China according to the Chinese
The Origin, Process, and Outcome of China's Reforms
in the Past One Hundred Years
by Enbao Wang

Reviewed by Yu Bin

French leader Napoleon Bonaparte had an aphorism: "Let China sleep; when she wakes she will shake the world," said Napoleon (1769-1821). Nearly 180 years after his death, this famous aphorism (or cliche, for Sinologists/China experts) by the French military genius and dictator is both right AND wrong.

He was right because China, indeed, had gone into almost a century-and-a-half "sleep" - a benign word for a prolonged devastation from 1839 to 1979 by wars, defeats, occupation, revolution, civil wars and political upheaval.

Napoleon was wrong, however, to predict that China's awakening would shake the world, meaning to challenge the West-dominated international system. Thirty after China unfolded its historical reform in 1979, a strong and stable China - instead of switching between Napoleonic "sleeping" and "shaking" modes - has served as a and has been a "stakeholder" of the existing international system still dominated by the West.

has China's rise defied the prediction of past sages and today's pundits? Much of discourse on China's rise is divided between those who are fascinated and those who are frightened by China's recent rise. While optimists see that an increasingly modernized China would eventually be "Westernized," pessimists do not trust the rise of a non-Western, non-democratic, non-Christian or non-white China. Like Napoleon, Western pundits are either unable or unwilling, or both, to see that China's historical rise can be different from that of Western powers.

There is no question that China's rise is important for the West. China's rise, however, is even more important for the Chinese because they are the initiators and recipients of China's historical rise, for better or worse. A genuine Chinese voice in the West's China discourse, however, is barely discernible. Unlike Said with his provocative inquiry, those few scholars of Chinese origin in some visible Western intellectual positions have almost completely "Orientalized" themselves into paradigm. [1]

They either dance to the tune of Western constructs of a China "collapse-or-threat" chorus; or, alternatively, their "comparative advantage" in the West's "" business is fully tapped as they invent or help perpetuate a treatise of comparative communism (China's economic vs Russia's political reforms) and comparative developmental models (India vs China) (see Chapter 7). In both sub-areas of Western academics, the permeating though unspoken theme is that the non-Western and non-democratic China is a "problem" not just to be understood but also to be "solved".

Need for China's own voice
Wang's book, The Chinese Quest for National Rejuvenation, represents a timely and useful attempt to fill an apparently growing gap between what has happened in China in the past 30 years on one hand, and the persistent Western cultural-political solipsism on the other.

Wang's a broad trajectory of China's search for national salvation and development in the 20th century (particularly by Sun Yat-sen, Chiang Kai-shek, and Mao Zedong) following the Western intrusion and semi-colonization of China in the wake of the infamous Opium War (1840-42). In the early 21st century, the goal of rejuvenating China is indeed within reach. China's thinking is going back to the past for its future.

So is Dr Wang, who zeros in on the crucial role of Deng Xiaoping in steering China toward economic development and opening China to the outside world (Chapter 2). According to Wang, China's rise boils down to a new political ideology of Dengism, of building socialism with Chinese characteristics, a major departure from Marxism, Leninism and Maoism. In the post-Deng era, the Chinese political elite furthered Deng's pragmatism by first invigorating the political, intellectual, and business elites (Jiang Zemin's "three represents") and then re-engaging the more vulnerable groups (Hu Jintao's "harmonious society") (Chapter 4).

What Wang documents in the book is not necessarily new and much of it has been picked up and perhaps even over-studied by Western scholars. Yet, this is one of the relatively few works that systematically traces, from the Chinese perspective, the origin, theories, process and outcome of China's reforms of the past 100 years. With a focus on the past 30 years, the study touches many key elements: rural reforms, price reforms, reforms of state-owned enterprises, the decision to join the world system, special economic zones, effort to attract , urbanization, reemergence of the private sector, even the formation of the . All of these, plus the sustained political stability rarely seen in the previous 130 years, has turned the world's most populous nation into an economic powerhouse. By 2007, China became the third largest economy of the world (or the second largest if measured with parity, or PPP), up from a mere 5% of the world's GDP in 1978 (Chapter 1).

