Thirty years ago — at about the time, in fact, that Ross Terrill published his first book about China — the catch-phrase in political science circles was that people who studied the Soviet Union hated the object of their studies, while people specializing in modern China loved the object of theirs. There was truth in that. The horrors of the Mao dictatorship did not go entirely unnoticed, but even specialists tended to give the Chinese Communist Party the benefit of the doubt until well into the 1970s. Only when Simon Leys blew the gaff with his 1977 book Chinese Shadows was the true awfulness of Maoism exposed to the general public. Among the less attentive kind of non-specialist, a category that unfortunately includes most American politicians, illusions persisted much longer.
As Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, put it, there is still, even today, a widespread feeling that China is “a Ming vase,” to be handled carefully and reverently, and that Chinese sensibilities, as defined by her rulers, must be accorded the most exquisite and punctilious deference. The fact that Taiwan and mainland China are under two different governments is spoken of in polite diplomatic circles as a case of a nation tragically divided: the fact that Outer and Inner Mongolia are likewise under two different regimes — the first an independent nation, the second a Chinese colony — cannot be mentioned for fear of upsetting those fragile and combustible Chinese sensibilities.
This deference allows the Chinese communists to get away with murder — literally. While American presidents and senior officials pass the Ming vase from hand to hand with utmost care, China’s best and bravest suffer and die in labor camps. In The New Chinese Empire, Ross Terrill describes such disgraces as Jiang Zemin’s carefully-scripted “news conference” at Harvard University in 1997, where embarrassing questions were screened out in advance. Terrill sums up Bill Clinton’s return visit to China the following year very succinctly: “Beijing played the American president like a violin.” The violin recital goes on today: the author relates a conversation he had with Secretary of State Colin Powell, two months after that gentleman’s 2001 visit to Beijing. Powell described the trip as: “Excellent … Very encouraging.” In fact, as Terrill demonstrates, the Powell visit was yet another game, set and match for the communists.
How do China’s communists get away with it? This penetrating and angry book supplies the answers. A large part of the communists’ success is simply due to a high level of skill in managing their situation. Statecraft has been a Chinese obsession since ancient times. The everyday Chinese language is riddled with proverbs and idioms from great diplomats and strategists of past times. If you look closely at this huge body of lore, a surprising amount of it deals with managing one’s own weakness. China, though a great civilization, has not always been a great nation, supreme in her sphere. At least as often, she has been weak or divided. The art of maintaining the survival of one’s state, or state-fragment, in such times — of “turning weakness into strength” — has been the subject of intensive study by the Chinese across a score of centuries. China knows how to leverage weakness. As Terrill describes:
Surprisingly, U.S.-China ties were smoother under Reagan than under Clinton. This was not because Reagan was better disposed toward the values of Chinese communism than was Clinton! Rather it was because, with his military buildup and other signs of strength, Reagan was perceived in Beijing as a leader who would not readily back down. The Chinese state, which for two thousand years has known when and how to retreat, compromised with Reagan. With Clinton, who wavered and pecked intermittently at China policy, Beijing simply pushed for more and more.
China’s approach to statecraft is different in fundamental ways from what Westerners are used to. This strangeness of approach perplexes and confuses our officials in their dealings with the Chinese. Much of it arises from the internalized Chinese awareness that, even when their nation has been subjugated or divided, it has always hung together as a civilization, and as a civilization the Chinese have been dominant in their region in a way that no Western nation, nor even Christendom itself, has ever been. Terrill points out some of the odd consequences of this: the fact, for example, that China today has no allies, nor even any friends, and seems not to mind the lack. The absurd blustering and arrogance of tone that Beijing affects towards other nations has the same source; likewise the mix of whining self-pity and angry grievance that the Chinese authorities bring to all discussions of their own recent history.
All this and much more is laid out for inspection in The New Chinese Empire, with many keen insights and memorable phrases. Terrill summarizes that: “Beijing wants to be in Asia what Washington is in Latin America.” He masterfully describes the full nature of Chinese ambitions, their deep historical roots, and the coming developments that will thwart them.
Terrill also suggests that in the face of coming disappointment, China’s “Pretentious, Aggrieved and Fearful State will segue into the Vengeful State.” I fear he is correct, and that dire things will follow. China has displayed immense skill in managing us. There is no sign that we are capable of similar skill in managing them, nor even that our statesmen are aware that they are being manipulated and bamboozled by grand masters of ancient statecraft. I very much hope that Ross Terrill’s book will find a place on State Department reading lists.