In the 19th century, efforts to efface national humiliation (until then, China had one of the world's largest economies) and restore China to wealth and power had largely focused on how the West's military technology and economic techniques might be harnessed by China. The early 20th century brought questioning of the wisdom of maintaining its traditional Confucian culture. Mao then pursued destroying China's old core with violent and total resolve (his Cultural Revolution), but also stubbornly squelched anything resembling the practice of capitalism. Nonetheless, the authors contend he may have helped prepare the way for successor Deng Xiaoping to usher in a spectacular new kind of economic growth. The authors also tell us China's leaders were totally pragmatic (it was not ideology driven) about choosing their way, and democracy has not appeared to be the most effective route forward.
Now, after weathering a century and a half of domestic rebellion and foreign aggression, China has learned how to borrow effectively from the West. Deng Xiaoping struck the spark that lit China's rejuvenation by telling his people in the 1980s that it 'to get rich is glorious' and it was 'all right for some people to get rich first.' Hu Jintao (handpicked by Deng, among others) reinforced that progress when he told visitors from Taiwan in 2005 that 'Backwardness incurs beatings by others,' and 'the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation has become the unswerving goal that each Chinese generation has striven to realize.' More recently, President Xi Jinping's first speeches as General Secretary in 2013 once again referred to this period of Chinese history.
The authors address the question of why China's economic dynamist began when it did, and has been as successful and durable as it has. They accomplish this by examining the lives of eleven influential officials, activists, and leaders who helped create modern China, beginning with the first Opium War. Why start there? Many Chinese date the start of their modern history to the date when the Qing Dynasty signed the Treaty of Nanjing and capitulated to Great Britain to end the disastrous First Opium War (1839-42). Every Chinese high-school student is expected the know the official narrative dividing Chinese history neatly into pre-Opium War and post-Opium War periods, China's counterpart to Americans learning the preamble of the Declaration of Independence. That began China's questioning the fundamental assumptions of their culture and governance.
Paradoxically, the authors find that one of the most interesting and paradoxical explanations originates with the person deemed to have had such a destructive effect on China's earlier progress - Mao Zedong. His movement to standardize oral language and simplify written language helped unify the nation, while his Cultural Revolution was so great a disaster that it provoked an even more profound cultural revolution - institutionalizing a key element Mao intended to stamp out.
Westerners need to rethink whether democratization was always an essential partner to market-driven growth and national development. Turns out China's painful historical experience has made nationalism a stronger sentiment than democracy or constitutionalism. Many Chinese have made an implicit bargain with the party - as long as they are allowed to enjoy growing wealthier and to pursue a better life, and as long as their country edges closer towards a modicum of world greatness, they will not seek to challenge authoritarian rule.
Yet, the confidence levels of many Chinese lag behind actual achievements in curing the nation's recent historical sense of inferiority. This is perhaps partly because the CCP finds perpetuating the victim culture to be in its interest. Another reason is that the West still regularly criticizes its fundamental values and does not emulate its example; the Chinese are learning that to win that outside respect they first have to treat their own people with respect. Nearby Asian, post-Confucian, and post-colonial societies such as Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Korea have all moved from authoritarianism to constitutionalism, while new leader Xi Jinping recently warned party leaders about the dangers of following the dreaded footsteps of the former Soviet Union. Perhaps instead China will begin enforcing its own constitution.
Meanwhile, there is also increasing worry that the country will flex its new economic and military muscles. Schell et al see its various South China Sea territory disputes as another dimension of nationalism, of 'payback time.' U.S. presence in the area (including spy flights along its coast) don't help either. And it does have legitimate security concerns about protecting access to various raw materials and trade outlets around the world.
