By Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom, Oxford University Press, March 12, 2018, 019539447X
I read this book while on a trip to China. It was very interesting to read about things in the book and encounter them in person. I found the book correlated highly with my discussions and experiences. I tend not to remember too many details from books so the reinforcement from real life helped some of the points sink in. For example, the news is very positive and the people believe Xi Jinping is rooting out corruption.
The book is well-written and comprehensive. It’s in a question-and-answer style, which I found easy to read.
[k460] During the opening ceremony, three thousand performers dressed as the sage’s disciples–all of whom, incidentally, belonged to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)–paraded through the Bird’s Nest Stadium as President Hu Jintao (1942–) smiled down on them. This was meant to suggest that for millennia (and presumably without interruption), Confucius had been a kind of national saint for China. Displays of this kind would have been impossible to imagine back in Mao’s day, but Western television broadcasters didn’t comment on this contrast. Instead, the announcers tended to simply follow the script provided to them by the official Xinhua (New China) News Agency and refer to the respectful treatment of Confucius as a natural expression of China’s reverence for the traditions and great men of the country’s past.
[k478] Now, however, the old palace complex has been carefully restored and is presented as a symbol of the glamour and beauty–not decadence–of the past. Visiting dignitaries are given tours that extoll the glories of the country’s artistic and architectural traditions.
NOTE: Our guide talked about the architecture and the emperor in just this way.
[k481] The Analects and the Terracotta Warriors are now treated as complementary rather than competing symbols of ancient China’s glory.
[k483] This pairing of ancient icons fits in with the desire of China’s current leaders to cultivate national pride by presenting the country as one that was great in the past and has become so again on their watch.
NOTE: All our guides emphasized China’s greatness. Our local guides were proud of their area’s special features. Things were exclaimed as being the greatest, e.g. The Terracotta Army is the eighth wonder of the world.
[k563] There is also the fact that today’s China, while not exactly capitalist–some 70 percent of the top five hundred companies in the PRC are state-owned, and much of its overall wealth is in the form of government assets–has experienced a great economic boom. That this transpired in an era of renewed celebration of Confucius, even a symbolic one, is another nail in the Weberian conceptual coffin.
[k570] The largest investors in joint enterprises with the Chinese state have tended to be companies based in neighboring countries, including Taiwan, that see themselves as sharing a cultural bond, partly via Confucius, with the PRC.
[k587] Mencius went so far as to claim that rulers who failed to behave benevolently toward those below them in the social order forfeited their right to be treated deferentially.
[k636] In China’s imperial system, in contrast to many other monarchies, the successor to the emperor was not necessarily his eldest son. As a result, intense political maneuvering before and immediately after a ruler’s death was common.
[k640] The most powerful people in imperial China, other than members of the ruling family, tended to be either scholar-officials or eunuchs.
[k900] As one Chinese politics specialist has observed, Xi Jinping might be thought of less as a new emperor and more as a CEO.
[k977] describing traditional values as “cannibalistic”
[k1142] The slogan used for this 1956 initiative was “Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom and a Hundred Schools of Thought Contend,” an allusion to the distant Warring States period, when proponents of Confucian, Daoist, Legalist, and many other visions of morality and statecraft had competed for the attention and patronage of local rulers.
[k1137] The Hungarian Uprising of 1956, which was suppressed only with Moscow’s help, sent shock waves throughout the communist world. This revolt exposed as a myth the idea that the communist leaderships of all countries linked to the Soviet Union–a category that included China at that point, since aid and advisers from Moscow were playing important roles in the nation–enjoyed broad popular support. It also exposed as illusory the notion that the state socialist lands of Central and Eastern Europe were allies as opposed to merely satellites of the Soviet Union. The Chinese response to this included Mao’s call for a loosening of the taboo on constructive criticism of CCP rule. The slogan used for this 1956 initiative was “Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom and a Hundred Schools of Thought Contend,” an allusion to the distant Warring States period, when proponents of Confucian, Daoist, Legalist, and many other visions of morality and statecraft had competed for the attention and patronage of local rulers.
[k1307] In addition, a focus solely on catastrophe leaves out of the picture completely the achievements of the first decades of the PRC. The fact remains that, despite all of the horrors of the Great Leap Forward, Mao’s time in power saw life expectancy within China double from roughly thirty-five years to seventy, helped in part by a dramatic lowering of infant mortality, while illiteracy declined even more sharply (from approximately 80 to under 10 percent).
