Ask an American about the Opium Wars and you’ll likely get a blank stare. Ask a Chinese citizen, however, and you’ll hear a detailed account of how Western powers humiliated China in the mid-19th century, forced opium on its people, and grabbed Chinese territory.
In Wealth and Power: China's Long March to the Twenty-first Century, Orville Schell and John Delury explain how, for more than a century and a half, Chinese leaders, writers, and activists have sought answers as to why China lags behind Western countries in wealth and power.
The authors go into great detail on the lives and philosophies of 11 prominent Chinese who represent a range of ideological beliefs, such as Nationalist Chiang Kai-shek, Communist Mao Zedong, reformist Deng Xiaoping, and modern-day dissidents. Despite their differences, the authors argue, all were obsessed with how to raise China’s status.
The book’s title is derived from a statement made by a Chinese philosopher more than 2,000 years ago: “If a wise ruler masters wealth and power, he can have whatever he desires.”
Schell has been writing about China as an academic and a journalist since the 1960s and first visited that country in 1974, during the Mao Zedong era. He is now Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York. John Delury is a senior fellow of the Center on U.S.-China Relations.
Despite the tremendous economic progress it has made in recent years, China seems to dwell on its victimhood, the book notes, even holding a National Day of Humiliation to remind citizens of the low points.
Critics contend that the emphasis on blaming foreigners for China’s past problems helps legitimize the Communist Party while downplaying the disasters of the Mao era.
One such disastrous campaign, the Great Leap Forward of 1958-60, resulted in at least 30 million deaths, as Mao implemented irrational policies he said would help China overtake Britain in steel production in 15 years.
“Such extravagant aspirations were expressions of a long-frustrated dream, one to which generations of Chinese reformers eager to catch up with the West had clung,” Schell and Delury write.
After Mao’s death, Deng Xiaoping broke China free from Mao’s rigid ideology by saying, “It doesn't matter whether the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.” Variations of that theme have been presented by Chinese reformers since the mid-1800s, as they wrestled with how to take the best ideas from the West without abandoning Chinese culture.
Deng’s trip to a Texas rodeo in 1979, in which he delighted the crowd by wearing a cowboy hat, signaled that “Deng’s new wild-west rodeo was launched,” the authors write.
But, although Deng took a dramatically different approach than Mao, “his goal was exactly the same: wealth, power and prestige for his nation,” the book contends. The authors note that, although Deng allowed far more freedom than Mao, he ordered deadly force in 1989 when he felt the Tiananmen Square protests had gone too far.
Seventy years earlier, Chinese students had rallied in the May Fourth movement, raising some of the same issues that gained international attention in 1989. The 1919 campaign was “a moment of popular protest from which almost all future Chinese political movements derived political inspiration,” the authors explain.
Many influential Chinese in the past century and a half have argued that China is not ready for democracy. There are those who strongly disagree with that statement, including the imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo.
Casual readers may find that this book reads too much like a textbook with more details than they would want to know about some of the earlier historical figures, as well as frequent use of Chinese characters and transliterations of key slogans. Many phrases that could have been written in everyday language are not, such as “volte-face” for “about face.”
Surprisingly, only brief mention is given to the 1937 “Rape of Nanking,” the wartime atrocity that influences today’s Chinese view of Japan as much as the Opium Wars color Chinese attitudes toward the West.
But, overall, this book will play an important role in explaining why it is essential to know China’s modern history in order to understand what’s going on in China today and how Chinese view the world.
Mike Revzin, a journalist who worked in China, helps Americans learn about China with his ChinaSeminars.com programs.