Book Review: Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the 21st Century

(This book review was written by Michael Cynkar, current master of Urban and Regional Planning student at Portland State University. )

Orville Schell and John Delury’s book Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the 21st Century, illustrates the history of modern China through an exploration of 11 of the most prominent Chinese social and political figures of the last 200 years. The authors examine their role in Chinese history through their written works, political activity, and their personal lives and beliefs to draw broad conclusions about their legacies in government and Chinese history. While many of these thinkers articulate very different solutions to the problems of modern Chinese society, there are many common themes that each of them share. These major links between these 11 critical historical figures will be examined in subsequent sections.

Background to the issues of modern China:
Before delving into the themes that tie together each of these individuals, it is important to know the historical context within which they were living. Throughout the 19th century China was on the losing end of several wars with foreign powers, most notably the First and Second Opium Wars with Great Britain and the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95. Long used to being the “Central Kingdom” and considering itself the most dominant country in the world, these defeats marked a distinct fall from glory for China and had major ramifications on the psyche of the Chinese people and the path forward from this humiliation. Some saw the need to learn the ways of the West in order to improve China’s global position (the “self-strengtheners”) while others saw this as a threat to China’s sovereignty and tradition. Still others believed that radical reform was needed, and not only should China learn from the West, but it should also abolish all the traditions of Confucian culture that were holding it back from the rest of the modern world. The debate between these disparate groups framed many key events in the history of modern China and the modern world.

One of the very interesting elements about this book was the way that the author seamlessly wove the ideas and teachings of one historical figure to the next. History during this time period and with these particular individuals appeared to occur in a very linear fashion, with one individual’s beliefs strongly influencing the subsequent generations of leaders. Furthermore, in many situations the individuals featured in this book had personal encounters with one another or were a protégé that carried the former leader’s ideas to the next generation. Because of these personal connections there were many themes which ran constant through the experiences of each of these individuals.

Not ready for western democracy:
Perhaps the most common sentiment among this select group was that China and its people were not ready for the style of democracy practiced in the West. The reasons for this varied from person to person. Early reformers such as Wei Yuan and Feng Guifen were less interested in Western democracy, primarily due to the coinciding imperialist invasions by Western nations. They were interested in learning from the West, but primarily as a means of “self-strengthening” in which they gleaned from the military knowledge of the West to advance traditional Chinese values with Confucian characteristics. The Empress Cixi was similarly interested in self-strengthening at times, but also supported traditionalists if it was necessary for her to maintain the reins of power in the imperial court.

Probably the most interesting perspective on China’s incompatibility with Western-style democracy is Liang Qichao. A prominent journalist who wrote for the New Citizen Journal, Liang held many democratic values relating to personal liberties and was a prominent figure in the New Culture Movement, which emphasized values of democracy and equality over traditional Chinese, Confucian values. As a prominent figure in modern China, Liang traveled the world and took a very influential visit to Europe following World War One, which permanently altered his views on western democracy. In the wake of the destruction from the war, he no longer idealized the West, seeing the failed governments, ruin, and the large barriers between rich and poor. Whereas he had previously admired these societies because of the democratic ideals they represented, Liang distanced himself from western democracy while supporting values such as freedom of speech as worthy goals in and of themselves (p. 113).

Sun Yat-Sen was another reformer who laid out his vision in his Three People’s Principles: nationalism, individual rights of the people, and the livelihood of the people. Similar to other reformers, he held the conviction that democracy in China would have to be a process that was phased in over time. Nevertheless, his Three Principles served as the foundation for the hope and potential that China may someday realize a democratic future (p. 142).

The reasons behind each of these individuals’ belief that China was not ready for democracy varied quite significantly, as we have seen. For some of them, they were resentful of the West for invading China and did not value the culture outside of its military, for some like the Empress Cixi or Deng Xiaoping, they saw the need for some reform, but true democracy threatened the stability of their power, and for Liang Qichao the devastation of World War One proved that the West was not invincible or flawless and that its style of government was vulnerable to imperial forces just like China.

