Can China Lead?

The People’s Republic has arrived and is applying for co-trusteeship of the globe. We got a good look at the co-trustee, China’s enigmatic president Xi Jinping, through the deep sourcing of The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos and from Professor William Kirby, who says that China’s prosperity (and Mr. Xi’s headaches) are a hundred years in the making. We are looking at a “conquest regime,” in Kirby’s phrase, a government ruled by “princelings” of the Communist Party that won the civil war in 1950. Through thick and thin the party line and party practice have been chameleonic marvels of adaptation, but the clock is running on the old elite from which Xi Jinping springs. The Kirby picture is of a mighty state now strangely insecure; he gives no simple answer to the question posed by his new book: Can China Lead? He raises a new thought here: Maybe China cannot be ruled from horseback.

[Xi’s] political toolbox–that of the Chinese Communist Party, it’s ideological toolbox–is so old and so weak… He lives in world in which the people, what they know to be true and what they are told to be true, the distance between these two things, gets larger every day. And so it is a heroic, but in my view ultimately hopeless, effort to think of how one convinces people to study again dialectical materialism again, to study Marxism and Leninism… and the glorious history of the Chinese Communist Party.

The challenge for Xi Jinping, Kirby told us, goes back to the under-credited founder of China’s revolutionary century, Sun Yat-Sen, who set in motion the deep and continuous drives to rebuild the country’s enterprise, infrastructure, and mass education. “Sun Yat-sen once said, ‘The mandate of heaven does not last forever.’ The question that must worry Mr. Xi is when and how there is a political transition in China, how and what his position will be when that challenge comes?”

The premise this week was simple. If the 19th century belonged to the Europeans and the 20th century was America’s, then the 21st century belongs to China. The question is: what will China — and the rest of us — do with this moment?

Professor William Kirby, the Harvard Sino-guru who just tossed a big online China course over the Great Firewall, is fond of ticking off the titles of nervous Western books: The Dragon Awakes, The Ascent of China, and (his favorite) The Rise of China: An Unwelcome If Inevitable Occurrence. Then he reveals that those titles, which seem at home in any airport bookshop, were all published at the turn of the twentieth century.

That’s the key perspective, says Kirby: this China moment was in the works decades before Deng, and it belongs just as much to the people and the culture as it does to the Party. So, we’ll take a hundred-year view in the hope of understanding 1.5 billion people building, working, and learning toward what President Xi Jinping has called “the Chinese Dream.”

On the Ground in China

By Max Larkin
Chris went to China last year, and we played three of our favorite clips on the show last night. You can hear much-extended versions of Chris’s conversations with Ai Weiwei and the internet hero and rockstar Kaiser Kuo below:

But there was a lot more to the tour than that — Chris spoke to authors, students, scholars, and street-vendors. So we’ve put them together in one big playlist and put in on iTunes, too. We hope you’ll tell us when your ears perk up, and take it as a whirlwind tour through a complex nation.