I most enjoyed the section on Deng Xiaoping, the man who led China's turnaround after Mao. He'd seen how Mao's idealism had driven China to the brink of civil war and weakened its economy, as well as how other nations were far ahead of China (Deng admitted in 1973 that China was 40 years behind - both in economic and technology terms. He worked for economic development, undistorted by either Maoist mass politics or individualistic liberal democracy. His writing and speeches largely ignored the subject of traditional Chinese culture and Confucian ideology (Mao's last focus), seeing those topics as distractions from what really was needed - improving material conditions and making China a global powerhouse, while preserving the Party's monopoly on power. Looking at the U.S., Deng saw democracy as creating indecisiveness, inefficiency, instability (one branch of government holding back another; politicians constantly changing positions), and unable to deal with serious problems in a timely manner.
Deftly expressing criticism of the past w/o risking totally rejecting a former leader and the resentment that would create, he said 'Mao was 70% correct and 30% wrong' - the same rating Mao had given himself. Deng also did not suffer from Mao's insecurity vs. intellectual, and one of his first acts was to reverse the political verdicts on nearly 3 million party cadre and intellectuals branded 'class enemies' and persecuted during the Cultural Revolution. This won him many friends among the elite and provided the government with a vast new reservoir of well-educated individuals with technical skills. 'Pragmatism' was Deng's focus - 'From this day forward, we renounce class struggle as the central focus, and instead take up economic development as our central focus' (1978, upon taking the reins), 'Practice is the sole determinant of truth,' 'Seek truth from facts,' 'Poverty is not socialism,' 'The Purpose of socialism is to make a country rich and strong.' Deng himself traveled to the U.S. and Europe, and regularly pumped foreign visitors for their ideas on improvement; one of his most effective techniques was sending officials abroad to look and study, reversing a century of Chinese resistance to and ambivalence about learning from the West. ('Only when we recognize that we are backward will we progress.') Upon return, they were looked upon as valuable assets - eg. Xi Jinping, now president, was a staff member on a military delegation to the Pentagon in 1980 and member of an agricultural delegation to Iowa in 1985. Supported incentivizing productivity, private entrepreneurialism, and decentralized economic decision-making, and hired as his architects Zhao Ziyang and Zhu Rongi who later became premiers.
Demanded local officials boldly experiment, sometimes there experiments were illegal but Deng let them proceed and succeed/fail on their own merits. One of the first, and most important, was the de-communalization of agriculture. Another was 'town and village enterprises' (TVEs) that were local public-private joint ventures allowed to side-step existing limits on the number of employees. A third was Special Economic Zones (SEZs) piloted near Hong Kong and Taiwan. The first proposal came from Guangdong Province governor Xi Zhongxun, father the current president. Xi also had hero status from the 1930s anti-Japanese resistance. Overseeing this new project was Sichuan party secretary Zhao Ziyang who had earlier encouraged marketization reform and separating party management from industrial management. He too later became premier.
1984 brought the peak of Deng's popularity. Then came inflation, party cadres exploiting the difference between state-set and market prices, softening employment, and eventually the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations. Deng saw the latter as risking civil war and the CCP's authority and eventually ordered the PLA to restore order. Given Deng's prior reactions to eg. Fang Lizhi (high-level physics professor and official at a leading university - lost his position and was expelled from the CCP) and a much earlier protester (1978 - jailed for 15 years), the wonder is that the protests were allowed to continue as long as they were.
Concluding, the authors believe China's new leader is a Deng-type economic reformer, and that stability is much more highly valued in China than most Westerners realize - allowing foundations to become firmer. Thus, a privatized economy would be scary for CCP leadership - it would lose influence and have to contend with too much private power and influence. And the middle and upper classes, while perhaps wanting greater freedom and openness, also want government to protect their interests. As for Taiwan, they believe China would be wise to simply bide its time - Taiwan will voluntarily return when China becomes more democratic. Meanwhile, the U.S. has been unable to act on global warming, a concern that will significantly affect both nations (China probably more), that requires worldwide action that would bring the two nations closer together.
Bottom-Line: 'Wealth and Power' provides excellent insight into why the Chinese behave as they have in recent years.