Wealth and power or traditionalism? Destruction or protection?
The debate over a wealth and power approach or a traditional approach has well-established roots in Chinese society. During the Warring States period the Confucians and the Legalists had similarly varying philosophies, in which the Legalists proposed a strong state which contrasted with the more humanistic doctrine of Confucianism.

As the title would suggest, wealth and power are characteristics that tie together all of these thinkers. In the wake of humiliation at the hands of foreign powers, many of the early leaders believed that China must be a wealthy and prosperous country in order to be powerful enough to maintain its state sovereignty and therefore protect its culture. This was somewhat of a catch-22, in that the only way to keep from losing their old culture and being overtaken by foreign powers was to evolve their country and culture through the adoption of foreign military technology and tactics so that they could protect themselves from the outside world. It is important to note that the self-strengtheners advocating for such an approach believed in traditional Chinese values of Confucianism, but saw the need for wealth and power to protect these ideals. This conflicted with more traditional, hardline Confucians who believed that any adoption of ideals or knowledge from the “barbarian invaders” was a threat to Chinese culture.

From this same debate over which approach was better for improving modern China’s plight in the world rose a debate over what actions were needed in order to advance the nation as a whole. The traditionalists argued for protection and conservation of traditional Chinese culture, centered on Confucian values. They believed that China’s history was long and great and that only through strict adherence to such values could the country return to greatness. Many of the new reformers believed that just the opposite was needed. China did not need to strengthen its traditional past; they believed that these very traditions and arcane ways of structuring government, education and society were what was holding China back from being a great nation.

Liang Qichao and Chen Duxiu were central to this philosophy of reform, with both men playing major roles in the inspiration behind the New Culture Movement. Chen was an especially ardent supporter of destroying traditional values, speaking of them as a “garbage can” on the backs of himself and other Chinese (p. 169). and this ultimately culminated in an unfortunate way through the “creative destruction” of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, in which traditional Chinese elements within society were destroyed in favor of Maoist revolutionary and Marxist principles.

The inherent debate underlying these years of whether to pursue wealth and power and borrow certain ideas from the West, or whether to become more isolationist and insular in an attempt to restore China’s cultural superiority played a major role in each of these historical figures’ lives and legacies. So did the similar debate over whether to attempt to bring back China’s power through destruction of traditional Chinese societal values or protection.

China’s unreadiness for western democracy in the eyes of these important historical figures is interesting in the context of the wealth and power self-strengthening movement versus the traditional values approach of the Confucians. It suggests that while many western reforms were made throughout the years, such as adopting western military methods through self-strengthening in the early years or opening up China’s doors to trade with the West in the latter part of the 20th Century, there was always something keeping China from fully embracing this western culture.

The reasons for this are likely numerous, but the book does an excellent job of illustrating one especially strong explanation. The central hypothesis can be seen in the statement of Yan Fu, who argues that “the greatest difference between China and the West, which can never be made up, is that the Chinese are fond of antiquity, but neglect the present whereas Westerners are struggling in the present in order to supersede the past” (p. 89). This continual conflict between China’s long history of greatness and the need to modernize certain elements to keep pace with the modern world illustrates the controversy of adopting any type of reform, even if it promotes China’s strength. The prospect of adopting significant reforms to individual freedoms and rights of the people to vote are therefore that much more controversial.

I believe that part of this explanation is likely due to the fact that there are many inherent differences between western-style democracy and the traditional Chinese system. This was perhaps one reason that of the two dominant ideologies of the 20th century, communism came to dominate and become most salient in China. On the other hand, I wonder to what extent the negative images of the Western nations as barbarians invading China led to the inability for China to implement a western-style democracy. As Sun Yat-Sen’s United Front illustrated, China’s partnership with and favorable views of the Soviet Union was due in large part to the Soviet Union’s relative appeal to the West. At a time when the West had recently granted Japan the control of former German colonial outposts within China, the Soviet Union was absolving China of its war debt. Furthermore, the memories of the Opium Wars and the Sino-Japanese war were still fresh memories. While the Western countries won those battles, it seems like the negative reactions to this imperialism within China may have lost the war in terms of China implementing a western-style democratic government.

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