China is “a civilization pretending to be a nation”—or, put another way: several nations bound by an anachronistic empire in which “Red Emperors” clash with wired hipsters for control of the future.
So writes the widely published China hand Terrill (Fairbank Center for East Asian Research/Harvard; China in Our Time, 1992, etc.), who agrees with fellow historian Gerald Segal that “China is a second-rank middle power,” far from the Asian leviathan of realpolitiker theory. Yet China has aggressively expanded its frontiers in the last 60 years, swallowing up portions of Central Asia and Tibet and seeking to increase its influence internationally, especially by recruiting that largely imaginary class of citizens called “Overseas Chinese.” Since the death of the “neo-emperor” Mao Zedong, the Chinese state has been following two contradictory paths, “hurtling down one road in economics and limping down a different road in politics”; despite misbegotten efforts to do so, the central authority has failed to keep pace with advances in Chinese society at large, putting Beijing at odds with the rest of the nation, even as the rest of the nation makes polite requests of its leadership to loosen its grip on daily life. (Even the most radical of the Tiananmen Square protestors, Terrill writes, sought only a dialogue with “the Communist party-state.”) All its weaknesses allowed for, though, China still offers a threat to America, especially because it seeks to displace the US as the chief economic force in Asia and “expects a showdown with America (unless Americans accept illusion as truth, and lie down and roll over).” Or, perhaps, unless liberal reformist forces guide China to a responsible role as a true nation, not an empire, that will serve as “a constructive partner” rather than “an emerging threat.”
A provocative analysis of Asian affairs and world politics.