China is ready to get back on track

The Chinese face stiff challenges in their effort to take back the world

What of China? Government officials, business leaders, scholars, and journalists have asked that question for more than a century. So-called "China hands" have provided conflicting answers. While some have asserted that the Communist regime would develop into the enemy the United States will face in the next world war, others have argued that the world's largest market would soon offer a billion consumers to competitors. Ross Terrill is the latest writer - and one of the best - to predict what will happen to the Middle Kingdom.

A researcher associated with Harvard who penned a bestselling biography of Mao, Terrill surveys ancient history and contemporary politics. He compromises between views by concluding that China is contradictory. It will modernize, but it will struggle to do so.

Terrill believes that China ultimately will become more open, but not without facing tremendous challenges stemming from its internal diversity. Although the Han Chinese majority promote a myth of national unity, their population includes not only the Tibetans, whose cause has become known through the Dalai Lama, but also the Uighurs, who are Muslim. Even a shared written language breaks into mutually incomprehensible spoken dialects.

China's unwillingness to move away from old attitudes about race and culture will not make the necessary changes easy. To the Chinese, everyone of Chinese descent remains Chinese even if they are born and raised in America. Or more accurately, everyone of Chinese heritage should be as Chinese as possible. As a consequence, the Chinese have had a marked sense of their own superiority. They regarded other Asians as beneath them in the past and they continue to regard African students as beneath them even as they invite them to their universities to study today. Those attitudes could continue to perpetuate a culture out of step with an increasingly diversified and complex world.

Yet China has been confident throughout. The elites and the common people both are optimistic about the eventual triumph of a greater China, even though the past two centuries have been a disappointment. Like many others, Terrill suggests that the Chinese simply view the long run as genuinely the long run. They are willing to wager that the past two centuries are the aberration, the past two millenniums the norm.

At his most concrete, Terrill lists many problems China confronts. In addition to the lack of democracy and the complications of corruption, he notes that the cities and the countryside are increasingly separate, a rift future generations will find difficult to heal. He also identifies serious health problems (even before the recent outbreak of SARS), and he describes a legal and financial system that does not conform to the norms of the rest of the world.

Terrill's writing is easy to read. He alternates, however, between casual informality and italicized jargon. He refers to China courting North Korea with the remark: "What a prize!" He describes Beijing as "a continuity of cycles beyond a discontinuity of politics."

Also, from time to time, he inserts himself with perhaps too much of a sense of self-importance. It's true that as an Australian reporter, he was in China before President Richard Nixon reestablished diplomatic ties in the 1970s. And then he was in China during the Tiananmen Square tragedy of 1989. He recalls how he was once a friend of the regime, but then was labeled an enemy because he had "hurt the feelings of the Chinese people."

These are minor complaints, though. Terrill has produced another engaging book, and anyone interested in China, especially the relationship between the US and China, would do well to study it.

Frank H. Wu, a law professor at Howard University, is the author of 'Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White' (Basic).

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