Worth Reading, February 13, 2012: Other People’s Reflections on China

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This is my first post since the Logos Institute Blog began its weekly “what we’re reading” series.

I haven’t been reading as much lately as I usually do, because I’ve been putting the finishing touches on my next book, about which you’ll hear much more in the coming months.

But when I’ve read it has mostly been building upon my reflections on China by paying attention to what others with far more experience there are saying.

An excellent starting point for anyone interested in understanding China from the perspective of the United States is Henry Kissinger’s On China.  This first-hand account from the nation’s architect of the 1972 Opening to China is both a fascinating read and a good guidebook to the seminal moments in China’s and the United States’ increasingly important relationship.

But to really understand how China got from 1972 to the present, from a Chinese perspective, the indispensable read is Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China by Ezra F. Vogel.  The author is Henry Ford II Professor of Social Sciences at Harvard.  He took a break from teaching to spend time in the CIA in the 1990s as the National Intelligence Officer for East Asia. His voluminous and deeply-researched book includes private and Party papers, interviews with family members and participants at major events, and a deep understanding of the day-to-day workings of the key players.

It’s particularly interesting (and both fun and scary) to read Deng’s accounts of his meetings with Henry Kissinger side-by-side with Kissinger’s.  The book also places those meetings into a Chinese context and shows how the U.S. mis-calculated significantly again and again in its relationships with China — from the risk of Chinese intervention in the Korean war to China’s relationship with Vietnam.  China invaded Vietnam soon after we left, worried about Vietnam’s likely invasion of Cambodia and fearing Soviet encirclement.  So much for our fear of global communist domination.

Vogel argues, correctly, in my view, that no single human being in the 20th Century had a greater long-term impact on world history than Deng.

I’m only halfway through the book, and I have a hard time putting it down.  Deng straddles the modern history of China.  He was born during the time of the last emperor.  He was an early member of the Communist Party.  As a soldier he led troops on the Long March in the war against the nationalists, and from 1937 to 1945 against the Japanese.  He was a close confidant of Mao, and suffered many reversals and humiliations before becoming the paramount leader in 1978.

In his late 70s Deng championed the four modernizations: Of the economy, of agriculture, of science and technology, and of defense.  He reversed China from a backward, rural, and isolated nation into a dynamic and engaged member of the world community.  He sent thousands of students and scientists abroad to learn Western ways and then return to apply those learnings to the new China.  He transformed China and therefore the world in profound ways.  In thirty years China went from a majority-rural society to a majority-urban one.  In the last 15 years, as a result of the modernizations Deng conceived and put in place, more than half a billion people have been lifted out of poverty: a humanitarian advance that is unprecedented anywhere. China would not be where it is today without Deng.  And although the book comes in at more than 900 pages, every one is worth the read.

The modern China is the focus of the January 28-February 3 issue of The Economist: China and the Paradox of Prosperity.  That issue also marks the launch of the magazine’s weekly special section on China.  This is only the second time in the magazine’s history that it saw fit to create a weekly section on a single country.  The first was in 1942 and that country was the United States.  Lesson: Learn Mandarin.


A more tactical look at China’s business climate can be found in the current issue of McKinsey Quarterly.  That issue includes a preview of China in 2012 as well as a guide to business innovation in China.

And finally, I’ve been making sense of all of this while reflecting on the latest book on power by Joseph S. Nye, Jr.  He is a Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor and former Dean of the Kennedy School of Government.

Nye is best known for developing the distinction between hard power and soft power.  In his 2002 book The Paradox of American Power he distinguished between hard power — military force and economic muscle — and soft power — the ability to attract via diplomacy, economic assistance, academic and cultural exchange, etc.  It’s essentially the difference between force and persuasion.

Nye defines soft power as “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments. It arises from the attractiveness of a country’s culture, political ideals, and policies. When our policies are seen as legitimate in the eyes of others, our soft power is enhanced.”  Nye says that even on the international stage, “Seduction is always more effective than coercion, and many values like democracy and human rights, and individual opportunities are deeply seductive.”

The paradox, which I’ve blogged about before, is that the more a country uses hard power, the more it loses soft power.

But not vice versa.

Nye is out with his further thinking: The Future of Power.  Here he takes the notion of hard and soft power and develops a further doctrine: Smart Power.  Nye says that the world we live in requires a different way to think about power.  Smart power combines hard and soft power in ways that avoid a zero-sum, I-win-you-lose dynamic.  Rather, it creates a positive-sum dynamic, where it’s win/win.  This will be the key in managing the increasingly symbiotic relationship between China and the United States.  It needs to be a win/win for both countries.

Nye also says that power in general is shifting in two directions:  From West to East (Learn Mandarin), and from state actors to non-state actors.  It’s the latter that is most interesting, both for the U.S. and for China, as well as for the rest of the world.  Tools and techniques that just 30 years ago were the exclusive province of large governments are now carried in our pockets in the form of smart phones etc.  So power is accruing to new forms of community: from Facebook and Twitter, and RenRen and Weibo, to what we saw in the Arab Spring last year.

In both the United States and China we’re seeing people power in ways and at speeds previously unimaginable — think of last week’s uproar and then reversal when the Susan G. Komen For the Cure Foundation tried to defund Planned Parenthood.  And think of the similar public outcry when the Chinese Government last year initially tried to cover up the cause and consequences of a high-speed train crash.  Citizen journalists posted video, pictures, and eyewitness accounts that made the government reverse itself and fire those who lied.

I’ll keep reading, reflecting, and sharing.  Your thoughts are always welcomed.

Zai Jian,



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