Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the 21st Century

John Delury
John Delury

SEOUL - April 15th, 2014 - John Delury, a renowned Chinese and North Korean historian and expert, a current professor at Yonsei University in Seoul, and fellow of the Asia Society’s Center for U.S.-China Relations, gave a talk focusing on his new book, Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the Twenty-first Century. His presentation focused on the purpose of his book, a breakdown of the contents, and the implications for China’s way forward into the future as one of the most powerful countries and economies in the world.

Dr. Delury started by introducing the concept behind his book by examining the main argument it is based on. Dr. Delury stressed that the purpose of the book is to examine where the current China has come from through a historical context and framework about its leadership, and where it could head in the future. China’s history is investigated so that people today can understand the past, and therefore better understand what is happening with China in the present.

The central theme of the book is fuqiang, a Chinese concept literally meaning wealth and power. According to Dr. Delury, this ideology of wealth and power was the driving force of China’s political and intellectual leaderships as far back as 2,500 years ago, during the time when the philosophies of Confucius were taking root in Chinese thinking.  As Dr. Delury states, the ideology of wealth and power is actually anti-Confucianism. The concept of wealth and power was developed by a group of thinkers knows as Legalists, who were the antagonists of Confucianism. Their thinking was proto-authoritarian and they had similar ideas to state led capitalism. The core principal of the Legalists was that wealth and power should be the guiding purpose of the state and society as a whole. According to Dr. Delury, this was in stark contrast with those following Confucianism, which advocated morality and ethics. During China’s history, both groups constantly argued about the definition of politics and leadership. On one hand, Confucianism advocated morality, ethics, virtue, and a harmonious society. On the other hand, the Legalists believed that politics and leadership should focus on a strong military, a dynamic economy, people having access to wealth, and a strong state.

Dr. Delury discussed the next part of the book by fast forwarding to the modern period, beginning in the early nineteenth century. At this time in China’s history, Confucianism played an important role in shaping China’s ruling structure. However, there was also a revival in the concept of wealth and power, and the belief that it should become the driving force behind the Qing Dynasty. Dr. Delury examines two men in his book who were influential for this shift in thinking. Wei Yuan and Feng Guifen were instrumental in restoring the concept of wealth and power during the Qing Dynasty. Though concept of restoring wealth to the dynasty was right, the implementation of the policies was incorrect, and this had disastrous effects on China. At the time when Wei and Feng were reviving the notion of wealth and power, China was being pressured by imperialist powers such as Great Britain, and it was also falling behind other Asian countries who were modernizing at a much faster rate and much more efficiently, namely Japan. This became obvious during the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895 and became a fundamental turning point for China. This was because, according to Dr. Delury, it was made clear that wealth and power needed to become the focus, but the questions relating to policies such as the allocation of resources, the prioritization between wealth creation, and focusing on a strong defense were not resolved, nor were they dealt with effectively until the twenty-first century.

Dr. Delury then briefly talked about the next part of the book, which is divided into biographical chapters divided between the thinkers Wei and Feng, and the doers, who were the most important political figures and leaders since the Opium Wars. These leaders include Chiang Kai-Shek, Ding Xiaoping, Mao Zedong. In his talk, Dr. Delury discussed the overall critical reception of his book, stating that most reviews had been positive. However, there was some negative push back against the book in regards to the section on Mao, specifically regarding the controversial chapter titled “Creative Destruction.” As Dr. Delury noted, the tile of the chapter was chosen because, while Mao’s reign created horrific disasters and terrible human tragedy, this destruction created new growth. While Dr. Delury stressed this new growth did not justify what happened, nor was it necessarily what Mao had in mind when implementing his economic policies, that was how history happened. Mao also had an obsession with wealth and power, and his idea of communism was a means to an end: a way of restoring wealth and power to China in a nationalist context. Ding was alslo looking at restoring China’s wealth and power, and although he succeeded where Mao failed, both were pursuing the same ideal.

Dr. Delury also examined the final part of the book, based on two key people. The book looks at a key political figure central to the 1990’s reform period, Zhu Rongji. The last chapter also examines the controversial thinker in modern Chinese history, the Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo. As Dr. Delury stated, many Chinese find the inclusion of Liu to be unusual, in that they do not think of him on the same level of other Chinese thinkers and leaders presented in the book. However, he was included because of his incisive writings that focus on the ideology of wealth and power. In his writings, he clearly shows that the restoration of wealth and power has been the engine of Chinese ideology and political leadership in the modern period. However, Liu also raises the issue of values, and resurrects the old argument between Confucianism and Legalists. He questions the need for pursuing wealth and power, and what China will do with all of their prosperity. Liu also sees the problems China is facing now with a rising disparity of wealth, environmental problems, and a lack of values China can share with the rest of the world.

At the end of his talk, Dr. Delury briefly discussed the op-ed piece published in the Wall Street Journal after the book was published in July. He stated that the op-ed made the argument that China’s focus on wealth and power was used as a way to wipe away the stain of humiliation and victimization. The West is currently watching China’s development, and as it is now the second largest economy in the world, it is no longer a victim. Three weeks later, the Secretary General of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Jinping, called the publicity department to Beijing and delivered a seven point talk. In it he stressed that there were people in the West stating China was still clinging to their humiliation narrative, and that this type of thinking was a terrible way for China to go forward in the future.

Dr. Delury concluded his talk by saying he was curious to see how Xi Jinping’s leadership would evolve, as it ties into the idea of historical identity. As Dr. Delury stated, historical identity problems are alive and well in Asia, particularly relating to Sino-Japanese relations. They are also a part of China’s domestic history as well, specifically looking at the June 4th, 1989 massacre of the Democracy Movement. Dr. Delury ended his talk by bringing up the evolution of Xi Jinping’s leadership, and whether or not he will be able to sustain his stance of not questioning historical interpretation in the next ten or twenty years. He stressed that this is a moment that not only historians can watch with interest, but that non-historians can also watch and think about this situation closely.