Humiliation spurs dreams of new glories

Source:Global Times Published: 2013-9-2 21:23:01

Orville Schell

Orville Schell


Editor's Note:

China's modern history has seen a long succession of national humiliations, with the nation repeatedly losing wars to foreign invaders. But how has this sense of humiliation spurred Chinese efforts to modernize more recently? Did chaotic and devastating periods such as the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) actually help China move beyond the confinement of its traditional culture? Global Times (GT) reporter Liu Zhun talked to Orville Schell (Schell), Arthur Ross Director of the New-York based Asia Society's Center on US-China Relations, on these issues.

GT: In your new book Wealth and Power: China's Long March to the 21st Century, you and coauthor John Delury particularly picked out the traditional tale of King Goujian, prominently mentioning the critical role of the sense of "shame and humiliation" and the "sanctification of victimhood" in shaping modern Chinese history. It seems that shame and humiliation, produced by foreign intervention, are a defining theme in China's rise. But usually, shame and humiliation depress people. So what in China's case has managed to serve as a stimulant?

The traditional story of King Goujian is one involving defeat, loss, victimization and humiliation when his state, Yue, was defeated by the state of Wu during the Spring and Autumn Period (770BC-476BC) millennia ago. However, this defeat led him not simply to despair and surrender, but toward a fierce and tenacious determination to find a way to restore both himself and his kingdom to power and greatness, which he finally managed to do through great perseverance.

One can view this tale very much as a metaphor for modern China, which was also repeatedly victimized and defeated, but has finally managed to significantly rejuvenate itself and realize its long-sought Legalist goal of "wealth and power," or what might be better translated as "prosperity and strength."

GT: In the book, you talked about President Xi Jinping's "Chinese dream." You said, "There is still an important piece left missing in this new evolving Chinese dreamscape: the question of political reform." But Chinese leaders continuously stress the rule of law and claim that reform is going into "deep water." Does this contradict your judgment?

It is true that Xi has expressed a deep and determined commitment to wage an effective campaign against corruption and certain kinds of new economic reform. But if this is the full extent of China's efforts, one worries that the campaign may end up treating the symptoms of a disease rather than the cause of the disease itself.

Having followed China's development now for more than half a century, it is clear that sometimes there comes an historical time when it will no longer suffice for leaders just to make small adjustments to the existing economic and political system.

GT: The 10-year-long Cultural Revolution is widely seen as a disaster. But why do you believe that this movement also brought a certain kind of "creative destruction?"

The history of the late 19th and 20th centuries was one during which Chinese reformers and revolutionaries sought to break loose from the very conservative and suffocating grip that traditional Confucian culture limited the nation's developmental possibilities. But no one until Mao Zedong had the forcefulness and determination to actually rip China loose from its past.

As much pain and suffering as it brought down on the Chinese people, it did have the final result of helping break Chinese away from this confining past, so that when Deng Xiaoping came along, he no longer needed to fight these cultural wars.

GT: In 1988 you said "there is not much I'd recommend anybody imitate in China right now, because China is becoming an imitation of us." Is China still imitating the US and other Western countries today?

China has very self-consciously graduated away from being imitative of the West. The Party now shows great sensitivity about any appearance of too slavishly admiring the West. This is probably quite sensible. After all, one size does not fit all.

GT: In a 2009 interview, you mentioned that there were two types of democracies - the US form and the Chinese form. You even called the Chinese form "autocratic democracy." Will this kind of democracy continue after political reform? To what degree will it be accepted by the world?

Almost every Chinese reformer and leader has believed that in progressing toward some kind of "democracy," China will have to pass through an extended period of what Sun Yat-Sen called "political tutelage." Because China has had so little democratic experience, this notion is doubtless a wise way to proceed: go slowly and incrementally. But this raises another question: What is the general direction in which reform should go? This remains quite unclear. If China were, after discussion, to adopt a more concrete reform plan with a clearer goal, some countries would  relax more in their relations with it.

GT: What do you think is the future of the US-China relationship?

I think it is as yet unclear whether the US and China will be able to avoid substantial friction and conflict as China continues its rise. I will do everything I can to help the two countries adjust peacefully. However, I am often dismayed, by the unhealthy levels of suspicion and distrust, as well as growing levels of nationalism, that I constantly encounter on each side.

For the US side, it's important to remember that China's history has bred into it certain sensitivities about big power pressure. But for the Chinese side, it is important to understand that we are no longer living a century ago when the great powers were actually bullying and occupying China with impunity.

GT: China is now forging itself into an influential global power. What kinds of public input do you expect China should provide?

China has already become a global player. And with that new role come new global responsibilities. Assuming these responsibilities in a way that maximally benefits both Chinese and others in the world, will require a flexibility and leadership acumen that are difficult for any country, especially a newly arising country, to engender.

Posted in: Viewpoint

blog comments powered by Disqus