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Behind The Rise of the Great Powers

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January 1, 2012

China’s imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize winner asks what a TV miniseries can teach us about the direction of the new China. From his new book of essays.

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Photograph via Flickr by Jakob Montrasio

During the early years of the twenty-first century, an initiative toward “great power diplomacy” clearly became one of the objectives of the Chinese government under Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao. The phrase “rise of a great power” entered the official language and was promoted in the state-run media, in part in connection with a spectacular television series.

The Rise of the Great Powers

No list of the major topics in public discussion in China during 2006 can omit the blockbuster production by China Central Television (CCTV) called The Rise of the Great Powers. From November 13 to November 24, CCTV’s Channel 2 broadcast, with great fanfare, a twelve-part documentary of that name, and an eight-volume set of books by the same name was published to coincide with the television shows. The theme of this massive project, which was three years in the making, is the history of the rise and fall of great world powers. To get it done, seven separate Chinese production teams were sent to nine different nations that had once vied for preeminence on the world stage: Portugal, Spain, Holland, Great Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Russia, and the United States. The teams did on-site filming and conducted interviews in order to document the 500-year history of the risings and fallings of these “great nations.”

The group that planned and designed the project included many Chinese scholars who work within the political system but hold values that are liberal and open-minded. The group also interviewed more than a hundred scholars from China and abroad, so the series can be seen as a genuine cooperative effort between academics and CCTV television producers. It largely avoids the propaganda colorations of the past in favor of a relatively objective and neutral narrative voice, and presents the nine world powers in fairly rich historical contexts. It puts special emphasis on Great Britain and the United States, two democratic countries that have had major impacts on world history, and accords a certain affirmation to the value of modern institutions from the West such as free trade, market economies, and constitutional democracy.

A significant point in the genesis of the project is that, according to Ren Xuean, the chief editor of the series, the earliest impetus for its creation came from the very top of the Communist Party of China. On November 24, 2003, Party leader Hu Jintao presided over his Party Politburo’s “ninth collective study session,” the topic for which was “An Historical Investigation of the Development of the World’s Main Powers since the Fifteenth Century.” Two Chinese specialists lectured at that session on the history of the rise and decline of the nine powers in question. Ren Xuean remembers his reaction when he heard about it: “I was listening to the radio one morning on my way to work when I heard that the Politburo was going to study the history of world powers since the fifteenth century—nine great powers over five hundred years. There I was, in the noisy, jammed traffic of Beijing’s Third Ring Road, and a voice was coming at me out of the hoary past. It was exciting!”

Foreign media reported that after the Politburo’s study session was over, the top leaders issued instructions that Party and government officials at all levels study this period of Western history. CCTV’s goal in producing the huge project was to spread the theme from within the Party to the whole of society, to expand the Chinese people’s awareness of the issue, and to prepare them psychologically for China’s own rapid rise. Some of the foreign media speculated that the move was a sign that the top leaders were preparing to initiate political reform.

One would have expected to see a series as important as this aired on CCTV-1, the higher-rated of the CCTV channels. Maybe the authorities put it on CCTV-2 just to try to keep the controversy down, but in any case the series was a major production, appeared on the Party’s main television outlet, and in so doing broke the long-standing policy in the official media of keeping issues of major public concern off the air. It provided the Chinese people, with their pent-up longings to participate in public discussion of any kind, an excuse to speak up, and the torrent of heated comments that gushed forth as soon as the series aired should not, therefore, surprise us. Whether or not the series clearly explains the history of the rise and fall of world powers is of course a matter of individual opinion. What we know of the reactions of the viewing public—whether we speak of netizens or scholars, Chinese or foreigners—can only be summed up as “mixed.”

The people who worked on the production and the inside-the-system scholars who consulted about it all gave it high praise, tinged with a bit of superficial self-congratulation. Mai Tianshu, the chief producer of the series, told the China Youth Daily in an interview: “The series adopts the method of emphasizing historical facts with comparatively little by way of value judgment.” For that reason it tells a story that differs somewhat from what we are familiar with from our textbooks, and this difference has created a certain tension and excitement that makes people suspect that some major policy change may be on the way. This reaction just shows how fragile the psychology of our society is. A society as big as ours? —And we think some huge turnaround is going to happen just because of a television series? That belittles and underestimates our society.

Mai went on to claim three major virtues of the series: (1) it allowed the public to understand what “historical reason” is; (2) it called for a “spirit of compromise” that Chinese history lacks; and (3) it made clear the key role of a strong central power in a country’s rise. On the latter point Mai Tianshu was clearly putting in a plug for authoritarianism.

