Deconstructing China's Self-Image

Article excerpt


After the Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith returned from China in late 1973, he wrote about

how a senior Chinese leader lit a match in front of the American visitor and let the match burn down. The host told his guest that while the ancient Chinese invented gunpowder, they failed to harness its full potential.

The lesson is well-known among China's many nationalists irate over the aggression China suffered after Japan and the West mastered modern warfare. What was the Chinese leader communicating? That national power is the prerequisite for self-defense or for domination?

In How China's Leaders Think, Robert Lawrence Kuhn insists that he can offer a reassuring answer. Impressively armed with a doctorate from UCLA in brain research and a management degree from MIT, Mr. Kuhn has authored about 25 books, runs a foundation bearing his name to promote ties with China and has visited more than 40 cities there, meeting with hundreds of officials. His extensively researched book is arguably one of the best surveys of China's economic and social landscape during several decades of reform.

In several dozen well-organized, digestible chapters, Mr. Kuhn considers subject areas as diverse women's rights, artistic expression, education, per-capita income and attitudes toward the West.

Overall, Mr. Kuhn often convinces. However, he too often resembles a bamboo pole that bends in China's direction from the self-generated wind of good will. Surely a more balanced or prudent perspective is called for.

Mr. Kuhn is correct that pride is one major emotion animating Chinese actions. It is based on the people's cultural achievements and also on the stalemate that China forced during the Korean War. Beijing considers the conflict's outcome the first one ever with the West that was not unfair to itself, so no wonder Beijing nixes unification. Galloping economic growth and the grandiose 2008 Olympics are also logs burning on the fire of self-esteem.

The author offers the original - but unconfirmed - notion that when the United States accuses China of spying through people living in America, this galls the Chinese because it suggests that China's technology is inferior. Some Americans might scoff at this idea, while others will believe it.

China's leaders reject the destructive Cultural Revolution, but now face tensions from a growing range of social and economic classes and awful crimes such as school killings.

Mr. Kuhn is right that these leaders must generate jobs and provide social services, a fact that propels Beijing toward a commitment to long-term cooperation with its trade partners. Democracy is anathema, however, because China equates it with chaos. Mr. Kuhn quotes an official who claims that former President George W. Bush's quest to export freedom is as dogmatically dangerous as Mao Zedong's obsession with socialist purity.

Too inclined to agree, Mr. Kuhn might first reflect that Beijing wishes to be trusted. During the Cold War against the USSR, cautious Western analysts reasoned that a dictatorship that brutalizes its own people will treat foreigners worse. Can China escape that argument?

Also, Mr. Kuhn is remiss in not indicting Beijing for chronically understating its defense spending, even after former Defense Secretary Donald H. …