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    Greater China
     Nov 7, 2009
China according to the Chinese
The Origin, Process, and Outcome of China's Reforms
in the Past One Hundred Years
by Enbao Wang

Reviewed by Yu Bin

French leader Napoleon Bonaparte had an aphorism: "Let China sleep; when she wakes she will shake the world," said Napoleon (1769-1821). Nearly 180 years after his death, this famous aphorism (or cliche, for Sinologists/China experts) by the French military genius and dictator is both right AND wrong.

He was right because China, indeed, had gone into almost a century-and-a-half "sleep" - a benign word for a prolonged devastation from 1839 to 1979 by wars, defeats, occupation, revolution, civil wars and political upheaval.

Napoleon was wrong, however, to predict that China's awakening


would shake the world, meaning to challenge the West-dominated international system. Thirty years after China unfolded its historical reform in 1979, a strong and stable China - instead of switching between Napoleonic "sleeping" and "shaking" modes - has served as a world factory and has been a "stakeholder" of the existing international system still dominated by the West.

How and why has China's rise defied the prediction of past sages and today's pundits? Much of the English language discourse on China's rise is divided between those who are fascinated and those who are frightened by China's recent rise. While optimists see that an increasingly modernized China would eventually be "Westernized," pessimists do not trust the rise of a non-Western, non-democratic, non-Christian or non-white China. Like Napoleon, Western pundits are either unable or unwilling, or both, to see that China's historical rise can be different from that of Western powers.

There is no question that China's rise is important for the West. China's rise, however, is even more important for the Chinese because they are the initiators and recipients of China's historical rise, for better or worse. A genuine Chinese voice in the West's China discourse, however, is barely discernible. Unlike Said with his provocative inquiry, those few scholars of Chinese origin in some visible Western intellectual positions have almost completely "Orientalized" themselves into the Western paradigm. [1]

They either dance to the tune of Western constructs of a China "collapse-or-threat" chorus; or, alternatively, their "comparative advantage" in the West's "China watch" business is fully tapped as they invent or help perpetuate a treatise of comparative communism (China's economic vs Russia's political reforms) and comparative developmental models (India vs China) (see Chapter 7). In both sub-areas of Western academics, the permeating though unspoken theme is that the non-Western and non-democratic China is a "problem" not just to be understood but also to be "solved".

Need for China's own voice
Wang's book, The Chinese Quest for National Rejuvenation, represents a timely and useful attempt to fill an apparently growing gap between what has happened in China in the past 30 years on one hand, and the persistent Western cultural-political solipsism on the other.

Wang's book covers a broad trajectory of China's search for national salvation and development in the 20th century (particularly by Sun Yat-sen, Chiang Kai-shek, and Mao Zedong) following the Western intrusion and semi-colonization of China in the wake of the infamous Opium War (1840-42). In the early 21st century, the goal of rejuvenating China is indeed within reach. China's thinking is going back to the past for its future.

So is Dr Wang, who zeros in on the crucial role of Deng Xiaoping in steering China toward economic development and opening China to the outside world (Chapter 2). According to Wang, China's rise boils down to a new political ideology of Dengism, of building socialism with Chinese characteristics, a major departure from Marxism, Leninism and Maoism. In the post-Deng era, the Chinese political elite furthered Deng's pragmatism by first invigorating the political, intellectual, and business elites (Jiang Zemin's "three represents") and then re-engaging the more vulnerable groups (Hu Jintao's "harmonious society") (Chapter 4).

What Wang documents in the book is not necessarily new and much of it has been picked up and perhaps even over-studied by Western scholars. Yet, this is one of the relatively few works that systematically traces, from the Chinese perspective, the origin, theories, process and outcome of China's reforms of the past 100 years. With a focus on the past 30 years, the study touches many key elements: rural reforms, price reforms, reforms of state-owned enterprises, the decision to join the world trading system, special economic zones, effort to attract foreign investment, urbanization, reemergence of the private sector, even the formation of the stock market. All of these, plus the sustained political stability rarely seen in the previous 130 years, has turned the world's most populous nation into an economic powerhouse. By 2007, China became the third largest economy of the world (or the second largest if measured with purchasing power parity, or PPP), up from a mere 5% of the world's GDP in 1978 (Chapter 1).

Almost all of the Western scholarly works on China's reform tend to argue that China has made only economic, not political, reforms, meaning democratization. Wang, however, portrays a quite different picture: the ruling Communist Party has essentially transformed itself, albeit gradually, into a multi-class party, including the capitalist class. Non-communist figures also hold posts at various levels of governance; the National People's Congress, once a rubber-stamp, has grown some real teeth; and local level democratic elections have become institutionalized. Although these movements toward democracy are "limited," the key is, according to Wang, that the trend will not be reversed (Chapter 3).