One New Left commentary, written under the pen name Li Yang, made an accusation that could send the program producers to prison if taken seriously.

China’s “New Left” launched a fierce attack on the series, saying such things as “it’s nothing but a rerun of River Elegy” [the famous 1988 television series that suggested that the Communist Party was hidebound and “feudal,” while China’s salvation lay in tides from abroad—Ed.]; or it “caters to the right-leaning views that have dominated the last twenty years,” or “praises the development of the United States to high heaven,” or “will stimulate the U.S. and other enemy forces to mount a new high tide in their efforts to hold China back,” and so on. The New Left, freshly clothed in its stylish Western Marxism, continues to get nowhere fast. All the foreign ink they have imbibed has done little to dilute the Maoist wolf’s milk that still fills their stomachs. They continue to “raise questions to the political level”—letting theory determine what the facts are—and speak of “class struggle” as if we hadn’t already been down that disastrous path. One New Left commentary, written under the pen name Li Yang, made an accusation that could send the program producers to prison if taken seriously. “River Elegy brought social turmoil,” Li Yang wrote, but “The Rise of the Great Powers wants regime change.” The comment can be seen as a sequel to the New Left’s recent campaign to oppose the efforts of people like He Weifang, Peking University’s distinguished professor of law, to move China toward liberal democracy. Another of the New Left, writing as Zuo Ke (“the Left will conquer”), posted on the Internet “An Open Letter to the Communist Party Committee of Peking University—You Must Deal Seriously with the Anti-Party Speech of He Weifang!” [In the Mao era, “anti-Party speech” was a crime punishable by a prison sentence or execution. —Trans.]

Evaluations of The Rise of the Great Powers from intellectuals called “the liberals” have been more balanced: there have been affirmations as well as some sharp criticisms. The views of Yuan Weishi, a famous professor of history at Sun Yat-sen University, can be taken as representative. In Yuan’s view, “the series offers a comparatively objective narration of historical realities and does a pretty good job in its selection of facts. Through its narration of the facts it gives a fairly clear picture of why these countries rose and declined, and it can help the Chinese people to understand the worldwide process of modernization.”

But Professor Yuan also pointed out a number of major deficiencies in the series. Foremost of these was its “undue emphasis on ‘wealth and power.’ Wealth and power have indeed been the long-term goals of many countries,” Yuan wrote, “but in order to get there, a country needs to build an appropriate institutional infrastructure. Without the security that such institutions provide, jumping straight into economic growth and into science and technology can lead to dangerous unforeseen results, such as, for example, a state that is rich and a people who are poor, or a state that invades and plunders other countries. The examples are legion.” Yuan was most critical of the final episode in the series, the one that was supposed to sum up the lessons of history. This should have been the place, Yuan felt, “to point out the key elements that led to The Rise of the Great Powers, and yet there was no mention at all of the factors that have been critical in determining whether countries can experience long-term stability and enduring peace: things like democratic systems, constitutions, the protection of individual property rights, and guarantees of individual freedom.” Another liberal scholar, Dang Guoying, from the Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, counted the number of times the commentary in The Rise of the Great Powers mentioned the word “democracy.” He found exactly twelve among the twelve segments and noted that “most of them occur as parts of proper names. There is no serious discussion of the meaning of democracy.”

Whatever the authorities intended by broadcasting The Rise of the Great Powers, what matters is that the immense power of television brought about more enlightenment than they had in mind. One netizen commented: “Excellent series! I can’t believe CCTV made it! I’m stunned, and just hope it won’t be banned, because its contents are at odds with China’s political system at every turn. It talks about fairness, human rights, democracy, laws, market economy…”

If the frenzy of public comment over The Rise of the Great Powers is a result of its sponsorship at the very highest level of the Communist Party, it is also an expression of the increasingly virulent nationalism that has gripped our country in recent years. Once patriotism became an absolute form of “political correctness,” a slogan like “peaceful rise” —as the Hu Jintao regime put it—was bound to draw notice from many quarters. When I searched The Rise of the Great Powers on the Baidu search engine on December 12, 2006, I got 1,820,000 hits. On Google I got 3,000,000. Amazing.

Official Great Power Diplomacy

China’s rapid economic growth in such a large economy is unique in the world today. China’s foreign exchange reserves, already more than US $1 trillion in 2006, are number one in the world, and its military power has shot up as well. Communist Party potentates shower the globe with cash, buying influence, and Chinese tourists spend lavishly. Chinese goods are everywhere. China has more cell phones than any place else, and its number of Internet users grows faster than anywhere else as well. In the late years of the Jiang Zemin era (the early 2000s), with victories like the successful Olympics bid and entrance to the World Trade Organization, the low-profile diplomacy of the Deng Xiaoping era—“concealing one’s strengths and biding one’s time”—gradually gave way to the high-sounding rhetoric of “great power diplomacy,” and the traditional notion of China as “the center of all under heaven” reemerged.

Jiang Zemin’s appetite for showing off personally all over the world was a telltale sign of his desire to rise in the ranks of world leaders. The reasons the Jiang regime beefed up its military, embraced Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan in the “Shanghai Cooperation Organization,” and was generous toward countries that the United States had called “evil states” was not just to bring pressure on Taiwan, but much larger than that: it was to replace the former Soviet Union as the main contender with the United States for world power.

It took Hu Jintao less than three years after coming to power to completely embrace this Jiang Zemin–type great-power diplomacy, and the Hu regime’s attitude toward Taiwan, Japan, and the United States grew increasingly hard-line. In blustering rhetoric, Hu announced an “Anti-Secession Law” (2005) that could authorize war with Taiwan; toward Japan, his regime not only engineered the largest outpouring of anti-Japanese sentiment since the reform era began, but also announced a five-year suspension of visits between Chinese and Japanese heads of state; and as for the U.S., after Hu felt snubbed during his U.S. visit after becoming China’s president, he set out to unite America’s adversaries around the world, from Cuba to Venezuela, from rogue states like North Korea and Iran to the increasingly dictatorial Russia, and they all became close allies of the Hu regime. Hu Jintao and Vladimir Putin issued a “united declaration” as a warning to the U.S., although without mentioning it by name, large-scale Sino-Russian military exercises were also meant as a warning to the U.S. During the same period Hu Jintao, Wen Jiabao, and other high Chinese officials launched a campaign of dollar diplomacy through Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. The “Beijing Summit on Chinese-African Cooperation” on November 4—6, 2006, seemed almost to mark a return to the Third World diplomacy of the Mao Zedong era. The regime spent a huge amount of money to bring forty-eight African heads of state to Beijing to gather around Communist Party chief Hu Jintao, rather like the myriad stars of the heavens clustering around the Big Dipper. Elites, the Media, and “Angry Youth.”

A military specialist warns that “war between China and the U.S. is a certainty.”

Fan the Flames of Emotion

In their efforts to “guide public opinion,” government-mouthpiece intellectuals as well as the New Left group in China have been stoking chauvinism of an unseemly sort. Big talk like “the great revival of the Chinese nation is upon us,” “The twenty-first century is China’s century,”“China is destined to replace America as the world’s superpower in fifty years,” and so on pervades the official media and appears in the pronouncements of many in the elite. Well-known economists observe that China’s GNP is on track to exceed Japan’s, and some, like Hu An’gang, have even calculated that, measured by per capita purchasing power, China’s economy might even surpass that of the U.S. within twenty years and leap to the position of number one in the world. The most conservative voice in this group, Lin Yifu, still calculates that China will outstrip the U.S. by 2050.

When nationalist passion against the U.S., Japan, or Taiwan independence pours out, it often has a bloodthirsty flavor. Whenever conflicts arise between China and the U.S., between China and Japan, or across the Taiwan Straits, voices shouting for killing and beating are sure to ring out on the Internet. Some of the so-called experts join this chorus as it hoots for war. A military specialist warns that “war between China and the U.S. is a certainty”; a foreign affairs expert declares that “it is time to give up the policy of concealing our strengths while biding our time.” A People’s Liberation Army general even raves that “if the U.S. attacks Chinese territory with guided missiles, I think we can only use nuclear weapons to counterattack… we Chinese are prepared for the destruction of all of our cities east of Xi’an, [but] the U.S., of course, must be prepared for the destruction by China of one hundred, two hundred, or even more of its West Coast cities.”

Any time the achievements of a Chinese person, be it mainlander or overseas Chinese, draws attention in the West, the Chinese state media ballyhoo the achievements for chauvinist effect. Achievements in sports, in particular, are used to try to throw off the “sick man of East Asia” complex that Chinese have inherited from the past. When Wang Junxia took first place in 10,000- and 5,000-meter races in 1993, setting new world records and winning the Jesse Owens Prize, which symbolizes the highest achievement in track and field—and again following her sterling performance at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics—China’s state media trumpeted that “the speed and endurance of the East is conquering the world!” When Yao Ming became the starting center for the Houston Rockets, the media cried that “Chinese height subjugates the U.S.!” When Liu Xiang won a gold medal at the Athens Olympics in 2004 for the 110-meter hurdles, the Chinese media saw this as “Chinese speed surpassing the world!” When the Taiwanese-American film director Ang Lee won the “best director” Oscar in 2005 for his film Brokeback Mountain, the mainland media called it “a matter of pride for all Chinese” that will “make the world see Chinese film directors in a new light.”

