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Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the Twenty-First Century
A New Consensus?
Does this mean that Chinese leaders have managed to confect what some have tried to dub a “Beijing Consensus,” a new model in which free-market economic development becomes divorced from political liberalization, and capitalism delinked from democracy?31 While not proclaiming such a model per se, in 2010 Premier Wen Jiabao, echoing so many of the voices in this book, did suggest that one of the reasons Chinese authoritarianism had been so successful was that it allowed leaders “to make decisions efficiently, organize effectively, and concentrate resources to accomplish large undertakings.” (32)
New consensus or no, what should be acknowledged is that, despite all its obvious shortcomings and defying most predictions, the CCP has managed to create three decades of rapid growth under a relatively stable political system, and it has brought China closer than ever to building the xiaokang shehui (小康社会), or “moderately well-off society,” to which Deng Xiaoping aspired. This promise has helped many Chinese make a bargain with the party: as long as they are allowed to enjoy growing wealthier and to pursue a better life, and as long as their country is edging ever closer toward wealth, power, and a modicum of greatness in the world, they will not seek to challenge authoritarian rule.
Since Wei Yuan first began puzzling over China’s falling state of grace almost two centuries ago, this has been a dream that has goaded one Chinese patriot after another onward. As a prelude to whatever else may follow, the successful conclusion of this particular quest has undeniably now given Chinese new grounds to take pride in their country’s accomplishments. It has also provided the kind of middle-class
foundation on which a stable democratic future finally becomes even imaginable. But now that China has made a landfall on the shores of wealth and power, the logical question is: What’s next? Do leaders and people feel they have been delivered to those promised shores for which they have so long yearned and where no further extreme exertions are required?
Not really. One of the pieces still missing is the kind of self-confident mindset that would finally allow Chinese to feel that they have arrived and thus deserve to feel comfortable in their new global skin.
Although the words “respect” and “status” do not explicitly appear together in the age-old couplet of characters, fuqiang 富強, signifying “wealth and power,” they are everywhere implicit in China’s struggle for these long-sought- after goals. The urge to prosperity and strength, after all, had its origins in the humiliation of nineteenth- century defeats by the imperialist powers— and thus regaining the respect of those great powers has always been an essential ingredient in any cure. However,
to win real global “respect” (zunzhong, 尊重)— a term endlessly bandied about in China’s diplomatic parlance— a nation must not only attain wealth and power but also successfully cultivate other, more ineffable qualities capable of eliciting such admiration.
It is true that China can no longer be bullied. But, to the great perplexity of many Chinese (especially officials), their country’s extraordinary progress toward “wealth and power” has not in itself managed to deliver the full degree of admiration that they once imagined these heroic accomplishments would automatically confer, and which they fiercely feel to be rightfully theirs. Like those Americans who grew up in the Great Depression and for whom no amount of subsequent wealth was ever enough to slake their innate sense of insecurity, the confidence levels of many Chinese, even after all the successes of their economic miracle, still lag behind their actual achievements in curing their historical sense of inferiority. Indeed, it may yet take another generation or so before confidence levels become better aligned with achievements.
But then, a major readjustment of any nation’s psychology often lags substantially behind changing reality. It is this anomalous situation that may help explain why, despite China’s enormous progress, a humiliation complex still remains, nationalism is still on the rise, and Chinese still so easily tend to feel victimized.
So far the kind of global respect that Chinese have long sought has remained a far more elusive laurel than many reformers and revolutionaries ever imagined. As contemporary “soft- power” gurus explain, genuine esteem for a country does not automatically emanate from extravagant riches or brute strength alone. It comes, instead, from other, subtler kinds of accomplishment that often have more to do with the attractiveness of a country’s culture, the virtues of its civic life, or the responsiveness of its political system. From the West, at least, admiration
has not gravitated to societies marked by exaggerated systems of state control and “stability maintenance.” Instead, it has often been those societies that are culturally open, tolerant, welcoming of heterodox influences, and even a little unpredictable that have ended up being able to produce the most innovative and seductive forms of soft power, and thus won the most global admiration and respect. And such societies have excelled in liberating exactly those forms of individual self-expression
that the Chinese Communist Party has felt least comfortable allowing, much less encouraging, which have been embodied in creative misfits such as Ai Weiwei, searing critics such as Liu Xiaobo, headstrong reformers such as Chen Guangcheng.
China’s dazzling new infrastructure and all the other studied efforts to cultivate a new image of grandness and confidence are, of course, impressive. And such things as the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, 2010 Shanghai World Expo, and elaborate National Day parades have, in fact, succeeded in eliciting a kind of respect. But as impressive as these self- conscious, government- sponsored model projects are, they are not in the end the stuff from which the deepest kinds of soft power attraction and admiration are born.
“Soft power bespeaks a nation’s ability to influence the behavior of others to attain the outcomes it desires,” notes the grand theorist of this somewhat intangible kind of power, Joseph Nye, in Soft Power, a book that has become immensely popular in China since its publication in 2004. “A country may obtain the outcomes it wants in world politics because other countries— admiring its values, emulating its example,
aspiring to its level of prosperity and openness— want to follow it.” He adds, “Seduction is always more effective than coercion, and many values like democracy, human rights, and individual opportunities are deeply seductive.” (33)
Tellingly, even Chinese themselves seem not to quite know what their nation’s most fundamental values now are. After decades of serial cultural and political cancellations and self- reinventions, China has jettisoned the cardinal virtues of its traditional and Maoist cultural incarnations, and thus sometimes does irredeemably seem to be a kingdom of means alone, a society and nation largely defined by its ardent pursuit of techniques, but without many answers to the question: Toward what end?
In statements to the world, Chinese leaders constantly emphasize their “core interests,” and they considered it something of a diplomatic triumph when President Obama formally agreed that “respecting each other’s core interests is extremely important to ensure steady progress in U.S.- China relations.” (34) Yet when it comes to “core values,” China’s leadership is both lost and somewhat deaf and mute, neither wanting to accept the West’s democracy and human rights as the birthrights of all people, nor having any other “universal values” of their own to now offer as an alternative.
(32) See: http://www.china- embassy.org/eng/xw/t662061.htm.
(33) Nye, Soft Power, x.
(34) White House, “U.S.- China Joint Statement,” Beijing, November 17, 2009.