Recent Read: “Wealth and Power: China’s Long March To the Twenty-First Century”

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At a time when it seems every week brings a new book analyzing China’s rise, Wealth and Power (Random House, 2013) by Orville Schell (Arthur Ross Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society of New York City) and John Delury (Assistant Professor of East-Asian studies at Yonsei University in Seoul), is a standout and a must read for anyone who travels to China regularly, works with Chinese companies, or simply wants to understand the intellectual history of the last hundred years of this amazing nation.

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Rather than giving us a normal historical account and analysis of China’s economic evolution in the 20th Century, the authors tell their story through a series of portraits, including thinkers such as Wei Yuan, Feng Guifen, Lian Qichain but also politicians such as Chiang Kai-shek, Mao, Deng Xiaoping,  and more recent leaders like Zhu Rongji, as well as the dissident and Nobel Peace Laureate Liu Ziaobo.

What emerges from all these portraits is a fascinating hypothesis: that the 20th Century was a period in which China completed a cycle of humiliation, self-strengthening and finally triumphant re-emergence, and that this cycle is consistent with a long philosophical, cultural and intellectual tradition that  thought of public humiliation not necessarily as the end of failure but all too often as the starting point for success. As the authors note:

…after weathering a century and a half of “domestic rebellion and foreign aggression,” China has finally learned how to borrow effectively from the West…Power has at last begin to flow in wealth’s trail eastward. Instead of being forced to sign humiliating “unequal treaties” and endure endless foreign exploitation, Chinese are forging plans of their own abroad in which they are the initiators and financiers of projects across all of Africa, Latin America, and even North America…today there is wealth to consume and power to wield, and not a few Chinese are both pleased and proud to have the opportunity to be at last tempted by the prospect of joining in on this long-witheld “great power” exercise.

As I read this book, what became equally interesting to me was contrasting China as it comes out of that cycle with the U.S. as it, perhaps, enters it. A century ago, Chinese intellectuals bemoaned the end of the old social model, the nation’s lost of primacy to an emerging economic power on the other side of the globe, military defeats at the hands of foreigners, and the need to abandon old ideas and to create a new social model for renewal. Today, echoes of those calls are heard in in the U.S. in books like George Packer’s The Unwinding, which eloquently paint a need for America to rethink its traditional “dream”-based society and to reinvent itself for the 21st Century. While, this a hypothesis that the authors of “Wealth and Power” do not event hint at, any American reader will be hard-pressed to avoid it.

As interesting as that speculation may be, the subject of “Wealth and Power” is China, and I can’t think of any book, aimed at a general audience, that so clearly and concisely surveys the intellectual underpinnings of the China.

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