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.