. He had to side with the common peasant, live his hard coarse life, and hate the bureaucratic establishment.”14 For better or worse, Mao was such a man—modern China’s “perennial gale of creative destruction,” a leader willing to “carry out harsh rule, and with iron and fire forge and temper our countrymen for twenty, thirty, even fifty years,” as Liang Qichao once put it.15
Mao launched the Cultural Revolution to prevent China from “taking the capitalist road,” yet ironically his efforts ended up having precisely the opposite effect. “A common verdict is, ‘no Cultural Revolution, no economic reform,’” declare Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals, leading historians of the period. “The Cultural Revolution was so great a disaster that it provoked an even more profound cultural revolution, precisely the one that Mao intended to forestall.”16
By force-marching Chinese society away from its old ways of doing things, Mao presented Deng with a vast new construction site on which the demolition of old structures and strictures had already largely been completed, making it shovel-ready for Deng’s own “great enterprise” of reform and opening up. Mao’s epic destructiveness, which was supposed to prepare China for his version of utopian socialism, ended up instead preparing the way for China to be transformed into exactly the kind of cryptocapitalist economy that he most reviled during his lifetime.
With the advantage of historical hindsight, another group of scholars now argues that Mao also bequeathed one more sublimely ironic but equally critical legacy to Deng: his unique brand of guerrilla opportunism. At first blush, Mao’s vision of class struggle and permanent revolution would seem separated by an unbridgeable chasm from Deng’s more pragmatic, open, marketized, and stable China. Indeed, it is hard to think of another world political leader who managed to transmigrate a whole society between two such opposite ideological poles as Deng. Contemplating this unlikely passage, Elizabeth Perry of Harvard University and Sebastian Heilmann from the University of Trier have tried to solve the riddle of what they call the CCP’s unexpected “puzzling vigor” and “surprising resilience and adaptability.”17 After all, weren’t Leninist political parties supposed to be rigid and lacking in innovative spirit, they ask, and thus ill-equipped to survive in the freewheeling global marketplace? What happened to the “end of history”? How has “Red China” managed to benefit more than any other country from the past few decades of global market integration?
Perry and Heilmann’s fascinating conjecture is that perhaps, despite all its false starts, reversals, and self-induced catastrophes, under Mao the CCP succeeded in evolving a strong survival instinct. This grew not just out of the Communists’ need as guerrillas to dodge Nationalist and Japanese troops in China’s mountainous interior, but also from their conception of “policy-making as a process of ceaseless change, tension management, continual experimentation, and ad-hoc adjustment.”18 No matter how self-serving, doctrinally inconsistent, or savagely destructive his actions might seem, Mao learned through his guerrilla experience to value flexibility and agility over rigidity and stability, and then to apply the same pragmatic style to party policy formation after establishing the PRC in 1949.19 He “favored continued experimentation and transformation (or ‘permanent revolution’) over regime consolidation,” say Perry and Heilmann.20 And “over the course of the revolution, continuous improvisation became a defining feature of Chinese Communist tactics.”21
Although, when it proved useful, Mao did embrace Leninist discipline and rigid principles of party organization, he was first and foremost a survivor who knew that one has to be willing to evolve through trial and error, or perish. Such opportunism allowed him to make experimentation a core aspect of his and the CCP’s opportunistic operating system, and thus to pioneer a form of “unexpectedly adaptive authoritarianism.” While such inconsistency did in the end help delegitimize socialism, it also helped the PRC to endure—first to survive the end of the socialist bloc and then to take advantage of post–Cold War economic globalization to such stunning effect.22 But whether what Columbia University’s Andrew Nathan calls “resilient authoritarianism” is the end of the China story is far less certain.23 When all is said and done, it may prove less of a long-term durable model than an effective short-term strategic adjustment.
