Linking China's Past and Future

Authors Orville Schell and John Delury discuss their latest book

(Michael McDonough/Flickr)

Asia Society Northern California and the World Affairs Council hosted Orville Schell and John Delury on July 31 to mark the release of their new book, Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the Twenty-First Century. The book casts China’s recent economic success and growing global influence as powerfully shaped by the war, humiliation, and instability of the preceding 150 years. UC Berkeley’s Thomas B. Gold, a veteran China hand in his own right, moderated the discussion. Below are some highlights from their spirited exchange:

On writing a book with a partner: Since writing is a “solitary activity,” Schell found it interesting to have someone else to “bounce ideas off of.” Delury credited Dropbox for easing some of the logistical challenges: “I’m based in Seoul, Orville is in New York. And we had a lot of really fun trips meeting up in China.”

On recovering from the “humiliation complex”: According to Wealth and Power, the story of modern China starts with “absolute predominance up until the 1800s; economically, militarily, diplomatically the greatest power. And then 150 years of decline.” Decline left a powerful legacy of national shame, and Schell and Delury say it’s real: there is an “empirical basis for this feeling, not just government-inspired nationalism.” But it’s time for China to move on, they argued, and come to terms with its growing global presence.

On corruption in China: Delury said, “The Chinese are fully aware of how endemic corruption is. Start chatting with a cab driver, and he’ll immediately tell you how corrupt the government is.” From personal experience as well as scholarly research, the authors have found that both government officials and the average Chinese citizen are acutely aware of corruption’s reach, but by trying to deal with it from the top down, the government is handling it in a “very traditional way.” 

On Chinese diplomacy: “U.S. foreign policy is predicated on deep righteousness, but the Chinese are different, less confident. Sometimes it’s a strength; they don’t go to other parts of the world demanding things,” said Delury. “They ask, ‘How does it work? We want to work with you, cultivate long-term relationships.’ Chinese diplomats try more to learn about the world than the U.S. does.”

On the Chinese dream: Schell and Delury stressed that the “Chinese dream” is not the American dream. “For Xi Jinping, it’s a shared dream,” said Delury. “It’s a dream for China, not what all the many are dreaming. Not a plurality or a diversity of dreams. The Chinese dream is a rejuvenation of the nation’s wealth and power. It’s greater than just making money, it’s a national quest.”

Here is the full video of the event: