… the powers of Ideas… My reflection on: Schell O. and Delury J. (2013). Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the Twenty-First Century (New York: Random House, 2013)

Most scholars, commentators, media analysts, and students have been terming Chinese economic and material success as a “miracle”. A miracle is something that cannot be explained. Indeed, the classical and conventional economic development models found it hard to explain the exponential Chinese economic rise. More so, guys who struggle even much more to explain the Chinese growth are the political analysts framed in the Western thinking box that free market will automatically lead to democracy.

Schell and Delury have, diligently, given us the account through which we can remove the “miracle” explanation in our analysis of Chinese economic success. They show (implicitly) how “miracle” is a feeble excuse to what happened in China. They have put forth a coherent and thorough yet easy read historical account of Chinese long march to “wealth and power” showing how Chinese scholars, thinkers, and leaders have – for centuries- been thinking of how they can make China-the central kingdom- wealth and powerful. The thinkers such as Wei Yuan, Feng Guifen, Liang Qiachao, Sun Yat-Sen, and Chen Dixiu, wrote and put forward their ideas on ways through which China could strengthen itself. Their ideas were mostly influenced by Chinese humiliation against the Western powers and also Japan. The Opium War, for example, was a bitter thorn in the flesh of Chinese pride. The thinkers, who were all versed with Chinese culture and Confucius ideas, admired the “barbarian” (i.e. the West) success and thought that China could borrow some of their ways if China wants to strengthen itself. China, they collectively argue (I summarize), need to put aside its pride and learn from the West if it wants to become wealthy and powerful. They argue that China can borrow/learn from the West but not rely on the West. In 1860s, Feng Guifen, for example, asked:

Our territory is eight times that of Russia, ten times the size of America, one hundred times bigger than France, and two hundred times England…why is that they are small and strong, yet we are big and weak?

His answer was:

China would have to master the secret of its new adversaries by admitting their superiority and adopting some their ways, or less perish…the West’s superiority was more than simply steamships, firearms, and military training. Deeper, systematic factors were at work. The West surpassed China in 4 critical ways:

  • Education (employing people’s talents)
  • Economic development (profiting from the land)
  • Political legitimacy (keeping the rulers and people close)
  • Intellectual inquiry (calling things by their true names)

These were excellent advice from the thinkers. Yet China kept failing and being humiliated by the Western powers. Its position in the global sphere was weak and shameful- often laughable.

Reflecting on the book’s argument, it seems like China needed to destroy some of its core traditions and culture to pave way for success. Thus, the thinkers had good ideas but they probably failed to see ways to implement those. Joseph Schumpeter’s “Creative Destruction” was needed for China to break the path and move towards economic prosperity. Ironically, Mao Zedong, with his harsh and extremely punitive policies –such as Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolutions- were the needed destruction to pave ways for new Chinese path. In the book, the authors argue that “Mao presented Deng with a vast new construction site on which demolition of old structures and strictures had already largely been completed, making it shovel-ready for Deng’s own “great enterprise” of reform and opening up.” Although Mao was destroying to construct utopian socialism, his destruction helped to construct a capitalist system, which Mao abhored the most in his lifetime.

The Chinese economic prosperity and its embedded communist political system has challenged the simplistic explanation that free market and economic development automatically lead to democracy and political freedom. The Chinese State is still iron handed and does not allow “dissenting views” that promote democracy or civic space to its citizens. To illustrate this “iron-hand”, the authors end the book with a chapter on Liu Xiaobo and his ideas. Lui is a Chinese human rights defender who looks at human rights from humanistic and universalist point of view. He received (in abstentia) Nobel Peace Prize. He’s been detained for many years on and off aftermath 1989 Tiananmen Massacre out of his provocative “dissenting” writings.

In light of that, the book’s conclusion calls for discernment on the concept of power and influence- or as Joseph Nye calls it ‘soft power.’ The authors argue that despite its systematic efforts to build soft power – through such things as 2008 Summer Olympic Games, 2010 Shenghai World Expo, and elaborate National Day Parades- China has not been able to command full international admiration on its values.   (Due to my Oxford Uni research project- I was hoping the authors would mention the systematic establishment of Confucius Institutes-CIs- around the world by the Chinese government- the CIs are clearly directed efforts to exert Chinese soft power…surprisingly the authors did not mention those anywhere in the book).

Well, the authors related the absence of civic space (i.e. lack of freedom to information, speech, citizen participation- voting, decision making, etc) in China with the sense of the inferiority that still existing in China and relative weak authority (in socio-political matters) in the global sphere…here is what they ask and argue:

“…now that China has made a landfall on the shores of wealth and power, the logical question is : do leaders and people feel they have been delivered…? “

They then respond with an argument that:

“Not really. One of the pieces still missing is the kind of self-confident mind-set that would finally allow Chinese to feel that they have arrived and thus deserve to feel comfortable in their new global skin”

Uugh…that was too blunt, I THOUGHT, but well the authors have a point and they continue to defend it, arguing:

“the confidence levels of many Chinese, even after all the successes of their economic miracle, still lag behind their actual achievements in curing their historical sense of inferiority. “

They continue

“…genuine esteem for a country does not automatically emanate from extravagant riches or brute strength alone. It comes, instead, from other, subtler kinds of accomplishment that often have more to do with the attractiveness of a country’s culture, the virtues of its civic life, or the responsiveness of a country’s culture, the virtues of its civic life, or the responsiveness of its political system.”

All in all, as much as China growth might have lots of weaknesses, one thing for sure is that China managed to pull a lot of its citizens out of poverty. Deng focused on “prosperity for all” and “reform without losers”. He genuinely wanted every Chinese to be rich. China has also gained lots of strength, power, and influence in the global sphere. It has become a “banker” for the world, and an alternative force to look at for the developing world. The monopoly of the West has been watered down – and challenged- by the Chinese growth. Despite the fact that China still uses iron hand state to govern, it has many things to admire.

To end, I must admit the fact that throughout reading this book, my mind could not stop thinking and reflecting about my country. I thought of the long march to China’s success- in particular the constant thinking and dedication that accompanied that long walk throughout centuries- and wondered if Tanzania will ever reach there. I was thinking that Dr. Magufuli should probably borrow some of Deng’s ideas (as I think his current policies are exactly what Deng would oppose) but then a very dear friend told me “Deng had a population with the right culture of sacrifice for country…I am not sure that applies to Bongo”.

 To be successful, we (Tanzanians) will have to be ready to sacrifice and start thinking (put serious thoughts indeed) on our country’s development. In this way we will put forth ideas…and ideas are powerful – they might sound “dissenting” at the moment, but their time will come and no body will resist. From late 1970s, Deng implemented ideas that were put forth by the thinkers in 1800s.


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