The interest of this book lies in the fact that it was written originally for a Chinese audience - more or less it is Chinese talking to each other. What arguments are used, what self-images are evoked? I'd recommend it on such grounds. Of course, all self-analysis is necessarily self-affirmation, and the author resolutely avoids stepping outside the boundaries of the politically comfortable; don't expect excruciating self-flagellation. The book is easy to read, if somewhat repetitive. It is worth spending same time with, and keeping handy as a collection of (+/- ideological) statements of Chinese political wisdom.
The Chinese play "go," and the West plays chess. There is no point in arguing which game is more satisfactory, or useful. To each his preferred game - though the choice is telling of the underlying mentality. I'll gladly accept China's claim to its own strategic and culturally based development path as presented here by the author. Three cheers for the three "no" (pg. 89).
My comments take the author's arguments as starting points. I'll check them for consistency; I'll verify historical facts and assess the current dynasty on its own terms, as given by the author. The balance sheet is checkered, in my double-entry book (a Western invention).
The strong points first.
China's long-standing ability to deal with the inner diversity of its civilization is remarkable. There seems indeed to be a willingness to strive for inclusiveness. The current approach of experimenting, of allowing diversity to bloom, in order pragmatically to find the best way forward, is laudable. It is a Bayesian approach, rather than top-down planning, and is per definition inclusive of experience and people. In addition, to being reality-based; spreading the pilot experience across the nation is easiest when it is done by emulation, rather than top-down fiat.
The author seems to be in the right when he points out that China's development has not entailed aggression and overseas adventures (pg. 12 and numerous other places). The building of a nation-state need not go hand in hand with external aggressiveness (as in the West). This point might have been made even more strongly, for the West imputes China outward aggressiveness, which to my view is more a projection of its darker self. China "standing up" does not necessarily mean that it is spoiling for a fight.
I'd agree that China has been able to transform itself silently, even unobtrusively. The Yellow Emperor has been banished, and replaced by a collective leadership striving to become a meritocracy (some quip that it was a management-buyout). This was done without beheading sovereigns, or creating revolutionary upheavals. In a way, China has just traversed a period as transformative as the French Revolution, and no one seems to have noticed.
The involvement of the state (what the author calls "macro-regulation") so far has proven helpful, though some of the author's claims might be taken with a grain of salt. So far, the going was easy. Economic development was the way forward, and some of the longer-term consequences were yet to manifest themselves. Soon trade-offs will need to be made: does China want to continue being the world's "producer of last resort" and accept the ensuing pollution? It is remarkable that neither "environment" nor "pollution" appears in the index to this work.
The search for meritocracy is meritorious. Indeed, the Keju system is a Chinese invention (pg. 132). Indeed, a professionalized ruling class may be better for the country in the long run. The system have not proven to be unmitigated bliss: mandarins closed China's doors to the outside under the Ming (to spite the eunuchs). In the XIXth century, the Keju system's unwillingness to reform itself stifled "self-strengthening." Corruption was significant at all times among the Mandarins. The system is easily perverted: self-referential formalism replaces professionalism. Such flaws have not been banished: one wonders what Marxism and the study of Contradictions can still teach the budding meritocracy - unless one takes mastery of this curriculum as proxy for an IQ test.
There are major flaws in the author's discourse, which he glosses over.
The Dynasty came to power in 1949. Indeed, it lifted 400 million people out of poverty. Hurrah! But it also sent 80 million or so to utter misery and terrifying death. A whole generation of children was not born, simply because fertility plummeted due to hunger and stress. It is very difficult for me to accept glossing over this fact (as the author does), blandly asserting that the Dynasty actually emerged in 1978, and reiterating: "this time the Dynasty means to be humanistic and Confucian" and what else. I'm not arguing that the Dynasty has lost its mandate - this is not for me to decide. The least one can do, however (particularly when facing the citizenry who has lived through these periods) is to acknowledge the events, and not to go on about the good deeds of the Dynasty as if nothing had happened. That the author considers politically impossible this revisiting of the past, tells much about the real state of things in China today.
In this context, the author is uncritical, I would even say hagiographic, of Deng Xiaoping. [So is Deng's major Western biographer (Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China) who devotes 12 of his 700-page-biography to Deng's role in the Dynasty during the first 20 years.] Deng had much blood on his hands until 1969. It is the outstanding merit of Deng to have learned from the Dynasty's mistakes. He concluded that one should seek ideological truth, but closure from ideological struggles in economic development.
The other "missing reality" in this book is coercion. The historical picture the author presents of China's civilization does not even mention the pervasive and ever present co-responsibility system. It was the subtlest, pervasive, terrifying and thus most effective of "harmonizers." It was there at the beginning, and it is still in place, in strange ways. More generally, the repressive character of China's traditional society is utterly ignored. Yet much of China's history is one of mindless state repression - as reflected in popular literature celebrating the redressing of state-wrought wrongs (in the West, by comparison, the stories are about heroic feats against circumstances).
The author praises the way use and ownership of land has been separated, avoiding concentration of ownership into the hands of few. This is correct, as long as land use does not change (or intensify). Changes are the order of the day, however, and the profits arising when use changes are being denied to the historical user. When hutongs are razed to make room for high-risers, displaced dwellers only get nominal compensation for use-loss, or are simply resettled: profit from the new use goes to the well-connected. This issue is not going away, and could tear the country apart.
A final remark: the historical sketch of China as civilizational state - the stately progress of Chinese civilization united around an unwavering sense of self over 3000 or more years - seems to me (who has read a tiny bit on the subject) quite incomplete (and often wrong, at least according to current Western scholarship). Just one example: it seems to have escaped the author's attention that probably over half of China's dynasties were either semi-barbarian (beginning with Qin), or fully "barbarian," like the Liao, Yuan, and Qing (for 200 years Han Chinese men grimly wore the queue as overt sign of submission to the "foreign" Manchus). One is hard put to believe that conquest bestowed on these foreign dynasties the capacity to incarnate Chinese civilization in its march toward Confucian perfection.
I'm afraid, this rosy-tinted view of China's past won't do. Here, I'll challenge the author, in a friendly way. While many histories of China have been written, they are all by foreign scholars. Given the scholarly capacities of China today, I'm eagerly awaiting the publication there (to be translated into English at affordable rates), of a History of China that surpasses in scholarly rigor, depth, and detail, what is available at the moment. For people like me, who would like better to understand this civilization, this would be a great bonus. And it would be proof of China having made peace with itself.