Guest List
William C. Kirby
Professor of business and China studies at Harvard, author of Can China Lead? Reaching the Limits of Power and Growth
Mable Chan
Hong Kong-born journalist and media entrepreneur, former anchor and reporter for Hong Kong Television
Reading List
Born Red
Evan Osnos, The New Yorker
Our guest Evan Osnos surveys the rise of Chinese President Xi Jinping, always and forever intertwined with the rise of his Communist Party. The verdict is that Xi Jinping, despite seeing the Party's bad side, ends up being something like its pope – keeping the faith in a troubled time, firming up the rule of law and tightening control of dissent:
As China ejects Western ideas, Xi is trying to fill that void with an affirmative set of ideas to offer at home and abroad... "Ever since Mao’s day, and the beginning of reform and opening up, we all talk about a ‘crisis of faith,’ ” the sense that rapid growth and political turmoil have cut China off from its moral history. “He is trying to solve that problem, so that there can be another new ideology"... The most surprising thing about the era of Xi Jinping is the decision to close off the margins—those minor mutinies and indulgences that used to be tolerated as a way to avoid driving China’s most prosperous and well-educated citizens abroad. For years, the government tacitly allowed people to gain access to virtual private networks, or V.P.N.s, which allow users to reach Web sites that are blocked in China. The risks seemed manageable; most Chinese users had less interest in politics than in reaching a celebrity’s Instagram feed (Instagram, like Facebook, Twitter, Bloomberg, Reuters, and the Times, is blocked)... But on January 23rd, while I was in Beijing, the government abruptly blocked the V.P.N.s, and state media reiterated that they were illegal. Overnight, it became radically more difficult to reach anything on the Internet outside China. Before the comments were shut down on the Web site Computer News, twelve thousand people left their views. “What are you afraid of?” one asked. “Big step toward becoming a new North Korea,” another wrote. Another wrote: “One more advertisement for emigration.”
The Chinese Century
Joseph Stiglitz, Vanity Fair
The Nobel-laureate economist weighs in on how America should, and should not, react to the news that the Chinese economy has surpassed ours in terms of purchasing power (and in other respects). We ought to be sporting, Stiglitz says, and recognize a necessary — and equal — partner when we see one:
The United States is confronted with real foreign-policy challenges that will prove hard to resolve: militant Islam; the Palestine conflict, which is now in its seventh decade; an aggressive Russia, insisting on asserting its power, at least in its own neighborhood; continuing threats of nuclear proliferation. We will need the cooperation of China to address many, if not all, of these problems. We should take this moment, as China becomes the world’s largest economy, to “pivot” our foreign policy away from containment. The economic interests of China and the U.S. are intricately intertwined. We both have an interest in seeing a stable and well-functioning global political and economic order. Given historical memories and its own sense of dignity, China won’t be able to accept the global system simply as it is, with rules that have been set by the West, to benefit the West and its corporate interests, and that reflect the West’s perspectives. We will have to cooperate, like it or not—and we should want to. In the meantime, the most important thing America can do to maintain the value of its soft power is to address its own systemic deficiencies—economic and political practices that are corrupt, to put the matter baldly, and skewed toward the rich and powerful.
The Dragon Will Never Become The Eagle: China and Democracy.
Stephen Asma, 3 Quarks Daily
Asma observes that we shouldn't hold our breath waiting for China to "become democratic". First of all, in some respects, they already consider themselves democrats. Second, the deep foundations of their culture are very different from our own:
There are two entrenched cultural reasons why China is unlikely to ever adopt western democracy (in Hong Kong or the Mainland), and they result from a different theory of human nature. First, China is still deeply Confucian in its commitment to the idea that wisdom is intrinsically elite... This drives the idea that educated elites must vet political leaders. Confucian philosopher Xunzi argued that culture and education act upon us like a carpenter repeatedly steaming a plank of wood—slowly and permanently the board is bent to a better shape. Secondly, Chinese culture has a different view of government legitimacy. We think a government is legitimate if the people voted it into power. But from the Chinese perspective, that is a very low bar. After all, a political candidate could be an idiot or a criminal, and still be charismatic or rich enough to be elected by an impressionable electorate. The Chinese, on the other hand, think government is legitimate, not when average people influence it, but when it represents their higher interests.
Old Dreams for a New China
Ian Johnson, NYRBlog
A guide to a poster campaign backing up Xi Jinping’s idea of the “Chinese dream", started by pro-government bloggers:
“Good game China”: This is an odd poster, with the children playing a game of Chinese chess... The implication seems to be that China is winning, but against who is unclear—other countries? History? Fate? Or maybe one shouldn’t read too much into propaganda campaigns masterminded by left-wing bloggers.

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  • GuestAug27

    What if China’s rise is the communists’ fault?

    What if Mao Zedong (while also accused of causing the death of millions) has prepared the foundation for China’s today’s success by providing free education to hundreds of millions of illiterate peasants?

    What if China’s political system is inherently superior to the US/Western-style “democracy” because of the separation of political and economic power? The Communist Party of China is the dominant political force that sets the direction for the society ( The businessmen are free to manage the economy (and even get very rich doing so) as long as the benefits of the economic growth are shared by the whole society (meaning the businessmen don’t get too greedy or too corrupt).

  • asia88

    What if Communism came to power in 1949 as a result of fantastic failure of Capitalism in China ? What happened on the street of Shanghai right before the Communist takeover in 1949? Drugs, corruption, violence, .. sound familiar? It took me decades to come around to question what I believed to be true …
    Thank-you, Chris, for covering this heavy topic ! I hope to have the book by Professor Kirby in hand by Monday.

  • “….we’ll take a hundred-year view in the hope of understanding 1.5 billion people building, working, and learning.”

    Societies are made up of individuals. In centralized traditional societies, individuals lack the ability to overhear themselves and thereby change. (The type of change is incremental or organic, such that it seems rational. Not the type of change quickly going from a collectivist society to a greed-based society.) The individual ability to change becomes an intersubjective societal ethos. Those cultures can lead – cultures that lack that ethos can only follow.

    China is a ‘follower’ culture – I’ll change that opinion when they stop buying our debt.

