The New Chinese Empire

by Aaron Gardiner, guest blogger

The New Chinese Empire: And What It Means For The United States by Ross Terrill
Basic Books, 400 pp., $16.95

"Leninism piggybacks on a selectively salvaged autocratic tradition."

–Ross Terrill

Ross Terrill first visited China as part of an Australian delegation in 1972, and has been a China scholar pretty much ever since. He has fallen out of favor with the Chinese government, and was expelled from the PRC in 1992 for meeting with democracy activists. The New Chinese Empire is his take on how the Chinese State has developed, and where he thinks it is headed.

In the preface, Terrill writes that only internal Chinese dynamics can reform China in a positive way. I agree, and I think that western people systematically overestimate the impact that outsiders have on Chinese politics. His basic contention is that the Chinese government as we recognize it today will be unable to survive for much longer because it tries to monopolize the "truth" that Chinese people are exposed to. He wisely doesn't make any predictions about when this might happen.

The first couple of chapters (“The Problem of China,” “How the Chinese Imperial State was Formed,” “We are the World”) are very strong, and very readable. Terrill talks about the nature of the Chinese state in history and the influence that the legacy of a powerful, unified state retains in Chinese culture. A few points are worth examining in detail. I find it fascinating that over time the Chinese abandoned the idea of an anthropomorphic god to adopt the impersonal concept of "Heaven". Terrill's explanation of this is very helpful. He also gives several examples to support the idea that the Chinese sense of superiority to foreigners was, and continues to be, explicitly racist (Not, as some Chinese claim, cultural). This had a big impact on the ability of foreigners to identify with Chinese - Westerners are unable to become Chinese, no matter how much they embrace Chinese life. This is quite different from the situation in British India, where many noted Englishmen converted to Islam, or, less often, Hinduism, and "went native" (William Dalrymple's excellent book White Mughals gives a full account of this phenomenon). The flip side to this is the Chinese government's refusal to accept that people of Chinese ancestry can ever be free of obligation to China.

Terrill's take on Falun Gong in the chapter titled "Autocracy's Last Legs" is overly generous; I think the government's persecution of the FLG is heavy-handed, but when the Chinese government says FLG is a millenarian cult with pretensions to political power... Well, from everything I have ever seen of them, the FLG is in fact, a nasty millenarian cult, with pretensions to political power. One needn't look too far back into Chinese history to see how other millenarian cults expressed themselves upon seizing worldly power. Yes, you can argue that other countries have freedom of religion and everything is fine, but I bet if the Mormons had killed 20 million people settling Utah Americans wouldn't be so blase about it. The last big religious awakening in China, the TaiPing Rebellion, managed to throw half the country into anarchy. Terrill deals with this indirectly, conceding that the collapse of the CCP would produce a "confusing array of semipolitical, apocalyptic , and province-level movements emerge." I would say this is a best case scenario, and that the alternatives are mighty frightening.

The middle chapters (“Red Emperor,” “Your Mother is Still Your Mother”) bog down somewhat and don't offer too much insight. One good thing I did take away from them was the "Chinese World Order" as being a euphemism for the Chinese political order, and how this reflects the idea of China as a world unto itself.

The weakest part of Terrill's argument is his take on modern China's foreign relations. China has not, especially in the last two hundred years, been able to sustain alliances with foreign powers. Terrill posits that this is a sign of weakness and inconstancy. I suspect it reflects both racism, and a better understanding of realpolitik than other nations are able to summon. The CCP leadership has made a decision not to commit to alliances; the recent experience of Georgia (And South Vietnam, and the Kurds, and Bosnia, and.... ) suggests that such alliances are not the cure all they might seem. The singular exception is the relationship between China and North Korea, which China likens to the relationship between brothers. I would say North Korea is the retarded brother who keeps stealing food off other's plates and trying to set the house on fire, but China keeps on tolerating it.

New Chinese Empire's bibliography is a horde of great books related to China. An African Student in China, The Golden Peaches of Samarkand, Taxing Heaven's Storehouse"… I want them all!

There are lots of interesting points in the book that I haven't mentioned, and despite all my criticism and disagreements, I think it is a very worthwhile book overall. One finishes with a strong impression of the author's love of China and Chinese culture. Recommended.