Dreams of a Different China

Last November, China’s newly installed leader, Xi Jinping, asked his fellow Chinese to help realize a “Chinese dream” of national rejuvenation. In the months since then, his talk has been seen as a marker in the new leadership’s thinking, especially as Xi has pursued a policy of robustly defending territorial claims and called on the United States to explore “a new type of great power relationship.” These actions, unthinkable a decade ago when China was still a much smaller, less important global player, were evidence that Xi intended to realize his dream.

Xi carefully chose the stage where he made his call. It wasn’t at a meeting of parliament or a trip abroad, but during a visit to an exhibition in the National Museum of China. Located on the east end of Tiananmen Square, the museum is a cavernous structure of severe columns adorned with a national crest and a stylized billowing red flag. The architecture’s overtly political themes are reflected in the building’s tumultuous history: since its launch in 1959, the museum has been closed more often than open, as successive leaders have squabbled over what should be presented inside. In its present incarnation, it was redesigned by a German architecture firm to be the world’s largest museum and reopened in 2011.1 One of its permanent exhibitions is the show Xi visited, “The Road to Rejuvenation.”

Kim Kyung-Hoon/AFP/Getty Images
President Xi Jinping during a meeting at the Great Hall of the People, November 7, 2013.

That show tells a story that every Chinese child learns at school: China was humiliated for a hundred years by outsiders from the mid-nineteenth century onward and, despite brave attempts by well-meaning but misguided patriots in the years after, only really got back on track when the Communists took power in 1949. From there, the country went from strength to strength, the inevitable triumph of Communist will and ideology. It was against this backdrop that Xi declared, “I think that achieving the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation is the greatest Chinese dream in modern times.”2

Xi’s definition of China’s dream has caused much discussion. While the slogan seems to directly mimic the term “American dream,” it is almost the antithesis of that dream of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—personal goals that in Xi’s vision are replaced by a collective, national pursuit. The Economist even posited that Xi was echoing a call made a few weeks earlier by the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who said that China needed its own dream—its own guiding principle like the American version.3 (Friedman had something more environmentally friendly in mind, hoping that China wouldn’t develop the suburban sprawl and energy appetite of the United States.) Xi’s vision might have disappointed utopians, but as Orville Schell and John Delury point out in their new book, Wealth and Power, this desire for national gloire has been the driving force behind Chinese thinkers for nearly two centuries.

Their book’s title derives from the Chinese term fuqiang, wealth and power, which the authors identify as the guiding idea behind the people who have led China since the early nineteenth century. Schell and Delury describe a series of eleven thinkers, activists, and leaders in their stylishly written, provocative book. They say the idea for it came from a simple but important question: “How did China’s modern history of relentless humiliation and backwardness…suddenly morph into such a story of triumph?” The answer is an “abiding quest” for wealth and power. Through these figures—writers, revolutionaries, and even a dowager empress—we see that Xi’s dream is firmly in the tradition of those who went before.

Identifying this—correctly, I think—as the dominant discourse over the past nearly two hundred years allows the authors to make several important points. One is that unlike other revolutions, China’s was not started for idealistic reasons, such as freedom or liberty, but for utilitarian purposes: restoring national glory. The Chinese version of liberté, égalité, and fraternité, they say, was “wealth, strength, and honor.” Hence the relentless pragmatism that one sees—anything for the desired result. Yes, Deng Xiaoping’s jettisoning of Communist ideology was seen as shocking, but he was firmly in the mold of earlier leaders who in prior decades had tried on communism, fascism, and authoritarianism. In one of their many memorable phrases, the authors say that China has gone through “serial economic, intellectual, cultural, and political organ transplants.”

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The traditional beginning of this narrative, then, isn’t a glorious revolution but humiliation: the Opium War. Smartly, however, Schell and Delury give a more nuanced version of events by starting the story earlier, with the early-nineteenth-century thinker and official Wei Yuan. Even before the Opium War, Wei believed that the Qing dynasty was in decline and turned to an old Chinese school of statecraft, legalism, for solutions. He believed the government needed to invest in an advanced military, encourage commerce, and maintain order through tough laws. Schell and Delury write, “Their list of priorities and principles bears a sometimes uncanny resemblance to today’s ‘China model’ of authoritarian, state-led capitalism.”

Wei also wrote arguably the first realistic geopolitical assessment of Western expansion and its implications for the region—in contrast to previous worldviews, which emphasized China’s centrality and superiority. He is a fascinating figure and it’s shocking to realize that no full-length treatment of him exists in English, making this chapter alone worth the price of the book.

