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Why Is Prosperous China So Anxious?

China, like other countries, seeks economic success and global respect. The country has accomplished so much in a few short decades – massively expanding the economy, reducing poverty and developing impressive infrastructure. Yet Chinese leaders exude anxiety, suggests author and long-time China observer Orville Schell. Fearing public discontent and unrest, the Chinese Communist Party resists transparency and expanding freedoms for its citizens. Self-confidence and global respect “rarely derive from state control, manipulations or official propaganda campaigns,” he writes. “Instead, like soft power, they arise almost alchemically from societies and cultures left free to innovate and incubate new ideas.” Achieving balance between social controls and freedoms is a challenge, and leaders would be wise to avoid the populism of former Politburo member Bo Xilai now on trial. Schell warns China’s discontented or outside competitors against wishing for instability and collapse – far better for China’s political leaders to follow a path to greater power with self-discipline, reform, reinvention, and steadfast respect for Chinese citizens and global welfare. – YaleGlobal

Why Is Prosperous China So Anxious?

China’s quest for global respect starts at home with good governance and soft power
Orville Schell
YaleGlobal, 5 September 2013
Power and worry: President and Party Secretary General Xi Jinping has every reason to be confident (top), but a worried China still fills jails with political prisoners

NEW YORK: For those who look at China from afar, or see it on a visit through the lens of the towering new buildings, stunning airport terminals, state-of-the-art high-speed rail systems and dazzling architecture of monuments, museums, concert and municipal halls that dot cityscapes, it may seem counterintuitive that the leaders who guided this economic counter-revolution should be so sensitive on so many issues.

A continuous sense of anxiety radiates throughout endless remedial political campaigns despite an economic miracle of incomparable dimensions, one unequalled by any society at any other time in the history. Do Chinese leaders not – as John Delury and I chronicle in our new book, Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the 21st Century – find themselves, at last, on the verge of attaining a long sought holy grail, restoration of China to a state of relative prosperity and strength, if not greatness? After such accomplishment, are these leaders and their citizens not deserving of a moment of victorious respite?

Yet the stunning levels of economic success are not accompanied by a greater sense of self-confidence. Instead, China’s newly enthroned leaders seem compelled to keep elevating levels of political control, even when doing so is such an impediment to China attaining that other goal, much yearned for but elusive, global respect.

These attributes rarely derive from state control, manipulations or official propaganda campaigns. Instead, like soft power, they arise almost alchemically from societies and cultures left free to innovate and incubate new ideas. But, these attributes also derive from how a government interacts with its own people, depending on whether it has enough confidence in its legitimacy to afford the level of freedom necessary to generate a culture that is truly self-inspired and thus winsome to the rest of the world.

In China, stunning levels of economic success are not accompanied by more self-confidence.

The right balance between necessary societal controls and freedoms is always extremely difficult to attain, and thus one must have certain sympathy for China’s leaders who now find themselves riding a particularly challenging and insubordinate tiger, one that metaphorically might be said to have had a long and complicated history of abuse by its various serial keepers. Indeed, contemplating all the perfidies and savageries that the 20th century afflicted on this particular tiger is enough to make one marvel that it is alive and well at all, much less so successful!

Having accomplished one epic stage in a grand drama of development, what President Xi Jinping has taken to referring to as the “China Dream,” Chinese leaders find themselves confronting a new and as yet unwritten next act, but one on which the curtain has already risen. The new script must be written not only with the actors already on the stage, but it will almost certainly require a different compact with “the people,” one that does not depend so heavily on control.

In this regard, Document 9, released several months ago from the General Office of the Central Committee, which calls on Communist Party members to heighten vigilance against such trends as constitutionalism, civil society, democracy, human rights, press freedom and more is unsettling. The document may not be an expression of the president himself and could simply be the Communist Party’s conservative side expressing itself. The truth is, we do not know. But whatever its provenance, the challenge for the party and current leaders is to figure out how to protect the country’s past successes by sketching out a plan that plots a more enlightened political path.

Document 9 calls for vigilance on democracy, human rights, press freedom and other trends.