Almost all of the Western scholarly works on China's reform tend to argue that China has made only economic, not political, reforms, meaning democratization. Wang, however, portrays a quite different picture: the ruling Communist Party has essentially transformed itself, albeit gradually, into a multi-class party, including the capitalist class. Non-communist figures also hold posts at various levels of governance; the National People's Congress, once a rubber-stamp, has grown some real teeth; and local level democratic elections have become institutionalized. Although these movements toward democracy are "limited," the key is, according to Wang, that the trend will not be reversed (Chapter 3).

A key aspect of China's rise is its the external world. For this, Wang focuses on two broad issues: relations with the United States, the world's sole superpower, and with China's neighbors, particularly those with whom China went to war after 1949 (South Korea, India, Vietnam and Russia). Indeed, Deng's vision and strategy for peace and development paralleled improving relations with the United States, the strongest power in the world. China's rejuvenation cannot be accomplished without cooperative and friendly relations with Washington.

In this regard, it is imperative to convince Washington, as well as the rest of the world, of the peaceful intention and purpose of China's rise. Wang traces the origins of the theory of "China's peaceful rise" to a 1997 speech at Harvard University by Zheng Bijian, a leading strategist in Beijing. Zheng's view draws wide attention from both China and the United States (Chapter 5). Zheng's theory has yet to convince the entire foreign audience, which is perhaps a "mission impossible" given the different background of history, culture and political systems. China's actual policies toward Washington, and particularly toward its neighbors, however, help alleviate outside concerns for the rise of this huge nation.

China's 'regional-global' and 'internal-external'
causalities: Toward a refined comprehension of
China's rise 'of peace, by peace, and for peace'

[2] Wang's study by no means exhausts the China rise discourse. Nor does it attempt to cover everything in China in the past 30 years. If anything, it perhaps opens more space for scholarly inquiry. In this regard, Wang's effort points to two useful "linkages" for future studies: a linkage between China's "major power diplomacy" (da guo guanxi) and its "periphery" policies (zhoubian zhengce) or relations with China's neighbors; and a linkage between China's domestic and foreign policies.

In the first place, Wang's choice for a focused study of China's relations with the United States and its neighbors (Chapters 5 and 6) is perhaps very pertinent in the past 60 years and point to two radically different patterns in China's interactions with these nations. Between the 1950s and 1970s, China fought across the 38th parallel in Korea, along the Taiwan Strait, down to Indochina, up in the Himalayas, and along the 4,000 miles of the Sino-Russian border.

Although these conflicts were not entirely the making of China, the periphery of China became an active fault line separating East and West, maritime and continental powers, democracies and communism, the yellow and white worlds, and the liberal and centralized economies. Indeed, China had earned the reputation as "a regional power without a regional policy”, or an Asian power without an Asian policy. [3]

To a large extent, it was the powerful cold war era international and regional setting, particularly the effort of the world's most powerful capitalist state (the United States) that constrained China's diplomatic space and choices. Within this polarized context, China had to define its regional foreign and security policies according to relations with the superpowers (yi su huaxian, yi mei huaxian, fandi fanxiu). Worse, even if the cold war was essentially "cold" between the two system powers (United States and USSR), "hot" wars in Asia, such as those in Korea and Vietnam, were not only real but were waged as a way to contain China. During the reform decades, China has indeed departed from that confrontational posture with both major powers (including Russia) and its neighbors, as Dr Wang's book unambiguously portrays.

In terms of "internal-external" causality, China's diplomatic accomplishments would be inconceivable if China had remained weak, divided and chaotic, as was the case of most of the 20th century prior to the reform decades. If anything, China was the target and victim of numerous wars, defeats and humiliating foreign occupations in the first half of the 20th century. The foreign factor aside, what China underwent at this time was national decay at the hands of the corrupted Manchus, divided warlords, an inept nationalist regime and destructive civil wars.

Even if Mao unified China, his periodic overplaying people's power had led to both romantic and tragic outcomes. It was not until after his death in 1976 that China started to stabilize. For better or for worse, the reform decades since the late 1970s are perhaps the longest period of internal stability that China has enjoyed at any time during the past 170 years (from 1839 when the first Opium War broke out).