Superficial pride of the kind that bespeaks inner insecurity is evident in the frequent repetition of the theme that “we were once rich.” Television series highlight the majesty and prosperity of the Han (206 BCE–220 CE) and Tang (618–907) periods and the flourishing eras of the early Qing emperors Kangxi (c. 1663–1722) and Qianlong (c. 1736–1795). In addition to highlighting China’s former wealth, the spotlight shines as well on its glorious history of territorial expansion: the great Martial Emperor of Han tramples the Xiongnu barbarians; Genghis Khan gallops across Asia and Europe; Zheng He takes to the seas in the fifteenth century and reaches the Western Pacific; Kangxi and Qianlong expand China to include Taiwan, Mongolia, and Xinjiang; and so on. All this not only feeds nationalist vanity; it also revives the traditional Chinese worldview of China “at the center of all under heaven.”

China’s infatuation with its “rise as a great nation” is primarily a recoil from its feelings of extreme inferiority in earlier times.

China’s rise has become a steady refrain in the Western world as well. Comments from the West like “a formidable China is on the rise” and “the sleeping giant has re-awoken” ring constantly in the ears. This Western talk about China’s rise, added to the chorus of Western politicians and pundits expressing their wonderment, and to the stream of pro-China reports from prestigious international agencies, all does much to stimulate Chinese nationalism. Chinese people really begin to think of themselves as “a huge soaring dragon” or “a sleeping giant re-awoken.”

The Other Side of China’s Rise

China’s diplomatic and military power in the world of course is greater than it used to be. In fact, though, China remains far behind the free world in both hard power and soft power, and talk of its “surpassing the U.S. in twenty years” to become the world’s hegemony is nonsense. Westerners sometimes stir up the “China threat” as a way to warn themselves, but in terms of the actual world situation such a view is unnecessarily alarmist. China’s infatuation with its “rise as a great nation” is primarily a recoil from its feelings of extreme inferiority in earlier times, and it reflects only a superficial grasp of what the West actually is.

What is clear beyond question is only this: an autocratic regime has hijacked the minds of the Chinese populace and has channeled its patriotic sentiments into a nationalist craze that is producing a widespread blindness, loss of reason, and obliteration of universal values.

The nationalist craze has already become standard stock for the dictatorship’s claims to hegemony, and that ancient mindset—that ignorant and frightening idea—of “China ruling all under heaven” is on its way back. Through these moves the regime has again led the nation to the brink of peril, causing a part of the Chinese population to lose the most minimal standards of critical thought and to mistake the illusions spun by the dictatorial regime for reality. The result is that our people are infatuated more and more with fabricated myths: they look only at the prosperous side of China’s rise, not at the side where destitution and deterioration are visible; they listen only to the praise that comes from Western countries, not to any of the criticisms. They will not face squarely the two great bottlenecks that hobble China’s development—its political system and its need for resources—and will not acknowledge the huge gap in both soft and hard power that still stands between China and the countries in the world’s mainstream.

The huge costs that China has paid in order to buy economic growth under the constraints imposed by its authoritarian political system have no match in what other nations, during their rises, had to pay.

China’s economic boom is driven by the export of inexpensive products that are made in sweatshops where workers have no unions, no insurance, no legal recourse, in short no rights; the “maximum output whatever the cost” approach of the bosses creates massive waste of energy and wanton pillage of the environment.

Behind the Communist Party’s huge foreign purchase orders, including orders for sophisticated military equipment from Russia, lies the regime’s monopoly control of the hard-won wealth that properly belongs to the people of the nation as a whole, but it is wealth the regime can squander as it likes. Behind the spending sprees of Chinese tourists all around the world lies the extreme polarization of wealth that has resulted from the plunder of “collective” and “state” resources by a corrupt power elite. Behind the seemingly rock-solid stability of the social order lies increasingly bitter antagonism between officials and the people as well as the ever-growing pressure of rights-defense efforts that appear now here, now there, but never go away.

The very rapid growth of the market economy and a broad awakening of people’s awareness of private property rights have generated enormous popular demand for more freedom.