Another principal figure in Wealth and Power is Feng Guifen, who wrote in the mid-nineteenth century and likely coined the term “self-strengthening,” which became a leitmotif for decades to come. Feng called for China to selectively borrow from the West—which, arguably, has been China’s course for the past century and a half. Feng also reflects another theme of the book: the tension between adopting technocratic fixes and making deeper changes to the political and ideological system. Feng noticed that a significant part of the West’s strength was the accountability of its governments to its people. Although he believed in the emperor’s right to rule, he suggested adopting village democracy and open budgetary processes—two reforms bandied about in recent decades by the Communist Party but still not realized.

As the book moves toward current times, it includes better-known figures. We meet the Empress Dowager Cixi, as well as the great publicist and thinker Liang Qichao, who adopted a Japanese term, “destructivism,” which would acquire an eerie resonance in the twentieth century.

Marching through the decades, the desire to try something, anything, is evident. But as always, a unifying factor is a strong state. Even Sun Yat-sen, who helped overthrow the Qing and whose ideology including “people’s rights,” saw such rights as a necessity to strengthen the country, not as God-given or natural rights to counterbalance a powerful state. Mostly, he argued that Chinese needed more discipline to counteract what he felt had been centuries of weak government.

Another common feature shared by most of the influential Chinese in the volume is the desire to salvage parts of China’s indigenous tradition—something shared by peoples around the world when confronted with the brutal logic of modernization. Even early Communists like Chen Duxiu hoped to maintain some traditions, as did “destructionists” like Liang. Indeed, many of these radical reformers first thought of discarding the past and then thought better of it—a reversal of how one might imagine people to react to their country’s decline. They were willing to try the worst but later restrained themselves.

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The exception was Mao, who believed that prior reformers didn’t go far enough in attacking traditional thought and culture. Mao gets two chapters and it’s here that I had some hesitations. The authors’ argument is that Mao was necessary for Deng’s reforms—that he laid the groundwork for the subsequent economic takeoff. At the national museum off Tiananmen Square, these three decades of Mao’s rule are called the “construction” period when borders were secured, infrastructure built, and heavy industry promoted.

Schell and Delury likewise argue for the necessity of Mao’s rule, although in very different terms: while criticizing him for his violence and brutality, they say Mao tore down so much of Chinese society that he left a “shovel-ready” greenfield site for Deng’s edifice of economic construction. The term they most often use is “creative destruction,” purposefully echoing the Austrian-American economist Joseph Schumpeter, who said the destruction of firms and industries in capitalism could lead to new, more efficient economic life. Applied to China, it meant that Mao wiped out enough of something inefficient—traditional Chinese culture—to allow new growth to shoot out:

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….

I have to admit to extreme skepticism about this argument. One problem is that it assumes that traditions were a detriment to development and their destruction was needed to “finally neutralize their drag on modernization,” as the authors put it. It goes without saying that modernization has destroyed traditions in every country it has touched, but some countries have kept far more of their traditions than China and still modernized—one thinks of Japan, South Korea, and, more relevantly, Taiwan. It isn’t clear what aspects of tradition were so bad that they needed annihilating, and which of them Mao eliminated.

It also supposes that prior to Mao, China was on a dead-end path—that essentially it needed a Mao or it wouldn’t have modernized. This used to be a fairly conventional view, but many historians now believe that the pre–World War II Nationalists were well on their way to modernizing China and likely would have stayed in power if Japan had not invaded. Schell and Delury are aware of this argument, and mention a “golden decade” of development in their chapter on Chiang Kai-shek; but they don’t follow through on its implications. If Chiang and the Nationalists were succeeding, then why was Mao’s destruction necessary?

Rather, it seems to me that the authors could more easily have portrayed the Mao years as motivated by fuqiang—and thus not at odds with their overall narrative—but as a period that, nevertheless, led China down a dead-end street. One could even go further and say that the Mao years helped prepare for economic takeoff by creating a literate and healthy workforce—two real accomplishments—while they also laid the Communist Party so low that Deng was forced to experiment with capitalist-style reforms. Instead, there is almost a teleological argument that Mao was necessary, perhaps to give meaning to the series of catastrophes that defined his years in power, such as widespread death by famine during the Great Leap Forward and the millions more who perished in political campaigns like the Cultural Revolution.