The Mirage of 1989
There was, of course, one agonizing interruption in the astonishing boom of the Deng era, and that was the Sturm und Drang of 1989, which for the subsequent decade exerted a powerful influence on Western views of China and thus the direction in which we assumed Chinese history to be unfolding. But as the 1989 memories of the Tank Man blocking the progress of PLA tanks on the Avenue of Eternal Peace and the Goddess of Democracy going up before Mao’s portrait on Tiananmen Square faded, and as the success of “authoritarian resilience” and CCP-sponsored capitalist growth became more evident, Westerners were forced to rethink their views on China’s progress, especially whether democratization was always an essential partner to market-driven growth and national development.
As part of his unique role in establishing the field of modern China studies, Harvard’s Fairbank helped develop a legendary survey course on Asia that his many students affectionately dubbed “Rice Paddies.” Three times a week he would stride into the lecture hall of the Harvard-Yenching Institute and patiently guide his mesmerized—and often overwhelmed—acolytes through one more chapter of China’s four millennia of history, all delineated in its infinite and intimidating complexity on a foldout dynasty chart that was regulation issue to all comers.
On one occasion, as the cataclysm of the Great Leap Forward was enigmatically unfolding in that vast and strange Communist land to which Americans could not then travel, Fairbank found himself confronted by an unusually persistent student who kept pushing him to explain the logic of Mao’s revolution. Finally, like a Zen master reluctantly delivering a shocking koan to an initiate, he smiled and said, “Just remember: Mao Zedong didn’t make the Chinese Communist revolution for you!”
Fairbank was a gentleman, and his reply was not meant to put down his inquiring student. His point was simply that Chinese history as a whole had its own unique patterns, ones often difficult to divine in Western terms. “China still confronts us with a separate tradition and a radically different modern revolution,” he wrote in his summa historica, East Asia: The Modern Transformation. “Acknowledgment of our ignorance is the necessary beginning of wisdom.”24
Later generations of sinologists—many of them Fairbank’s protégés—would criticize his approach for its Eurocentric reliance on the framework of “Western challenge/Chinese response” to explain modern China. Particularly scholars who came of age during the Vietnam War era were keenly aware of America’s tendency to see Asia as Americans wanted it to be, rather than as it really was. They were in a sense using Fairbank’s warning to critique Fairbank’s own framework, and moved the field of Chinese historical studies toward a more “China-centered” approach.25
Fairbank’s warning that China’s history is indelibly Chinese took on a renewed relevance when democracy demonstrations erupted on a massive scale in Beijing and other Chinese cities in 1989. The temptation once again was to see twentieth-century China in a triumphalist Western paradigm, as moving inevitably from the “democracy and science” protests of the May Fourth Movement in the 1920s to the liberal democratic aspirations of students in the 1980s. Like lava that keeps erupting through vents in the earth’s crust to reveal molten evidence of the core of hot magma hidden beneath, each new upwelling of democratic protest in the streets of China seemed to suggest an irrepressible underground current that would inevitably spew forth again to sweep China onto “the right side of history.” And when the Chinese Communist Party’s near-death experience in 1989 was followed by the collapse of the USSR and most of the Communist bloc, it was all the more tantalizing to imagine that the teleology of the liberal West would soon universalize itself in that last redoubt, Red China.