Here, leaders are in uncharted territory in which old standby practices of applying more controls whenever the going gets tough will probably not suffice. This was something that Deng Xiaoping came to understand as he regained power in the late 1970s. By acting boldly during the early 1980s, he dramatically shifted the nation’s gears and – at least until 1987 – generated a considerable new fount of popular support.  Consider the spontaneous “Nihao, Xiaoping?” sign held aloft by fans in Tiananmen Square in 1984 during the 35th anniversary of the PRC?

The country is once again at such an inflection point, and Chinese leaders seem to sense it. Unfortunately, they also seem to be responding to this challenge in the way most familiar to them, but with less and less prospect for success, namely, cracking down. China’s next great challenge – and it is a daunting one – is for the party to become comfortable with the kind of new openness, especially in information technology, in which the world is now steeped. These days, to be truly modern – much less truly respected – a country requires such openness, and this inescapable reality is clearly causing uneasiness in some quarters of the Chinese Communist Party.

Finding a way to rejuvenate itself with a legitimacy that transcends pure economic growth requires bold leadership and even some risk taking. And, what is needed is that kind of legitimacy that springs from some new source of popular support, although perhaps not exactly the kind of new political dynamic with which the now-fallen Bo Xilai, a Politburo member and former secretary of Chongqing, was experimenting. The unwelcome recognition that this challenge now lays unavoidably ahead and that the remedy lies in coming to terms with greater openness, which may even cause some dislocation, is generating so much of the growing uneasiness and tension that one now feels emanating from China.

To be truly modern – much less truly respected – a country requires openness.

China’s leaders are, of course, worried about stability, especially what political scientists refer to as a “revolutionary cascade,” the kind of self-perpetuating unraveling that was behind the undoing of the USSR.

A word of caution for anyone secretly hoping for the similar downfall in China, where collapse of its current and admittedly retrograde system of rule is viewed as the best way of reformatting the Chinese political scene: One can hardly look with anything but disappointment at the way the once hopeful Arab “spring times,” which erupted in various Muslim countries, have so quickly turned to winters of despair. Before anyone allows themselves to wish for such a breakdown in China’s political order, think twice. A far better path would be for the Chinese Communist Party to re-galvanize itself to further reforms and move forward in an evolutionary way to find a new compact with its people. This would not only be in the interest of the Chinese, but everyone.

For in our globalized world, we are economically and environmentally dependent on one another. What happens in China matters to the United States and other countries. So, the most critical question is whether China’s new leaders are now up to the challenge of the next stage of their self-reinvention.


Orville Schell is Arthur Ross Director of the Asia Society's Center on US-China Relations, founder of and co-author with John Delury of the just published Random House book Wealth and Power: China's Long March to the 21st Century.

Click here for an excerpt.

Rights:Copyright © 2013 The Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale

Comments on this Article

13 September 2013
China today is still an emerging country. While it has achieved "superpower" status in a number of areas (especially measured on an absolute basis), but its overall development still has a long way to go. That includes economic, political and social reforms. In the 70s, the KMT was a Leninist style one party system while S. Korea was under a military dictator. China today on a relative basis, is at a similar level of development Taiwan and S. Korea in the 70s.
-Ben , Los Angeles
8 September 2013
Chinese economy is built on a shaky , narrow politacal foundation. China's ultimate collapse is certain.
-Rajan subramaniam , Chennai India
7 September 2013
Histroy does not repeat itself. But reading Chinese history, one has the impression that it is repeating itself. We read about or observe events that have happened in China and feel that they are somehow repetitive; this is because they are generated by what might be called the substructure of Chinese society. This substructure is cultural DNA. It can change but only very slowly. Unless it changes, democracy in China is a pipe dream./// People of the West are Hegelians in that they think that all history moves relentlessly and inexorably toward one goal, democracy; they think that popular mass revolts such as spring times are the signs of upcoming democracy. Democracy needs a historical cultural heritage. The West has had heritages for it in its history, starting with Greek city states, Roman republicanism, Christianity, medieval feudalism, free towns, the Reformation, etc. The Western history is not the only way to lead to democracy but China has been soaked in too dictatorial authoritarinism too long; the Chinese people at large, like their ruling elites, are too proud of their way of thinking to have suspicion of themselves.
-Yoshimichi Moriyama , Unnan City, Japan
7 September 2013
" Only the paranoid survive" Andrew S Grove
-son nguyen , New York, USA