How Wealth and Power Figure Into A Panoramic Narrative of China’s Rise, Complexity
HOUSTON, October 2, 2013 — Modern Chinese history often resembles a shattered mosaic, a jumble of failed reforms, broken revolutions, and spasms of collective violence, capped in the last 20 years by an astonishing surge of national reinvention. Can these disparate pieces be put into a coherent pattern?
Yes, says Orville Schell, the Arthur Ross Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at Asia Society New York. Schell and co-author John Delury, an assistant professor at Yonsei University in Seoul, trace the figure in the carpet in a new book, Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the Twenty-First Century (Random House).
Schell and Delury argue that a common chord sounds in such disparate history-makers as Mao Zedong, Chiang Kai-shek, and the notorious last empress, the Dowager Cixi. What those three and the eight other iconic political figures profiled in the book wanted was to see China recover fuqiang—“wealth and power”—two defining national attributes the country once possessed but lost during decades of humiliating domination by Western powers and Japan.
“The thing that was most important to China when it fell from being the center of the world it knew to the ignominious position of being a failed state, the sick man of Asia, was this deep yearning for restoration and greatness which is described by the character for wealth and power,” Schell said, explaining the book’s title. He spoke at an Asia Society Texas Center program moderated by Dr. Hans Stockton, Director of International Studies at the University of St. Thomas.
Two themes dominated their discussion. One is the extent to which an ideology of humiliation and anger continues to color the Chinese view of the world and influences its response to other countries. The other is question of what’s next, now that “wealth and power” seem to be within China’s grasp.
“China is close to getting a significant amount of the wealth and power it desires, but it keeps finding that it’s missing something else—that global respect that it wants and that I think every great nation wants,” Schell said. “It’s so elusive, and doesn’t necessarily follow from wealth and power.”
Recently China has tried with varying degrees of success to exert “soft power,” Schell said, citing as an example the international distribution of the state-owned newspaper China Daily. But he suggested China’s authoritarianism causes countries to shy away from its embrace.
“The nation that is respected is the nation that respects its own people and allows its own people to be creative, open and free,” Schell said. “This is the part that is still incomplete in the Chinese revolution, in China’s progress toward reinventing itself.”
Among the personalities who surprised him as he delved into research for the book was Chiang Kai-shek, the Nationalist Party strongman. Though a darling of the anti-Communist West, Chiang turned out to be a traditionalist with pronounced anti-Western views, Schell said.
Chiang was “filled with a sense of ambivalence about what the West had done to China, how the West had humiliated China,” Schell said. “He wrote a book called China’s Destiny, and on every other page he’s railing against unequal treaties and the savage inequities in what the West and Japan did to China.”
The vexed question of what and how much China should take from the West, technologically and culturally, threads through Chiang’s life and through the whole of modern Chinese history, Schell said.
Addressing China’s dramatic economic and political turnaround in recent decades, Schell credits Mao Zedong, whose “creative destruction” during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, savage though it was, successfully rooted out traditional, Confucian-based conservative culture, the rock upon which previous reform efforts had foundered. “Mao kind of cleared the decks” for Deng Xiaoping, giving him room to maneuver, Schell said.
But history is full of ironies. Mao destroyed in order to usher in a socialist utopia. What Deng and his successors erected on the ruins of old China is a peculiarly Chinese form of capitalism, overseen by a Leninist political party.
Asked by Dr. Stockton what the world can expect from China’s new president, Xi Jinping, Schell said “God only knows.”
Today’s top leadership values consensual decision-making, arrived at through backroom negotiations, over high-profile, charismatic leaders with grand visions, he said.
“One of the most astounding facts is that we have a leader of one of the great nations of the world, one of the most consequential nations of the world, and we know so little about what he actually believes.”
Concluding with the question of what China’s new national narrative will be, Schell warned that history offers few examples of countries that achieve wealth and power and resist the temptation to exert them on the international stage.
“This is going to be China’s great challenge,” he said. “If they can overcome it, it will be a great historical moment.”
Reported by Fritz Lanham