Indeed, anyone who experienced the heady months of spring 1989 in Tiananmen Square found it almost impossible not to imagine that China was at a historical milestone. For a while, at least, the correctness of Western assumptions about the inevitability of democracy spreading Enlightenment values around the world, even to China, seemed irrefutable. Francis Fukuyama captured this post–Cold War zeitgeist with his notion of the “end of history,” “an unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism” in which “the triumph of the West, of the Western idea” was realizing itself “in the total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism.”26
When he considered China, Fukuyama seemed especially enthralled by the thought that finally the Central Kingdom, too, might be on the verge of turning toward the universal fold. “The power of the liberal idea would seem much less impressive if it had not infected the largest and oldest culture in Asia, China,” he wrote, confidently prophesying that soon the PRC could “no longer act as a beacon for illiberal forces around the world.”27
China scholars themselves were not immune from such Western predilections and hopes. Although the crackdown following the 1989 protest movement was viewed as retrograde motion, many China watchers assumed that in the long run China would still prove unable to resist the tendency to evolve toward a more liberal, democratic form of governance. Writing just after the demonstrations in 1989, the great Belgian sinologist Pierre Ryckmans, alias Simon Leys, described Chinese as “a populace thirsting for freedom.” Of Deng Xiaoping and the party leaders who had been involved in ordering troops and tanks to crush the demonstrations, he wrote, “They know that they are facing the irrepressible surge of the tidal wave which is going to sweep them away tomorrow, together with the last remains of Chinese communism ... The collapse of the present government is ineluctable.”28
Having guided the reader through centuries of Chinese history, Yale’s Jonathan Spence concluded in his magisterial The Search for Modern China, “There was not the faintest reason to believe, despite the Chinese government’s intellectual and political repressions, that the protests of 1989 would be the last ... There would be no truly modern China until people were given back their voices.”29 In the final part (aptly titled “The Boom”) of Mandate of Heaven: The Legacy of Tiananmen Square, one of the authors of this book noted that “China’s next upheaval might be triggered by economics rather than politics, it might erupt in the provinces rather than Beijing, and it might be led by workers rather than students, but if the past was any guide, sooner or later the aftershocks would reverberate back into ‘the Square.’”30
If the initial romance and ultimate tragedy of 1989 tended to once more encourage Westerners to see Chinese history as unfolding in a Western teleological manner toward a more democratic future, it also helped obscure what most Chinese thought their leaders had actually been driving toward all the previous decades. As the dramatis personae of this book abundantly illustrate, China’s modern thinkers and leaders, smarting from the humiliation of precipitous decline and foreign incursion, had their own more immediate and urgent goal, namely, the restoration of national wealth, power, and greatness. Although democracy did appear on the Chinese scene in the early twentieth century, did generate a significant following, and might yet come to flourish, the democratic impulse during the twentieth century remained relatively weak compared to the forces of nationalism and the overriding desire to see China become prosperous, strong, and honored in the world. And we easily forget that, Chen Duxiu’s love of Mr. Science and Mr. Democracy notwithstanding, May Fourth demonstrators were also intensely patriotic, as were most students during the spring of 1989. Nationalism, it turned out, was fed by stronger and more inexhaustible tributaries of sentiment than was constitutionalism or democracy, and they bubbled up from deep wellsprings of emotions generated by China’s painful historical experience.
For a people possessed of such an abiding sense of pride and face, China’s fall in the nineteenth century from a place of such centrality and dominance was a special ignominy, and it engendered a very strong and enduring counterreaction. Through a strange alchemy, based on the old Confucian idea that “humiliation stimulates effort,” the shame that stemmed from weakness and defeat also generated a steely determination to become strong again. So what might have been a purely enervating force was transmuted into a galvanic one, a source of energy that ultimately enabled Chinese to start righting what they saw as the wrongs of history.
China had suffered, but like the ancient hero King Goujian, through indomitable Sisyphean endurance it also became determined to turn its defeat and humiliation into victory. Far more powerful than any democratic urge during this twentieth-century interregnum was a utilitarian impulse that propelled Chinese in sequential fashion toward republicanism, anarchism, Marxism, Christianity, and even fascism—whatever ism of the time seemed to offer the best restorative promise. And as even a short visit to China’s booming cities now confirms, this pragmatism did finally pay off for the nation, or at least for many of its citizens. However one chooses to explain it, after generations of abject failure, China’s hard-nosed but restless quest for wealth and power finally met with demonstrable material success.
A New Consensus?
Does this mean that Chinese leaders have managed to confect what some have tried to dub a “Beijing Consensus,” a new model in which free-market economic development becomes divorced from political liberalization, and capitalism delinked from democracy?31 While not proclaiming such a model per se, in 2010 Premier Wen Jiabao, echoing so many of the voices in this book, did suggest that one of the reasons Chinese authoritarianism had been so successful was that it allowed leaders “to make decisions efficiently, organize effectively, and concentrate resources to accomplish large undertakings.”32
New consensus or no, what should be acknowledged is that, despite all its obvious shortcomings and defying most predictions, the CCP has managed to create three decades of rapid growth under a relatively stable political system, and it has brought China closer than ever to building the xiaokang shehui (小康社会), or “moderately well-off society,” to which Deng Xiaoping aspired. This promise has helped many Chinese make a bargain with the party: as long as they are allowed to enjoy growing wealthier and to pursue a better life, and as long as their country is edging ever closer toward wealth, power, and a modicum of greatness in the world, they will not seek to challenge authoritarian rule.
Since Wei Yuan first began puzzling over China’s falling state of grace almost two centuries ago, this has been a dream that has goaded one Chinese patriot after another onward. As a prelude to whatever else may follow, the successful conclusion of this particular quest has undeniably now given Chinese new grounds to take pride in their country’s accomplishments. It has also provided the kind of middle-class foundation on which a stable democratic future finally becomes even imaginable. But now that China has made a landfall on the shores of wealth and power, the logical question is: What’s next? Do leaders and people feel they have been delivered to those promised shores for which they have so long yearned and where no further extreme exertions are required?
Not really. One of the pieces still missing is the kind of self-confident mind-set that would finally allow Chinese to feel that they have arrived and thus deserve to feel comfortable in their new global skin.
Although the words “respect” and “status” do not explicitly appear together in the age-old couplet of characters fuqiang (富强), signifying “wealth and power,” they are everywhere implicit in China’s struggle for these long-sought-after goals. The urge to prosperity and strength, after all, had its origins in the humiliation of nineteenth-century defeats by the imperialist powers—and thus regaining the respect of those great powers has always been an essential ingredient in any cure. However, to win real global “respect” (zunzhong, 尊重)—a term endlessly bandied about in China’s diplomatic parlance—a nation must not only attain wealth and power but also successfully cultivate other, more ineffable qualities capable of eliciting such admiration.
It is true that China can no longer be bullied. But, to the great perplexity of many Chinese (especially officials), their country’s extraordinary progress toward “wealth and power” has not in itself managed to deliver the full degree of admiration that they once imagined these heroic accomplishments would automatically confer, and which they fiercely feel to be rightfully theirs. Like those Americans who grew up in the Great Depression and for whom no amount of subsequent wealth was ever enough to slake their innate sense of insecurity, the confidence levels of many Chinese, even after all the successes of their economic miracle, still lag behind their actual achievements in curing their historical sense of inferiority. Indeed, it may yet take another generation or so before confidence levels become better aligned with achievements. But then, a major readjustment of any nation’s psychology often lags substantially behind changing reality. It is this anomalous situation that may help explain why, despite China’s enormous progress, a humiliation complex still remains, nationalism is still on the rise, and Chinese still so easily tend to feel victimized.
So far the kind of global respect that Chinese have long sought has remained a far more elusive laurel than many reformers and revolutionaries ever imagined. As contemporary “soft-power” gurus explain, genuine esteem for a country does not automatically emanate from extravagant riches or brute strength alone. It comes, instead, from other, subtler kinds of accomplishment that often have more to do with the attractiveness of a country’s culture, the virtues of its civic life, or the responsiveness of its political system. From the West, at least, admiration has not gravitated to societies marked by exaggerated systems of state control and “stability maintenance.” Instead, it has often been those societies that are culturally open, tolerant, welcoming of heterodox influences, and even a little unpredictable that have ended up being able to produce the most innovative and seductive forms of soft power, and thus won the most global admiration and respect. And such societies have excelled in liberating exactly those forms of individual self- expression that the Chinese Communist Party has felt least comfortable allowing, much less encouraging, which have been embodied in creative misfits such as Ai Weiwei, searing critics such as Liu Xiaobo, headstrong reformers such as Chen Guangcheng.
China’s dazzling new infrastructure and all the other studied efforts to cultivate a new image of grandness and confidence are, of course, impressive. And such things as the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, 2010 Shanghai World Expo, and elaborate National Day parades have, in fact, succeeded in eliciting a kind of respect. But as impressive as these self-conscious, government-sponsored model projects are, they are not in the end the stuff from which the deepest kinds of soft power attraction and admiration are born.
