Americans are again upset about China, this time thanks to a spate of product safety and food contamination cases, the revelation of slave labor conditions at a rural north China brickworks, and the execution of the head of the State Food and Drug Administration for health-threatening corruption.
American diagnoses are familiar: "Wild West capitalism," "spiritual vacuum," "local protectionism," absence of the rule of law, the ill effects of one-party rule.
The larger conundrum evoked by current developments, however, is the frailty of the social compact in modern China.
As with every society, China today is heir to its past, and the seeds of its current challenges germinated last century.
By the 1920s the fledgling Republic of China was stumbling badly. Regional warlordism split the country. Foreign powers exercised privileges exacted over eight decades from a helpless China. Exploitation of the powerless ran unchecked. Famine, epidemics, and social violence stalked the land.
China's plight was a source of profound concern for Sun Yat-sen, the man credited with leading the 1911 revolution that ended 2,000 years of dynastic imperial rule. In 1924, just before his death, Dr. Sun wrote a powerful diagnosis of China's ills and a recipe for the nation's salvation:
"...[W]e should therefore be advancing in the front rank with the nations of Europe and America. But the Chinese people have only family and clan solidarity; they do not have national spirit. Therefore even though we have 400 million people gathered together in one China, in reality they are just a heap of loose sand. Today we are the poorest and weakest nation in the world, and occupy the lowest position in international affairs.... If we wish to avert this catastrophe, we must espouse nationalism and bring this national spirit to the salvation of the country."
Sun's alarm sounded a central theme in China's tumultuous modern history: the need to bind together a vast, poor, and fragmented population into an organized polity, founded on a new consciousness of a nation-centered identity.
Twenty-five years later, Sun's Chinese Nationalist Party heirs were driven from the Chinese mainland by Mao Zedong's Communists. With the ruthless but effective organizational discipline of the Communist Party, its intense mythmaking ideology, and its monopoly of force, social and political consolidation finally seemed to be at hand. The possibility of forming a new Chinese social compact beckoned.
The foreign gunboats, swashbucklers, and proselytizers were gone. Regional armies and local militias were eliminated. China's catastrophic opium epidemic was ending. Village exploiters were stripped of their power.
To Mao, as to millenniums of imperial predecessors, it was a given that the strength of the nation was inseparable from popular values. To imbue China's masses with a new national belief system, the communist propaganda apparatus turned to …