The New Chinese Empire: And What It Means for the World

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The New Chinese Empire: And What It Means for the World, by Ross Terrill. Sydney: The University of New South Wales Press, 2003. xviii + 380 pp. Aus$39.95 (paperback).

Ross Terrill's latest book is an ambitious attempt to blend Chinese history with present-day political affairs. The book presents thought-provoking observations, but Terrill's attempts to generalize across history unfortunately become moralizations about the historical course of events. Nor is this a comparative exercise, as his selections from the Chinese historical repository frequently become caricatures of contemporary Chinese politics, instead of characterizations. His facile conclusion is that China today is a "failed" state: "One day the Communist regime in Beijing will pass away ... and we should be prepared, in concert with our American, Japanese, Korean and other friends, for the dangers and opportunities of that moment" (p. xii).

In order to elucidate the intricacies of the traditional Chinese state, Terrill bases himself on S. E. Finer, which is not of much help, since two out of three basic state characteristics mentioned by Finer were absent in China. In other words, China is once more characterized as "lacking" something the West has and which China should have. Terrill writes: "To be Chinese came to mean being a child of the Chinese state. The culture has yet to disentangle itself from that paternal straitjacket" (p. 54). Sweeping statements like this characterize the book. Its subtext reads more like a judgement over the present state of affairs than an attempt at synthesizing the relationship between the individual and the state in Chinese history. It may lead a reader to conclude that the reach of the traditional Chinese state penetrated all the way down to the grassroots, but this was not achieved until under the early years of Communist rule.

Traditional Western philology-derived sinology explained China in cultural terms, echoing the traditional self-perceptions of the Chinese elites. Political changes were seen as only ripples on a vast cultural ocean. …