“Soft power bespeaks a nation’s ability to influence the behavior of others to attain the outcomes it desires,” notes the grand theorist of this somewhat intangible kind of power, Joseph Nye, in Soft Power, a book that has become immensely popular in China since its publication in 2004. “A country may obtain the outcomes it wants in world politics because other countries—admiring its values, emulating its example, aspiring to its level of prosperity and openness—want to follow it.” He adds, “Seduction is always more effective than coercion, and many values like democracy, human rights, and individual opportunities are deeply seductive.”33
Tellingly, even Chinese themselves seem not to quite know what their nation’s most fundamental values now are. After decades of serial cultural and political cancellations and self-reinventions, China has jettisoned the cardinal virtues of its traditional and Maoist cultural incarnations, and thus sometimes does irredeemably seem to be a kingdom of means alone, a society and nation largely defined by its ardent pursuit of techniques, but without many answers to the question: Toward what end?
In statements to the world, Chinese leaders constantly emphasize their “core interests,” and they considered it something of a diplomatic triumph when President Obama formally agreed that “respecting each other’s core interests is extremely important to ensure steady progress in U.S.-China relations.”34 Yet when it comes to “core values,” China’s leadership is both lost and somewhat deaf and mute, neither wanting to accept the West’s democracy and human rights as the birthrights of all people, nor having any other “universal values” of their own to now offer as an alternative.
The Empty Chair
On visits to twenty-first-century China, one can easily become awed by the sheer scale of that country’s recent material progress, and even begin to wonder if authoritarian capitalism is not exactly what the country needed; whether economic rights should not sometimes be allowed to trump individual rights in the interest of society at large; and whether democracies are, in fact, always the most effective forms of governance (especially for developing countries). However, just as these illiberal question marks are presenting themselves, an incident will detonate and serve as a reminder of the weaknesses of authoritarianism and the reasons outside respect is afforded so grudgingly to countries like the PRC, even when they become economically successful. Such occasions also usually end up being embarrassing and galling to China’s official image makers. Recent examples include the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo in 2010; the blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng’s flight into the U.S. embassy in Beijing after a daring escape from house arrest in 2012 just as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was arriving in Beijing; and the announcement in early 2013 that the hundredth young Tibetan protesting Beijing’s coercive policies in their homeland had immolated himself. Needless to say, such self-inflicted humiliations have severely undercut China’s bid for soft power, acclaim, and global respect.
Back in the days of Liang Qichao and Lin Yutang, when China’s long odyssey to wealth and power was still a matter of unrealizable daydreams or science fiction, it was possible to maintain the belief that attainment of these very concrete goals might in themselves be enough to confer that measure of acceptance that Chinese felt so necessary to heal the wounds left by their “century of humiliation.” But as that once distant shoreline now actually emerges on the horizon, it is increasingly evident that something else is also going to be required to slake this abiding Chinese thirst. But, at the same time, most Chinese also find it difficult to define exactly what that “something else” might be.
Often overlooked within China today is the fact that throughout this century there have been indigenous voices hinting that wealth and power alone would be insufficient to the dream of the kind of “great rejuvenation” that Xi Jinping revived immediately upon taking office. Critics such as Wei Jingsheng, Fang Lizhi, and Liu Xiaobo—and before them Chen Duxiu, Lu Xun, and Liang Qichao—understood that China’s desire for affirmation could not be completely satisfied by wealth and power alone, that the respect deficit was not simply due to the fact that the Chinese state lacked sufficient riches and strength to compel foreigners to treat it in a more respectful manner. In their various ways, these voices from the margins all suggested that a significant part of China’s self-esteem problem arose not just from how foreigners treated Chinese, but from how the Chinese government treated its own people. Alas, such voices were often largely unheeded or silenced.
Even for those not blinded by patriotic pride or nationalism, recognizing that China’s main problem now lies as much within as without is difficult and painful. It depends, first, on an ability to see—despite a history of foreign incursion, unfair treatment by the great powers, and the elaborate culture of victimization that governments from Sun Yat-sen’s and Chiang Kai-shek’s to Mao Zedong’s and Hu Jintao’s have woven out of this bitter reality—that foreign imperialism is no longer the primary cause of China’s afflictions. It depends, second, on an ability and willingness to see that the missing tiles in the mosaic of respect that Chinese still so ardently seek now revolve more around the question of the Chinese government’s own ability to nurture a more open, transparent, tolerant, just, and even democratic society living under the rule of law than anything else.
