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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