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Dreams of a Different China

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Jianan Yu/Reuters
A street artist with his portrait of Chinese President Xi Jinping, Dali, China, July 2013

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.”

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.”

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.

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.

  1. 1

    See Ian Johnson, “ At China’s New Museum, History Toes Party Line,” The New York Times, April 4, 2011. 

  2. 2

    See “ CPC Leaders Visit ‘Road to Revival,’ ” Xihuanet.com, November 30, 2012. 

  3. 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. 

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