Despite the episodic emergence of brilliant and courageous liberal dissenters, their demands for democracy have not ended up being the main motive force of modern Chinese history, at least so far. The far stronger driver would appear to have been the urge to restore China to wealth and power. But as these goals now become realized, will not more and more Chinese demand to enjoy their newfound affluence in a more open and law-abiding society where they have a greater role in deciding who leads them and how they are governed? Is it not also probable that the yearning of Chinese leaders for international respect will end up being just as strong a magnet drawing them, too, toward a more consultative, if not democratic, form of governance?
The PRC has managed to make impressive strides toward establishing the preconditions of just such a future evolution. By opening itself up to foreign investment, world trade, and domestic reform, it has brought about one of the most dynamic surges of economic development in world history. And what is interesting is that it has done so by following the path first laid out by Sun Yat-sen a century ago, then adopted by Chiang Kai-shek, and finally subscribed to, in one variation or another, by most subsequent leaders since: namely, by prescribing some vague kind of democracy as a long-term goal, but deferring its implementation until a protracted period of authoritarian “tutelage” could consolidate China’s sovereign power, enrich the nation, and prepare the people for a more direct exercise of their liberties.
If much remains opaque about China’s future, one thing is clear: after three decades of Deng Xiaoping–inspired economic reform, China’s development drama is approaching its next act. Indeed, as the Eighteenth Party Congress unfolded in November 2012 and Xi Jinping was enthroned as party general secretary and then president in March 2013, there was a palpable fin de siècle feel in the air. The fact that a script for the next act had not yet been written and that nobody knew just who might do so left Chinese steeped in no small amount of uncertainty and anxiety. What is more, because they also understood that their new leaders were now likely to rule in a more consensual manner, with no single leader in a dominant position to boldly plot a new way forward, there was also a worry about rudderlessness. Of course, most people yearned to find grounds for continued hope and optimism, even if few could see a clear pathway forward that warranted such hopefulness.
On his historic “southern tour” in 1992 to Shenzhen, Deng Xiaoping famously proclaimed that any road other than continuing with socialist reform and opening would be a “dead end,”35 and lead irrevocably away from national rejuvenation. Against no small adversity after 1989, he did finally manage to successfully coax China back to the path of reform and opening.
Several decades later, as Xi Jinping ascended the political stage, the country again found itself in need of finding a new pathway forward. Interestingly, one of the first trips he made as party general secretary was also to Guangdong Province. The visit was an homage to Deng, but also a calculated symbolic effort to suggest that Xi, too, now wished to blaze an equally new and bold trail forward. Having signaled his intention to keep pressing forward with more economic reform, Xi then toured several army and navy bases, where he added a more muscular military dimension to the notion of a new “Chinese dream” that he had raised at the National Museum. “This dream can be said to be a dream of a strong nation; and for the military, it is a dream of a strong military,” he told commanders of the Guangzhou Military Region in Huizhou. “We must achieve the great revival of the Chinese nation, and we must ensure there is unison between a prosperous country and a strong military.”36
But having touched on economic and military strength, there was still an important piece left missing in this evolving new Chinese dreamscape, the question of political reform. Particularly in Beijing and other large cities, there was a growing recognition, articulated among members of the Chinese intelligentsia, that the only realistic pathway forward to a comprehensive and long-lasting “revival” now lay in greater openness, the rule of law, and even constitutionalism. But, this part of Xi Jinping’s slowly pixilating dream for the future was left tantalizingly blurry.
