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Wealth and Power at Capital M

FuQiang 强: Wealth and Power. Together they are shorthand for a state with sufficient strength to repel enemies from without and of sufficient prosperity to provide a level of sustenance for those within.  

In his book Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the Twenty-First Century, co-authored with Orville Schell, historian John Delury argues, “For Chinese reformers since the early nineteenth century, these two characters have repeatedly stood in for the profound desire among China’s cognoscenti to see their country restored to the kind of greatness their ancestors had once taken for granted. Above all, these patriotic Chinese yearned for their nation to be able to defend itself against foreign incursion.”

Wealth and Power was my favorite Chinese history book of last year and I even used it as a core text in my Modern Chinese History class this past fall. Not every chapter is a winner, but the decision to select key figures to represent their ‘age’ and then give each figure their own section makes the book an ideal choice for the upper-division undergraduate classroom.  Several choices are inspired, in particular Feng Guifen over the more obvious choices of Zeng Guofan or Li Hongzhang; Chen Duxiu rather than Lu Xun; and Zhu Rongji instead of Jiang Zemin in the post-Tiananmen era.

John Delury appeared today in Beijing as part of the Capital M Literary Festival.  Answering questions from moderator Ed Wong of the New York Times, Delury argued, as he does in the book, that ideology in China has for the most part become subservient to the quest for wealth and power, and that this wish to ‘return’ as the dominant regional power, something he argues  many Chinese see as the natural state of affairs in East Asia, is coming close to completion. In effect, the restoration has succeeded.

During the Q&A session, I asked about the role of modernity. While rejecting the hoary old trope of “Western Impact” and “Chinese Response” as the driving force of modernization in Chinese history, it can still be said that this search for wealth and power could be also described as a search for modernity, and in particular a modernity that is also fully, or mostly, a Chinese modernity. This is a common predicament for many countries in the developing world, particularly those once subjected to imperialist subjugation or oppression.

Imperialist countries use the lack of development as partial justification for actions which are inherently exploitive. Whether couched in a discourse of “uncivilized” or “backwards,” the implicit, and often explicit, narrative is that the colonized other lacks modernity and should welcome ‘modernizing forces’ regardless of the ancillary costs.

(Ironically, the Chinese government is repeating this pattern in its relationship with its own ‘colonized’ regions such as Tibet and Xinjiang, but that’s a subject for another post…)

The result is that reformers in subjugated societies begin their search for ‘modernity’ by internalizing the colonial critique of their own culture.

For example, foreign writers would castigate Chinese people for things like spitting on the ground or binding their women’s feet, calling these practices backward, barbaric customs which are unhygienic and antithetical to a modern society.  Chinese reformers seeking to modernize China then first looked to eradicate those practices seen (by foreigners) as ‘backwards’ or antithetical to modernization.

Regardless of whether or not the practices described should have been eradicated or not, the result was  the standard for a ‘modern’ society was ultimately  defined by foreigners/Westerners.  That which looked foreign/western was perceived to be modern, that which was traditionally Chinese was often rejected as backward or getting in the way of modernity.

In the case of foot binding or infanticide that probably was a good thing, but this way of thinking reached its catastrophic apogee during the Cultural Revolution when all that was old was targeted for destruction with devastating results for China’s cultural heritage.

Don’t worry, I phrased the question a good deal more succinctly this afternoon, asking how a quest for a particularly Chinese modernity fits with Delury’s thesis of wealth and power being the driving force of modern Chinese history.

Delury to some extent punted, but I suspect it’s because he was looking at ‘modern’ more as a periodization while I was thinking of modern as a particular, although often chimerical, condition of society.  Delury argues that the ‘modern’ in China has such negative connotations because of the association of the period with humiliation and catastrophe of the ‘modern period’ that Chinese are to some extent trying to move past modernity.

I would disagree, even allowing for periodization, if only because the idea of ‘modernity’ and ‘modernization’ is so central to not only official rhetoric on development but also in popular discourse.  Modern/urban/wealthy is good. Poor/traditional/rural not as much.

If I had a critique of Delury and Schells’ book, it would be this: While wealth and power are no doubt central to many Chinese understanding of China’s development, neither can be separated from an understanding of modernization that needs, if it is to be acceptable, to be somehow removed from foreign critiques of China and foreign standards/assumptions of what a modern China should look like.

Put another way: I argue the central thesis of modern Chinese history is the search for a nation/state that is powerful, wealthy, and united, and a society that is both fully modern and fully Chinese.  It is a difficult challenge, but I argue that since the Opium War almost every Chinese leader and intellectual has grappled with this very question. The answers about HOW to do this are often shockingly different.  Chiang Kai-shek’s answer to how to accomplish this task looks very different from those proposed by Feng Guifen or Mao Zedong, but the question remains constant.

Introducing modernity in to this equation helps to bring dissenting voices more fully into the conversation. Delury and Schell’s last chapter focuses on Liu Xiaobo and Delury argued that to some extent Liu represents an outlier, arguing that there were more important considerations (human rights, civil society) which trumped the search for wealth and power. Other, less incarcerated, writers have made similar points, decrying GDPism as trumping public health or civil liberties.

But although Liu Xiabo (or Xu Zhiyong or Wang Hui) might argue that GDPism/wealth/power is not a preeminent concern, all three are very much engaged in a search for a Chinese modernity.  In fact, one criticism of these intellectuals, particularly from the left, is that there view of modernity is a little too close to that prescribed by Western critics of the Chinese regime.

Whether one agrees with Liu Xiaobo’s vision of a Chinese society guided by constitutional reform or Xi Jinping’s vision of a country where everybody can achieve the “Chinese Dream,” the search for a Chinese modernity continues.