[k1359] When he sent his son abroad, they note, it was to risk his life alongside his compatriots in war-torn Korea. When Mao’s successors send their progeny abroad, it is to Oxford, Cambridge, Stanford, or the Harvard School of Business. Part II THE PRESENT AND THE FUTURE This half of the book will focus on China today and China tomorrow.
[k1385] Mao had denied that he wanted such a cult, but then did a great deal to help one develop, and Hua Guofeng continued the tradition. Deng cut it off.
[k1448] Xi’s moves toward a form of rule that had more trappings of a personality cult than had been common for decades began in 2012.
[k1451] It seems clear to us that an important inflection point has been reached, which differentiates today’s China sharply from Deng’s Reform Era.
[k1454] On the international front, in addition to brokering the deal over Hong Kong, Deng Xiaoping’s main foreign-policy accomplishment was to normalize relations with Washington, DC. After his 1979 visit to the United States, Deng was viewed by Washington politicians as the only head of a communist party with whom the United States could easily do business. He was responsible as well for the reestablishment of regular relations between Moscow and Beijing in the 1980s.
[k1461] Deng’s most important legacy is his introduction of a series of bold economic reforms that paved the way for China’s three decades of record-breaking growth beginning in the late 1970s.
[k1472] From the start exceptions were made that allowed some couples to have more than a single child, including, for most of the drive’s history, non-Han couples.
[k1486] The pressure put on local officials to ensure that their communities met strict birth quotas meant that some women were coerced into having abortions.
[k1498] Couples are now permitted–even encouraged–to have two children, although it is not yet clear how many will take advantage of this new opportunity.
[k1506] That said, the early 1980s did see a resurgence of female infanticide (a practice that was known in pre-revolutionary China but diminished rapidly after 1949), and there were also sex-selective abortions by couples determined to have at least one son.
[k1512] After all, one of its key tenets, as evidenced by the constant use of happy-looking lone infant daughters on posters extolling the virtues of small families, was that couples should be just as delighted to have a female child as a male.
When family members showed displeasure with female children or, in the most extreme cases, ended their lives, they were going against–not conforming to–dictates from on high.
[k1936] Some of the precise measures that the Chinese regime uses to limit the Internet are distinctive, but Beijing’s leaders are not in a class all their own. The PRC is one of a variety of places (Singapore and Saudi Arabia, for example), in which a good deal of energy is spent trying to get Internet users to go to preferred sites and to steer clear of “harmful” modes of online behavior.
[k1956] For example, the Olympics-related building boom required many long-term Beijing residents to relocate to less central districts. When residents felt that the compensation offered was appropriate and replacement accommodations represented an improvement, they made the move willingly.
[k1984] Never before has a process of industrialization and urbanization occurred so rapidly and on so vast a scale. This makes China’s rise seem very different from the rapid growth that occurred in nearby Asian countries, such as Singapore.
[k1996] Moreover, many of the new “private” companies one hears about turn out to be run by the children of CCP leaders or others with strong links to the party.
[k2113] In cultural terms, those in their early thirties today will likely be the last generation to remember when the main phones were still shared by work units and neighborhoods and the main urban vehicles were still bikes and buses. And yet, those only a decade younger have likely always had mobile phones and now think nothing of using them to hail a ride-sharing car or pay a restaurant tab.
[k2135] In a letter to his former student, Huxley noted that 1984 was a “profoundly important” book but that he thought that the kind of “boot-on-the-face” authoritarian regime it described would soon be a thing of the past. In the future, he suspected, ruling oligarchies would find “less arduous” methods for satisfying their “lust” for power. These rulers would stay in control via the softer means he had sketched out in Brave New World, which stresses the depoliticizing effect of keeping people apart and providing them with distracting forms of activity and entertainment.
[k2156] The PRC went through what we would call an Orwellian moment between 1989 and 1992, which began with the killing of protesters, a “ + 2 = 5” style denial that state violence had occurred, and the detention of many alleged “black hands” (as noted, a CCP term for troublemakers). The PRC had entered a more Huxleyan stretch by the mid-1990s, for by that point–though it continued to deny that there had been a massacre in 1989–the state was focusing largely on fostering a consumer revolution that it hoped would achieve a kind of mass depoliticization.
[k2358] By the early 1960s, with the Great Leap clearly a failure, it would have seemed nothing short of ridiculous to consider that, in a mere half century, the PRC could move to the top ranks of economic powers. Had outsiders known the full extent of the horrific famine underway, they would have been even more dismissive of China’s prospects. The most that was expected was that it would go from a fairly poor developing country to an only somewhat impoverished one. In contrast to today, when the PRC sometimes exports food to famine-stricken countries, the question then was whether China would be able to feed its own population. Today only the United States stands higher in terms of gross domestic product.