Almost a century ago, during a much darker time when China possessed not even the military power to defend itself, never mind wealth, the great writer Lu Xun also found himself worrying about how his country would ever manage to find a hopeful pathway out of the bleakness that then confronted him. “As I think about it,” he wrote in 1921, “hope can neither be said to exist or not to exist. It’s like the roadways on our earth. Originally there were not even paths. And it was only after many people passed by that such pathways became actual roadways.”37
And now, after traveling a very long and hard stretch of “roadway,” China finds itself in a position far more enviable than Lu Xun could have ever imagined. Having been through a century of “political tutelage”—an interim that Sun Yat-sen had foreseen as unavoidably preceding a final stage of “constitutional government” giving “the people” a chance “directly to exercise their political rights”—China was now at last closer than ever before to this goal that Sun said would “mark the completion of reconstruction and the success of the revolution.”38
History is rarely fond of final resting places, especially in a country as dynamic and volatile as China. With its surging wealth and growing middle class, as Xi Jinping took the reins as paramount leader, China, at last, now found itself better positioned than ever—should it choose to do so—to follow in the footsteps of other nearby Asian, post-Confucian, and post-colonial societies such as Taiwan, Hong Kong, and South Korea, which had all made similar passages from authoritarianism to constitutionalism. But, because as the new Chinese leadership assumed power in 2013 there was still such trepidation about straying from the socialist path and rocking the political boat in any way, such progress was not a foregone conclusion. In fact, Xi was also reported to have given another set of “secret speeches” cautiously warning party leaders about the dangers of China following in the dreaded footsteps of the former Soviet Union.39
“We should overcome our fears,” Deng Xiaoping, who led the last great act in China’s development drama, had once insisted. “Everything has to be tried first by someone—that’s the only way new trails are blazed.”40 And perhaps the easiest way for China’s new leaders to start blazing a new political trail forward was by simply starting to enforce their country’s existing constitution—something that Chinese intellectuals were already calling for with increasing intensity. For example, during the 2013 New Year, the progressive Canton newspaper Southern Weekend wrote an editorial entitled “The Dream of Constitutionalism,” which proclaimed, “Only if constitutionalism is realized and powers checked can citizens loudly voice their criticisms of power,” and “only then can every person believe in their hearts they are free to live their own lives.” Unfortunately, editors quickly ran afoul of Guangdong Province’s party Propaganda Department, which delayed the editorial’s publication until they had had a chance to completely rewrite it so that, instead of advocating the need for greater constitutionalism, it ended up extolling the status quo, causing the paper’s staff not only to go on strike, but precipitating several days of unprecedented public demonstration among average Chinese in solidarity with the defiant journalists.41
But then during his first press conference as premier in March 2013, Li Keqiang proclaimed that the new leadership would “be true to the constitution.” It was a tantalizing beginning to his tenure in office.42
But, even with this new generation of leaders at China’s helm, the question of what kind of rejuvenation they really desired remained very murky. Equally unclear was how, as China continued to become stronger and more prosperous, they would come to act out the consequences of their new wealth and power on the world stage. Would they march under the standard of Deng Xiaoping’s admonition to “avoid the limelight” and champion the more recently minted idea of a “peaceful rise”? Or would they want to flex their new economic and military muscles, as retired rear admiral Yang Yi suggested they might when he urged his country’s leaders to use the country’s new military power to cow neighbors into obedient submission? “We should tell people how many aircraft carriers we’re going to build,” he was reported as saying. “That will put the great powers at ease and crush the small countries’ hopes [that they can provoke us].”43
In the nineteenth century, when Chinese reformers first became fixated on their country’s deficit of prosperity and national strength, they had looked toward their ultimate attainment largely in defensive terms, as a means of protecting and defending their country from outside incursion. But after a century of relying on patriotism and nationalism as binding agents to congeal Sun Yat-sen’s proverbial “sheet of loose sand,” there was always the danger of a new sentiment—one not unknown among those once acquainted with oppression—arising: the temptation to do unto others what has been done unto them.
Whether the attitude of China’s new leaders toward projections of national strength as international power, especially military force, might morph into something more aggressive than what those nineteenth- and twentieth-century thinkers chronicled in this book yearned for, is one of the unanswered questions challenging new leaders, not just in China, but around the world. But, if the idea of wealth and power did become more assertive, even aggressive, China would doubtless find that the kind of soft power they so eagerly sought would remain elusive in a way that no amount of propaganda or PR would be able to remedy. Moreover, exactly that kind of global respect for which the Chinese people have yearned and labored for so long—and which had, in fact, at last begun to accumulate—would then likely evanesce before their eyes.