I was reminded of the authors’ argument when thinking of how some have explained the success of post–World War II West Germany. At the end of his great work, Germany 1866–1945, the historian Gordon A. Craig wrote that Hitler “destroyed the basis of the traditional resistance to modernity.” But in Germany’s case, the disaster of World War II wiped out the arch-conservative, military-landowning class that had opposed German liberalism during the Weimar period and allowed Hitler’s rise. Thus, the disaster of Hitler eliminated forces that might have hindered a successful recreation of German society after the war. In Mao’s case, he might have destroyed much of the traditional society, but it’s not clear that its survival would have prevented China’s rise. Far more, it was Mao’s own death (and Deng’s coup d’état that removed the Maoists from power) that freed China to pursue modernization—to get back on the halting but not hopeless track it had pursued before the war and that other countries in the region had been following with great success.

Moreover, Mao’s rule left China with immense problems—not just an antidemocratic ruling party, but social and moral problems caused by his violent attacks on religion and traditional values, not to mention his disastrous policies that led to widespread death and brutalization. Otherwise, how to explain the state’s almost desperate efforts to turn back the clock by reinstituting traditional values? These are fairly conventional criticisms of Mao’s rule that are widely discussed in China; I would have liked to have seen Schell and Delury discuss them more thoroughly before concluding that Mao’s was a tragic but necessary period of Chinese history.

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The authors end their engaging book with a chapter on the imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo. (According to the precedents we have, this choice guarantees that the book will not be published in China.) Liu brings us up through the last decade, showing how some Chinese are struggling with the fallout of the search for wealth and power by the Chinese leaders: the result is a virtually unchecked state that can mobilize capital and defend China like no other state in the past two centuries, but which is also highly intrusive and corrupt.

The authors, however, almost undercut their choice of Liu by saying that dissidents like Liu are not part of dominant currents of thought. While it’s true that statist modernizers have held sway in China for the past century and a half, people like Liu have always existed—the yin to the technocrats’ yang. From the start, as indeed Schell and Delury note in earlier chapters, some Chinese have recognized the need for personal freedoms to counterbalance a strong state. Instead of seeing people like Liu as outliers, it might instead be better to have portrayed them as the core problem that China still needs to address if it is to move forward to true national greatness.

These sort of unfulfilled aspirations are at the heart of investment banker Timothy Beardson’s Stumbling Giant, a work by an old-style China business hand—engaged with the country for decades, familiar with its history and interested in more than price–earnings ratios. Beardson’s thesis is clear and succinct: the fuqiang that Schell and Delury explain is real and China is not in danger of collapse. But China’s trajectory is limited for a variety of reasons; and these call into question whether the Chinese project of modernization has been completed or is just entering a new, arguably trickier phase.

Perhaps the least interesting part of the book is chapters on serious issues that need fixing, but that are not unfixable—the technical issues facing many countries on the planet, such as energy and pollution. The most interesting of them is demographics, which he says will hobble China’s rise. He argues that with an aging and ultimately shrinking population, China may not be the overwhelmingly powerful country around 2100 that it seems at the start of this century. He notes that now China holds a 4:1 advantage in population over the United States, but that by 2100, this ratio is likely to be just 1.9:1, with the United States having a much younger population.

If the United States can maintain its economic creativity, Beardson writes, there’s no reason to think that it won’t stay the world’s dominant country through this century. For China to offset its demographic disadvantage, he says, the country will have to face some of the issues neglected during the period of state-building that Schell and Delury explain so well.

One is the sense of humiliation that Schell and Delury see as driving China’s search for the wealth and power of fuqiang. Beardson believes that it is incorrect to see China’s problems as stemming from the Opium War; instead, he says, it’s the far more humiliating fact that outsiders—Mongols and Manchus—have run the country for two of its last three dynasties. Beardson sees the 1911 revolution as strongly influenced by Han Chinese desire to get rid of the Manchus, a one-time nomadic people who founded the Qing dynasty in 1644 and had been running the country since then. While Schell and Delury portray the 1911 revolution as overwhelmingly patriotic or nationalistic, Beardson notes that the revolution began with anti-Manchu pogroms and massacres.

Ironically, the regimes that succeeded the Manchus simply took over the borders that the Manchus had constructed through a series of conquests in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, leaving today’s China as probably the last major multiethnic empire on the planet. Beardson’s conclusion—impossible for any Chinese leader to realize, although entirely sensible—is that China should jettison some of its restive regions, such as parts of Tibet and Xinjiang:

China might be richer, more powerful, more stable, more respected, more modern, more secure and happier as a Han Chinese nation state with a cohesive view of itself, its history, its values and its goals—and, let’s say, with 90–95 percent of its current land mass.