A key aspect of China's rise is its relations with the external world. For this, Wang focuses on two broad issues: relations with the United States, the world's sole superpower, and with China's neighbors, particularly those with whom China went to war after 1949 (South Korea, India, Vietnam and Russia). Indeed, Deng's vision and strategy for peace and development paralleled improving relations with the United States, the strongest power in the world. China's rejuvenation cannot be accomplished without cooperative and friendly relations with Washington.

In this regard, it is imperative to convince Washington, as well as the rest of the world, of the peaceful intention and purpose of China's rise. Wang traces the origins of the theory of "China's peaceful rise" to a 1997 speech at Harvard University by Zheng Bijian, a leading strategist in Beijing. Zheng's view draws wide attention from both China and the United States (Chapter 5). Zheng's theory has yet to convince the entire foreign audience, which is perhaps a "mission impossible" given the different background of history, culture and political systems. China's actual policies toward Washington, and particularly toward its neighbors, however, help alleviate outside concerns for the rise of this huge nation.

China's 'regional-global' and 'internal-external'
causalities: Toward a refined comprehension of
China's rise 'of peace, by peace, and for peace'

[2] Wang's study by no means exhausts the China rise discourse. Nor does it attempt to cover everything in China in the past 30 years. If anything, it perhaps opens more space for scholarly inquiry. In this regard, Wang's effort points to two useful "linkages" for future studies: a linkage between China's "major power diplomacy" (da guo guanxi) and its "periphery" policies (zhoubian zhengce) or relations with China's neighbors; and a linkage between China's domestic and foreign policies.

In the first place, Wang's choice for a focused study of China's relations with the United States and its neighbors (Chapters 5 and 6) is perhaps very pertinent in the past 60 years and point to two radically different patterns in China's interactions with these nations. Between the 1950s and 1970s, China fought across the 38th parallel in Korea, along the Taiwan Strait, down to Indochina, up in the Himalayas, and along the 4,000 miles of the Sino-Russian border.

Although these conflicts were not entirely the making of China, the periphery of China became an active fault line separating East and West, maritime and continental powers, democracies and communism, the yellow and white worlds, and the liberal and centralized economies. Indeed, China had earned the reputation as "a regional power without a regional policy”, or an Asian power without an Asian policy. [3]

To a large extent, it was the powerful cold war era international and regional setting, particularly the effort of the world's most powerful capitalist state (the United States) that constrained China's diplomatic space and choices. Within this polarized context, China had to define its regional foreign and security policies according to relations with the superpowers (yi su huaxian, yi mei huaxian, fandi fanxiu). Worse, even if the cold war was essentially "cold" between the two system powers (United States and USSR), "hot" wars in Asia, such as those in Korea and Vietnam, were not only real but were waged as a way to contain China. During the reform decades, China has indeed departed from that confrontational posture with both major powers (including Russia) and its neighbors, as Dr Wang's book unambiguously portrays.

In terms of "internal-external" causality, China's diplomatic accomplishments would be inconceivable if China had remained weak, divided and chaotic, as was the case of most of the 20th century prior to the reform decades. If anything, China was the target and victim of numerous wars, defeats and humiliating foreign occupations in the first half of the 20th century. The foreign factor aside, what China underwent at this time was national decay at the hands of the corrupted Manchus, divided warlords, an inept nationalist regime and destructive civil wars.

Even if Mao unified China, his periodic overplaying people's power had led to both romantic and tragic outcomes. It was not until after his death in 1976 that China started to stabilize. For better or for worse, the reform decades since the late 1970s are perhaps the longest period of internal stability that China has enjoyed at any time during the past 170 years (from 1839 when the first Opium War broke out).

"A weak nation has no meaningful diplomacy (ruoguo wu waijiao)," goes a popular Chinese saying. A largely stable and reasonably strong China with sustained economic development during the reform decades, therefore, is the key to China's diplomatic accomplishments. It was only under these circumstances that China's elite, from Deng to Jiang to Hu, have been able to conceive, formulate and pursue a meaningful diplomacy with China's neighbors, with the United States and around the world. Alternatively, a weak, divided and unstable China would be either the prey of stronger powers or reacting with more belligerent policies toward others, as was the case in the first three quarters of the 20th century. 

Continued 1 2  

China no longer a law unto itself (OCt 30, '09)

China's culture offensive hits a wall
(Oct 27, '09)

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2. Russia, India and China go their ways

3. Welcome to Pashtunistan

4. Is Obama's Iran policy doomed?

5. Iran looks to Argentina for nuclear fuel

6. How Eurocentric is your day?

7. India on brink of Maoist offensive

8. Empty boasts of glory

9. China's sleepy Hengqin wakes up

10. Uyghur activist seeks talks with Beijing

(24 hours to 11:59pm ET, Nov 5, 2009)


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