"A weak nation has no meaningful diplomacy (ruoguo wu waijiao)," goes a popular Chinese saying. A largely stable and reasonably strong China with sustained economic development during the reform decades, therefore, is the key to China's diplomatic accomplishments. It was only under these circumstances that China's elite, from Deng to Jiang to Hu, have been able to conceive, formulate and pursue a meaningful diplomacy with China's neighbors, with the United States and around the world. Alternatively, a weak, divided and unstable China would be either the prey of stronger powers or reacting with more belligerent policies toward others, as was the case in the first three quarters of the 20th century. 

China's future: Democratic or else?
"Every 30 years things go to the opposite," goes another popular Chinese saying (san shi nian he dong, san shi nian he xi). Wang's book arrives at a crucial juncture, as China's economic development has reached a moment of historical reckoning for the nation's political future. What is next? How does the rise of China's economic power relate to its political infrastructure? What is the ideational destination of an economically rising China? How much should China continue to learn from the West while the capitalist "beast" is devastating not only itself but also the very habitat its own survival depends upon? What is the utility of China's own traditional culture? To what extent does it still have


the potential for harmonizing a rapidly modernizing China? How will China exercise its newly found power in the world?

These questions, among others, may not be easily addressed by China's own experience in the reform decades. In other words, Deng's theory, and its variations of Jiang's and Hu's doctrines, may not be a reliable guide for China's future given the fast-changing domestic and international setting. After 30 years of its experimentation with Western market capitalism, 60 years after its switch to Western Marxism, and 90 years after its dismay with Western liberalism, [4] China perhaps would have to search for its own answer, own guideline, and own "isms" for many of its problems and those of the world.

As Wang points out, the Chinese have searched for a democratic system over the past 100 years - from Sun Yat-sen to Mao Zedong and finally to Deng Xiaoping - while pursuing a national rejuvenation (Chapters 3 and 7). How and why is such a quest so long and at times extremely painful? Part of the answer lies in China's own cultural "barriers" to a democratic setting originated from the West. But what about the West's model itself? Should the Chinese reexamine the validity of Western democratic-capitalism as the sole path to modernity? This questioning is more imperative in a brave new world of globalized recession, heightened terrorism and proliferating weapons of mass destruction.

The experience of China and others already indicates that the West's capitalism-democracy twin-recipe is not indivisible. Conversely, the combination of the two may or may not lead to peace and prosperity for the West itself and for others, as were the cases of democratic-imperialism and expansionism in history. In the case of the United States, the built-in "checks and balances" mechanism can lead to a situation with neither checks nor balance, as indicated by those rogue CEOs, politicians' cherry-picking intelligence and excessive use of force in the format of unilateralism and preemption. At least the West is already asking the question by juxtaposing the so-called "Washington Consensus" and "Beijing Consensus."

The question is not one of right or wrong, but how these developmental models differ from one another. It is not argued here that China confront various Western ideologies, but transcend these narrowly defined Western concepts, which always strive for their own ideological purity and extreme end - be they liberalism, nationalism, Nazism, militarism, communism, statism - at the expense of the interests of others. For China's political and intellectual elite, the nation's democratization should be by and for itself and at its own pace, not necessarily because of or for the satisfaction of the West.

Indeed, democracy may not necessarily be the final destination for human and social development, but a mechanism for some higher goals - such as social harmony. Such a goal may be reachable through other paths, not just those of the West. From a historical perspective, there is perhaps nothing wrong with democracy as a political system that evolved from Western history and culture. It deserves both respect and serious consideration by others, including China. Indiscriminately imposing democracy anywhere and anytime, however, amounts to a witch doctor prescribing Viagra to every patient, regardless of his or her age, gender and symptoms. Ultimately, it may undermine one's own interests, as is the case of Iraq, which has become the bloodiest democratizing case ever in the world's history.