[k2387] The children’s parents face a difficult choice: either enroll them in a lower-quality school for migrant children in the city, or leave the youngsters in the village with their grandparents to attend school there. Millions of parents have chosen the latter option, resulting in a population of “left-behind children” estimated at more than sixty million. Migrant workers in first-tier cities also face limitations on access to other social services, such as healthcare, and no matter how long they live in the cities where they work, most will never become official urban residents.
[k2393] The government is actively promoting urbanization below the first tier, creating hundreds of third- and fourth-tier cities, which officials hope will become sites of efficiency, innovation, consumption–and profit.
NOTE: Every city we went to – especially these “lower-tier” cities – had massive construction projects. I must have seen 1,000 high rise buildings being built.
[k2465] Soon after the turn of the millennium, much of the debate about China was framed in terms of the allegedly contrasting visions spelled out in two books: Bruce Gilley’s China’s Democratic Future and Gordon G. Chang’s The Coming Collapse of China. Both books confidently predicted that China would see dramatic political change, though they disagreed about what that change would be. Now, however, experts more or less agree that China’s future path appears to be one of continuity, with the CCP at the helm of an authoritarian state for the indefinite future.
[k2495] Instead, the country is turning to the high-tech and service sectors, as manufacturing jobs move abroad in search of cheaper labor. Donald Trump campaigned on a platform that emphasized the loss of US jobs to China, but China in fact has been suffering the same fate–sometimes even seeing factory jobs move back to the United States.
[k2533] In 2015, China surpassed the United States to become the top global importer of crude oil.
[k2538] Perhaps the biggest resource-related concern, though, is water, and not simply its damming. Due to polluted rivers, melting Himalayan ice caps, and a declining North China water table (which was never in good shape to begin with: per capita water amounts there have long been well below 10 percent of the global average), shortages of drinking water and water for irrigation are already a serious problem and are likely to get much worse in the years to come.
[k2553] Environmental concerns are also one area in which there previously existed real potential for US–China cooperation, even as the two sides disagreed on many other issues. The apex of this came in November 2014, when Barack Obama and Xi announced that both countries would commit to a schedule for reducing the emission of greenhouse gases. Under Donald Trump, however, it is unlikely that this cooperation will continue.
[k2570] There was also the matter of two exposes by foreign news organizations, the New York Times and Bloomberg News, which documented in impressive detail the ways that the extended families of Xi Jinping and outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao had grown rich through their political connections, and the influence those ties lent them (although neither Xi nor Wen was personally accused of misdeeds).
[k2575] In retaliation, the government blocked the Bloomberg and New York Times websites and for several years, made it difficult for journalists from those organizations to get visas.
[k2598] And even if Xi’s anti-corruption campaign is merely an excuse for purging his political rivals, it still gives the public a sense that the party is doing something to address the problem.
NOTE: One of our guides waxed on about how Xi was doing a great job rooting out corruption.
[k2610] There are also intellectuals based in Europe and India, who note that, despite all the efforts Washington and Beijing make to present themselves as dissimilar, both seem to share a penchant for going to great lengths to protect access to oil–a point that some American critics of US foreign policy sometimes note as well–and that US and Chinese delegates on the UN Security Council are among the most likely to block that body’s efforts to censure their allies.
What other kinds of things do China and the United States have in common?
[k2616] One journalist has noted in an article about the “instant cities” of China, where many factories use machines that are pirated versions of US machines, that the United States’ industrial takeoff was fueled in part by just this sort of reverse engineering that allowed businessmen in early US boomtowns to make use, for free, of patented British technologies. And as one US historian has pointed out, in the late 1800s it was the United States that was often seen by Europeans, as China is now often seen by Americans, as a place that produced inferior and sometimes downright dangerous goods and issued pirated editions of best-sellers (Charles Dickens complained bitterly about how many unauthorized versions of his books were sold across the Atlantic).
Something else the countries have in common is that between the late 1800s and mid-1900s, the United States built railways and highway systems on a grand scale, which connected parts of the country that were previously cut off from one another and were sometimes hailed as engineering marvels, just as China has been doing with its construction of the world’s longest high-speed rail network.
[k2630] And as one anthropologist of sports reminds us, when the United States first got to hold the games in 1904 (previously, the event had only been held in Europe), some foreign commentators assumed, as they did again during the lead-up to 2008, that the International Olympic Committee had made a terrible mistake in letting the Olympics be hosted by a country that might have a booming economy but was clearly not ready for prime time.