This Week's Show •

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 ...

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.

Podcast • April 12, 2013

Speaking of Pope Francis: What’s in a Name?

At the Harvard Divinity School, we’re listening in on the euphoria around the new Pope, Francis. What’s in a name? A lot, it turns out. What’s the real brand of the Jesuit order that shaped ...

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At the Harvard Divinity School, we’re listening in on the euphoria around the new Pope, Francis.

What’s in a name? A lot, it turns out.

What’s the real brand of the Jesuit order that shaped and marks this priest? Well, it goes deeper than I knew.

And how differently, really, does a pope from the Global South see a church outgrowing its Old European roots? Listen here.

First up here: the novelist and relentless scold of his church, my friend James Carroll on the pope’s “astonishing choice of this name.”

There’s a ringing clarity to it that took the world’s breath away. It was ingenious. It was worthy of a great poet. Look at who Francis is. He isn’t just the man of the poor. He’s also the green saint. There are festivals of St. Francis that are celebrations of Gaia, of holy earth, where people bring all the animals into the church, all the plants. It’s a magnificent tradition. It’s St. Francis. St Francis is the saint of the environmental movement. St. Francis is a secular saint. People who’ve long since given up any impulse to religious expression have St. Francis in their gardens. St. Francis belongs to the world. This man choosing this name conveyed something non-verbally, non-rationally, pre-rationally. It just rang!

James Carroll, at right in photo, at the Harvard Divinity School, with Francis Clooney and Chris Lydon, April 2013

It was Jim Carroll’s line that Pope Francis named himself for the heart of the church, and that he comes from the brain of the church. It was for the Jesuit on our panel, Francis Clooney,S.J., to unpack that “Jesuit ethos.”

So what is the Jesuit thing about? It’s the greater glory of God, the ‘magis,’ the more. Finding God in all things, the ability to imagine the borderlands, to step outside — to be the church where there is no church. To go to the farthest parts of the world, to learn the languages, to be in the different cultural settings, the be in all the difficulty places. All these things can be said… and still the essence of it — the life source for the Jesuits — is that the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola, based in his own mystical experience — is not a book of doctrine. It’s not a catechism. It’s not a book that you can sit down and read and say: I have learned. It’s a book of exercises, in which one has to put oneself into the situation of existentially confronting your own limitations, you own sickness, your own age, your own death — and then launch into walking with Christ, contemplating Christ, and then see where it comes out the other end.

Francis Clooney, at left in photo, at the Harvard Divinity School, April 2013

About a church that we all know is expanding in Africa, Latin America, and Asia: what does the new face of the Church say to Islam? And could there be another signal in that name the Pope chose? Could it be a reference to the meeting that St. Francis of Assisi arranged for himself with the Sultan of Egypt during the Fifth Crusade in the 13th Century?

I was struck that the church Frank Clooney and Jim Carroll were describing sounds so much more humble, more forgiving, maybe more human, than the church we grew up in. A lot of us, I think, will be paying closer attention. Jim Carroll underlined the virtue of humility in the church when a question came about the Pope’s history as Bishop of Buenos Aires during the “dirty war” under brutal military junta in the 1970s and 80. Did he look away from the torture of his priests, even Jesuits? How much would it matter? Jim Carroll’s answer challenged and enlightened a packed house.

Fritz Eichenberg, wood engraving, "The Prayer of Saint Francis" (1979)

Fritz Eichenberg, wood engraving, “The Prayer of Saint Francis” (1979)

Podcast • February 25, 2011

Peter Hessler’s New China: Is this any way to live?

Peter Hessler, covering the new China for The New Yorker, made himself the rising star of the John McPhee school of reporting. It’s not just that he’d taken McPhee’s writing course at Princeton — known ...

Peter Hessler, covering the new China for The New Yorker, made himself the rising star of the John McPhee school of reporting. It’s not just that he’d taken McPhee’s writing course at Princeton — known sometimes as The Literature of Fact. (“I prefer to call it factual writing,” McPhee has said.) It’s more that Hessler got the hang of circling a vast subject until the proportions of the story reveal themselves. (“Cycles of one year, fifty years, a thousand years: all these different cycles spinning around…” as McPhee put it, about his masterpiece on Alaska, Coming into the Country). In China, Peter Hessler made it a habit to return on schedule again and again to families and factories that intrigued him; sometimes he had five years’ observation under his belt before he began to write his story — in The New Yorker and then in books like Country Driving, his latest. Our conversation here is about the unconventional fruits of that long grazing — not least the discovery that this “new China” we find so challenging is just as new and maybe much more pressured and exhausting for the Chinese. The Wei family, for example — Hessler’s friends and neighbors in a small town north of Beijing — set the pattern over the last decade of spiking prosperity and crashing all-around health.

I was with [Wei Ziqi, the father of the Wei family,] through a number of events, including his son’s becoming very sick, to the point where his life was in danger and Wei Ziqi and I, and the other family members had to work together to try to get him medical care… The next year is when his business really started to take off. One thing that really struck me was that he had been so incredibly calm while his son was sick, very rational and easy to talk to and amazingly stoic, and I found him much more unsettled by his initial business success. … Then I realized, people in this village are used to people being sick, they’ve been through this before, that’s an experience that they know how to handle in a sense. But they’re not used to having a loan out, they’re not used to having a new business, they’re not used to trying to interact with city folk who are customers, and that was harder for him. … In America, people who had gone through this illness with a child would have been devastated at points, and he never had that reaction. But he was much more stressed by having a loan, which doesn’t stress out Americans very much (maybe it does now).

Business in China comes with a lot of vices. When I first met him, he had a very healthy lifestyle, he was working in the fields and so on. In China, if you’re a business man, you smoke. It’s part of the routine … it’s a very important type of communication between males in China. … Most men doing business smoke. So he started smoking, he also started drinking. … The more successful he became, the more he smoked and the more he drank.

Peter Hessler in conversation with Chris Lydon in Boston, February 9, 2011.

Peter Hessler lives and writes in Colorado now, waiting a New Yorker assignment to the Middle East. He came home at a moment when “Americans are not feeling great about themselves,” but he’s been feeing what we take for granted: striking examples of “common decency” every day in America, people volunteering serious time and talent to local life, social involvement not to be observed in China. What he remembers about China is “energy… buzz, people on the move. They are good-humored people. They get the joke.” What he notes about both places is that “It’s not a race. It’s not a zero-sum game. I don’t think it’s as directly competitive as people say. China and the US have been good for each other over the last twenty years. It’s great for the US that this has been a stable part of the world.”