These deep structural issues, however, are unlikely to be solved, hobbling China as it seeks a role for itself in the world. Coupled with its demographic woes and an unclear political future, Beardson says that China will not supplant the United States as the world’s most powerful country.

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This certainly isn’t the conventional wisdom. Reading other books, such as Juan Pablo Cardenal and Heriberto Araújo’s China’s Silent Army, one might be forgiven for thinking that China had already conquered the planet. The work of two Spanish journalists, it reflects many interviews and much travel around the world to show the extent of China’s influence on other countries. But the book is so marred by baroque and hyperbolic language, as well as glib analysis, that it can’t really be taken seriously.

Right at the beginning, in the introduction, the authors claim that the disgraced senior leader Bo Xilai was about to ascend to the top echelons of power before being ousted last year, even though this is purely speculative and highly unlikely. They also say the 2008 Olympics “immediately wiped away” the memory of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, even though this is not the case at all. They also say it was the first Olympics in a developing country, forgetting Mexico in 1968. These errors of fact are compounded by infantilistic, short-term analysis: “What is happening is crystal clear. While the West suffers the consequences of the 2008 crisis, China goes from strength to strength.”

Worse is an ingrained prejudice on the part of the two writers that evokes the Kaiser’s warnings about the yellow peril. They lead off one chapter with a quote saying the Chinese are invisible but “everywhere,” and when crossing the border from Manchuria to Siberia, they write that “the coarse facial features of northern China give way suddenly to the slender figures, pale skin and blond hair of the Caucasian race.” Perhaps this sounds acceptable in Spanish but in English, to a North American ear, the language borders on racism, or at best ludicrously naive views of race.

Books like this are more useful as evidence of the sort of distrust that China’s rise has caused—the sort of issues that Beardson analyzes, or that Edward Luttwak raised in his recent book.4 Another book analyzing how to manage China’s rise is Cool War by Harvard law professor Noah Feldman. This book comes to the unsurprising conclusion that, with its current political system, China will remain an opponent of the United States for some time.

This is because China is not democratic, nor is it likely to become a democracy, Feldman argues, while for the United States, the belief that human rights and democracy are pillars of a legitimate state will continue to lead many Americans to hold that China’s government is illegitimate. A related source of tension is growing nationalism in China, which the party has to foster to maintain legitimacy but which is already causing serious conflicts with its neighbors, most of whom also happen to be U.S. allies. Neither of these problems are likely to abate in the coming decades; on the contrary, Feldman only sees them growing. Sensibly, however, Feldman says that this doesn’t have to mean a new cold war but instead could lead to a protracted period of political competition as well as economic interdependency.

A similar point is made by the Australian international relations expert Hugh White, who writes in China Dreams at least takes the discussion out of the theoretical world of historical forces and hypothetical scenarios, and gives modern Chinese a voice. He does this by considering twenty prominent public intellectuals in China and what they have to say about the China Dream.

Presciently, Callahan focuses on nongovernmental players; of his twenty voices, only three are government officials: Xi Jinping, Hu Jintao, and Bo Xilai. The rest are members—some more, some less—of independent civil society groups. We have quasi-government officials like the economist Justin Lin Yifu,5 nationalists like the political scientist Pan Wei, filmmakers, and bloggers. Some sketch a dystopian future for China, such as the Beijing-based Hong Kong novelist Chan Koonchung. Artists like Cai Guoqiang emphasize the part played by peasants in China’s modernization.

Here we come full circle to Schell and Delury’s historical look at how the Chinese have tried to save their country. Their narrative, especially in the era of the People’s Republic, is dominated by government officials (Mao, Deng, and Zhu Rongji), with the last chapter shifting to Liu Xiaobo and his call for civic reform. Likewise, Callahan sees a bigger role for nonofficial voices. This may be where the best of these books converge: on a realization that China’s future will also be determined by ordinary Chinese citizens themselves. The central question is whether this comes through some form of regularized political participation—currently not possible—or through pressure from below.

  1. See Ian Johnson, “At China’s New Museum, History Toes Party Line,” The New York Times, April 4, 2011.
  2. See “CPC Leaders Visit ‘Road to Revival,’” Xihuanet.com, November 30, 2012.
  3. The Economist’s analysis, see “Chasing the Chinese Dream,” May 4, 2013, and a subsequent blog that went further into this point: “The Role of Thomas Friedman,” May 6, 2013. For the original Friedman column, see “China Needs Its Own Dream,” The New York Times, October 3, 2012.
  4. See my review in these pages, April 4, 2013.
  5. I reviewed his most recent book, Demystifying the Chinese Economy, in these pages, September 27, 2012.