However, should China’s leaders succeed in resisting such a siren song and instead seek accommodation in disputes with its neighbors, as well as evolving a domestic political system based increasingly on the rule of law, transparency, and accountability of rulers to the ruled, then the People’s Republic of China stands a good chance of finally winning the long-dreamed-of title of a truly modern and great country, not just a great power.
- On Sun’s efforts see: Bergere, Sun Yat-sen, 50–55. On self-strengtheners’ hopes for a mid-dynastic revival see: Wright, Last Stand of Chinese Conservatism. For a contemporary analysis see Wang, Never Forget National Humiliation, 237–42.↩
- Quoted in Wang, Never Forget National Humiliation, 130.↩
- Wang, Never Forget National Humiliation, 238.↩
- Quoted in Wang, Never Forget National Humiliation, 132.↩
- Xi Jinping, “Address to the Media,” China Daily, November 16, 2012.↩
- Xi Jinping, “Xi Pledges Great Renewal of Chinese Nation,” Xinhua News Service, November 29, 2012.↩
- Simon Rabinovitch, “ ‘Strong Army’ Xi: The Other Side of China’s Reformer,” The Financial Times, December 13, 2012.↩
- See: “China Top Legislature Concludes Annual Session,” Shanghai Daily, March 17, 2013: http://mobile.shanghaidaily.com/article/?id=526199. ↩
- Schwartz, In Search of Wealth and Power, 120.↩
- Schram, MRTP, 2:430.↩
- Quoted in Leys, Broken Images, 25.↩
- Ibid., 29; also see Hsia, The Gate of Darkness, 146–62.↩
- Schoppa, Twentieth Century China: A History in Documents, 141.↩
- Fairbank, Foreword, in Lo and Kinderman, In the Eye of the Typhoon, ix.↩
- Liang, quoted in Arkush and Lee, Land Without Ghosts, 93.↩
- MacFarquhar and Schoenhals, Mao’s Last Revolution, 3.↩
- Heilmann and Perry, eds., Mao’s Invisible Hand, 5, 15.↩
- Ibid., 3.↩
- Ibid., 11–15.↩
- Ibid., 7.↩
- Ibid., 12.↩
- Heilman, “Policy Making Through Experimentation,” in Heilman and Perry, eds., Mao’s Invisible Hand, 87–89.↩
- See Nathan, “Authoritarian Resistance.”↩
- Fairbank, Reischauer, and Craig, East Asia: The Great Transformation, 884.↩
- See Cohen, Discovering History.↩
- Fukuyama, “The End of History,” 1.↩
- Ibid., 7–8.↩
- Quoted in Hicks, The Broken Mirror, 160.↩
- Spence, The Search for Modern China, 1st ed., 747.↩
- Schell, Mandate of Heaven, 441.↩
- See Halper, The Beijing Consensus.↩
- See: http://www.china-embassy.org/eng/xw/t662061.htm. ↩
- Nye, Soft Power, x.↩
- White House, “U.S.-China Joint Statement,” Beijing, November 17, 2009.↩
- Deng, Deng Xiaoping wenxuan, 3:370.↩
- Wong, “China Communist Chief Acts to Bolster Military,” New York Times, December 15, 2012.↩
- Lu Xun, “Nahan” (“Outcry”), trans. by authors, Lu Xun Xiaoshuoji, 91.↩
- De Bary et al., Sources of Chinese Tradition, 781.↩
- Buckley, “Vows of Change in China Belie Private Warning,” New York Times, February 14, 2013.↩
- Deng, (Jan. 28–Feb. 18, 1991) Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping, 3:355.↩
- Editorial, The Financial Times, January 8, 2013; “Battling the Censors,” Economist, January 13, 2013.↩
- Hille, “Return of Warlike Rhetoric from China,” The Financial Times, January 22, 2013.↩