Most depressing is this: behind the superficial, arrogant nationalism lies a national ethic that is disconnected from civil values. It is more nearly a primitive jungle ethic of master and slave. In front of the strong, people act like slaves; in front of the weak, like masters. Feeling very bad when utterly bereft, they feel much better in the secure status of slave; then, after prospering as slaves, they have no time for anyone else, but borrow the mantle of their masters to assume airs of superiority. With this sort of national mentality, it will be most difficult for us Chinese, “risen” in the world, actually to become an independent and self-respecting people. We will be fit only to receive the indoctrination, deceit, and threats of our rulers—rather like children, alternately wheedled and deceived by words that their parents use to keep them in line. We will lack our own minds, dignity, and character, and have no way to walk or to think independently. The rulers will bribe us with small favors, threaten us with the lash, entertain us with songs and dances, and use lies to poison our souls.

The great powers in human history that rose as dictatorships— Napoleon’s France, Hitler’s Germany, the Meiji Emperor’s Japan, and Stalin’s Soviet Union—all eventually collapsed, and in doing so brought disaster to human civilization. Will China’s rise today take the German, Japanese, and Soviet Russian road of “the rise of a dictatorship”?

In China today, wide and growing differences of opinion on many issues between the government and people in society leave this question of how China will “rise” in deep uncertainty. The very rapid growth of the market economy and a broad awakening of people’s awareness of private property rights have generated enormous popular demand for more freedom. On the other hand, the government’s jealous defense of its dictatorial system and of the special privileges of the power elite has become the biggest obstacle to movement in the direction of freedom. No matter how long China’s economic growth can keep going, no matter how many Chinese cities come to resemble modern international metropolises in their outward appearances, and no matter how luxurious and modern a lifestyle the Chinese power elite can show off, as long as China remains a dictatorial one-party state, it will never “rise” to become a mature civilized country.

The international community ignores at its peril the fact that the contest today between Chinese Communist dictatorship and the free world is very different from the earlier one between the free world and the Soviet Communists. The Chinese Communists have abandoned their ideology and are not pursuing global military confrontation in the way the Soviets did. They are concentrating on economics, seeking to make themselves part of globalization, and are courting friends internationally precisely by discarding their erstwhile ideology. At home, they defend their dictatorial system any way they can, explicitly combating the “peaceful evolution” about which Western leaders have expressed hope and sometimes confidence. They use their bulging purse to buy “friendship”in dollar diplomacy throughout the world. Already they have become a blood-transfusion machine for a host of other dictatorships.

Meanwhile they use the carrots and sticks of trade deals, and the lure of the huge market they control, to manipulate and divide the world’s major democracies. When the “rise” of a large dictatorial state that commands rapidly increasing economic strength meets with no effective deterrence from outside, but only an attitude of appeasement from the international mainstream, and if the Communists succeed in once again leading China down a disastrously mistaken historical road, the results will not only be another catastrophe for the Chinese people but likely also a disaster for the spread of liberal democracy in the world. If the international community hopes to avoid these costs, free countries must do what they can to help the world’s largest dictatorship transform itself as quickly as possible into a free and democratic country.

—Originally published in Ren yu renquan (Humanity and Human Rights), January 2007. Translated by Josephine Chiu-Duke.

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Liu Xiaobo, winner of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, is a Chinese writer and human rights activist. In December 2009, he was sentenced to a prison term of eleven years for his political activism. After Aung San Suu Kyi and Carl von Ossietzky, he is the third person who received the Nobel Peace Prize while in prison or detained, and the only Nobel laureate currently in prison.

Adapted from “Behind The Rise of the Great Powers” by Liu Xiaobo, translated by Josephine Chiu-Duke in No Enemies, No Hatred: Selected Essays and Poems, edited by Perry Link, Tienchi Martin-Liao, and Liu Xia, published by Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2012 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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One comment for Behind The Rise of the Great Powers

  1. Comment by Ron Jacobs on January 18, 2013 at 8:53 am

    Xiaobo dismisses the new left in China all too quickly, making them apologists for the regime. While attacking the end of ideology in China’s government and its replacement with authoritarian capitalist economics, he ignores the fact that the capitalist economics has its own ideology and it is not necessarily liberal democracy. While accusing Beijing of sidling up to other authoritarian regimes, he ignores the fact that the western nation he so fancies (US) has spent a good deal of its energies doing exactly the same thing. There is no free world in the way Xiaobo means it. The powerful governments of the 21st century have proven over and over that their priority is not freedom, but profit; not liberty but control. The only free world is the one people have the potential to create outside of the current regimes.

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