  • Cambridge Forecast


    The current Chinese synthesis of Marx and Adam Smith, “plan-ism” and anarcho-capitalism is a weird hybrid of Western political economies. As to whether this synthesis is a higher or lower one, a viable or unstable one remains to be seen. The Chinese adopted the British 19th
    century “workshop of the world” ideas for themselves and again that is an idea
    which emanates from the West.

    Can China make the 21st century one of innovation leadership whether organizationally or

    Consider the following “deep pattern”:from history:

    Professor Leo Ou-Fan Lee (Harvard), in his “Shanghai Modern” (Harvard University Press, 1999) argues for the following perspective on material aspects of the West implanting themselves in modern China via Shanghai:

    “What has not received sufficient scholarly attention until recently are the
    material aspects of Western civilization….

    In fact, most of the facilities of modern urban life were introduced to the
    concessions, according to Tang Zhenchang, a leading scholar on Shanghai history, proved
    easier to accept than the “spiritual” aspects…

    In fact, most of the aspects of modern urban life were introduced to the
    concessions soon after the mid-century; banks (first introduced in 1848),
    Western-style streets (1856), gaslights (1865), electricity (1882), telephone
    (1881), running water (1884), automobiles (1901), and trams (1908).

    Thus by the beginning of the twentieth century, the Shanghai concessions already had the
    infrastructure of a modern city even by Western standards. By the 1930s, Shanghai was on a par with the major cities of the world.”

    (“Shanghai Modern: The Flowering of a New Urban Culture in China, 1930-1945,” Harvard University Press paperback 1999, page 6)

    Shanghai modernism as just surveyed might well be supplemented
    by bringing in the classic Chinese novel “Midnight,” 1933, by Mao Dun which
    describes the ferocious economic intrigues and struggles in Shanghai of the early thirties:

    “In those days government bonds were the chief object of speculation on the
    Shanghai Stock and Bond Exchange.

    (footnote, “Midnight” 1976, paperback, 1976, Hong Kong, page 48).

    The rest of this footnote on page 48 of this English-language translation of the 1933 novel “Midnight” sounds eerily and weirdly like a version of the contemporary Michael Lewis
    financial expose books, “The Big Short,” “Moneyball,” and “Liar’s Poker,” and
    others by him. (ie financial engineering at its worst and pump-and-dump and “front running”
    schemes, copied from Wall Street).

    Will China take the innovation lead or simply mimic Western phenomena and technologies?

    Recall how awestruck leaders like Nehru were over the astonishing Soviet industrial and military “leap forward” in the 1930’s, which Nehru thought to imitate with the Mahalanobis-Feldman planned economy framework. All of that failed. China’s weird hybridization of Marx and Adam Smith, nationalist fervor and bouts of truculence are perhaps more fragile than we (or they) know.

    Richard Melson

  • Potter

    China is such a vast endless and fascinating subject for study and appreciation. With regard to modern China I struggle to try to understand. I criticize from afar, principally the repression, the injustice in order to maintain power for the few. As well I do not admire China on the world stage, the intransigence, the bullying, the lack of responsiblity and caring for the general welfare of the world. When that changes, China will lead. I wonder too if China is trying the tactic with Hong Kong that it used/ uses in Tibet: supplanting one culture (this one with more freedoms) with another that tows the line.

    The guests, well chosen ( as ever), add to the entire series on China linked from Chris’s recent China trip. I loved hearing the voice of Ai Weiwei again at the end. He’s one brave soul. I am sure there are others, maybe many others. But his sensibility and, too, his mournful tone acknowledges the disconnect from a deep rich past, the treasures of philosophy, religion,all the fine arts, in science and invention- astonishing achievements.

    So is this another dynasty that will be overthrown like all the others? I don’t think in my lifetime. So to be grateful for Zhang Zimou.

  • Cambridge Forecast


    Etienne Balazs ( 24 January 1905 – 29 November 1963) was a leading Hungarian-born French sinologist.


    In his masterful book, “Chinese Civilization and Bureaucracy, Variations on a Theme,” Yale Press
    1964, Professor Balazs offers this China-oriented futurology:

    “I should like to conclude with a declaration of faith that our present Russian-American
    century will be succeeded by a Chinese twenty-first century. All the potential is there.“

    (Balazs book, Part II, Chapter 11, essay “Tradition and Revolution,” page 170, Yale Press, 1964)

    The book, a collection of essays, was edited by Professor Arthur Wright ho was introduced to the ROS radio audience by Christoper Lydon recently)

    Richard Melson