Beyond the policy realm, scholars need to be open-ended in exploring China's future. While China is still far away from Western-style democracy, there are significant political changes in the areas of elite politics, succession mechanisms, elite-societal relations, development of the private space, etc. Western democracy-equals-modernization orthodoxy would not be able to explain what happens in China. Nor would the champions of Western democracy be able to reconcile the prevailing democracy-peace theory with what William Lind refers to "Western civil war," [5] which included wars of hundreds of years between European princes, merchants, mercenaries, professional soldiers, citizen-states, and ideologies. [6]

At the beginning of the 20th century, Western democracies' war with other Western nations, which was World War I and its grand settlement at Versailles, unleashed all the "evils" for Western democracies in the 20th century: Russian Bolshevikism, German Nazism, Japanese militarism and Chinese communism. "The war to end all wars," ironically and tragically became the first in a long line of wars. This "Western civil war" finally drew to an end in 1991 with Western liberalism celebrating the "end of history”, meaning Western liberalism triumphing over Western communism. [7]

Western realism, however, lost no time in declaring the coming of the clashes of civilizations between the West and "rest". [8] This mindset of perpetual war - either with itself or with others - made the 20th century the bloodiest ever in world history, with 75 percent of the death toll since the year 1000 and 89% since 1800. [9]

For all of the unpleasant consequences of China's 30-year reform and historical rise - corruption, inequality, environmental degradation, etc - China has so far escaped the Western cycle of hegemonic wars in which rising power upsets existing international system. If Napoleon rose from his grave, he would indeed be shocked by what China has NOT done during its historical rise: "discovering" the "new" worlds, seizing colonies, shipping slaves, selling drugs, fighting endlessly with others, etc.

It is time for China to reexamine, if not escape from, the conceptual and ideological capitalist-democracy "trap" enshrined by Western political and intellectual elite. At a minimum, China should avoid the excessiveness of Western ideologies. In the still deepening worldwide capitalist crisis, it is time for China, and the world, to pause, think and search for a different model of political economy beyond excessive greed, excessive consumerism and excessive laissez-faire.

The goal is to strive for a proper balance between the market and the state, between individual need and societal interests, between equality and efficiency, between materialistic growth and cultural/spiritual harmony, and between nurturing the innovative business class and protecting other vulnerable social groups.

Such an approach is also common sense, as was the choice made by the little girl Goldilocks, who preferred things not too hot, not too cold, not too hard, not too soft, but just right. China, too, should tap into its traditional Confucian "middle approach" (zhong yong) by pursuing a goal of more responsible governance for a more "harmonious" society, with or without a democratic gloss-over.

1. This is borrowed from Said’s notion that the West’s study of the non-West is based on the West’s own experience, perceptions and invention of the "other", which is part of the Western style of dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient. Edward Said, Orientalism (Random House, Inc., 1978).
2. The phrase, "China’s rise of peace, by peace, and for peace," is cited from Wang Yiwei, The dimensions of China's peaceful rise, Asia Times Online, May 14, 2004.
3. Steven Levine, "China in Asia: The PRC as a Regional Power," in China’s Foreign Relations in the 1980s, Harry Harding, ed. (Yale University Press, 1984), 107-114; Michael Hunt, "Chinese Foreign Relations in Historical Perspective," in Harding, China’s Foreign Relations, 1-42; Samuel Kim, China In and Out of the Changing World Order (Princeton University Press, 1991), 84.
4. Before 1919, most Chinese intelligentsia believed that the only way to national salvation was total Westernization, or to learn from "Mr Science" and "Mr. Democracy". At Versailles in 1919, however, Chinese delegates soon discovered that their goal of regaining national sovereignty was dashed by a secret treaty between Japan and European democracies to transfer the German concession of Shandong to Japan, not back to China. Between the two Asian allies, Western democracies chose the strong at the expense of the weak. The May 4, 1919 demonstrations across China decisively turned pro-liberal intellectual sentiment into one of anti-imperialism and nationalism.
5. Samuel Huntington, "The Clash of Civilizations?" Foreign Affairs 72, no. 3 (Summer 1993): 23.
6. Michael Howard, War In European History (Oxford University Press, 1976).
7. Francis Fukuyama, "The End of History?" The National Interest 16 (Summer 1989).
8. Huntington, op.cit.
9. John Rourke and Mark Boyer, International Politics on the World Stage (McGraw-Hill, 2008), 232.

The Origin, Process, and Outcome of China's Reforms in the Past One Hundred Years: The Chinese Quest for National Rejuvenation (Hardcover) Edwin Mellen Press (November 5, 2009), ISBN-10: 0773439048. Price US$119.95, 383 pages.

Yu Bin is Senior Fellow of Shanghai Association of American Studies and regular contributes to Comparative Connections, Pacific Forum (CSIS) at He can be reached at