Magazine article The World and I

China's Psyche

Magazine article The World and I

China's Psyche

Article excerpt

Holly Krambeck currently resides in Beijing, where she works as an editor for China Today.

It is said that during the Ming (1368--1644) and part of the Qing dynasties, China was the most socially, culturally, and technologically advanced nation on earth; only during the nineteenth century did it fall from its state of primacy. Although reasons for China's collapse are varied and arguable, one certainty is that the Chinese do not intend to wistfully gaze forever upon past glories.

According to a senior Beijing Communist Party member: "Our country was the world's greatest power. But in the last 200 years, we have suffered terrible hardships and much national weakness. We are now on the verge, however, of putting that behind us, and we don't intend to let anyone stop us."

Since the death of People's Republic of China founder Mao Zedong in 1976, the nation has been undergoing an economic and social rebirth. With sufficient resources, mind-boggling human capital (one-fifth of the world's population), intimidating size (the world's third-largest landmass), and a willingness to reform, China--if it can surmount an array of treacherous social and economic problems--just may, one day, reclaim its lost prestige. The possibility has not gone unnoticed by Western media. Every day, journalists pick apart Beijing's domestic and foreign policies to try to determine whether the future China will be friend or foe.


According to University of California at Berkeley journalism professor Carolyn Wakeman, author of To the Storm, ever since the suppression of the prodemocracy movement in 1989, Western journalists have caricatured China as a violator of human rights, a threat to the U.S. economy, a destroyer of the environment, and a harborer of corrupt officials, crooked businesses, and victimized citizens. Though China may be all of these to some extent, it is hardly the incarnation of evil. Still, few Westerners can comprehend why China should be so adamant about its sovereignty over Taiwan and Tibet, or why a developing country would spend almost $2 billion on a single National Day celebration, or why the Communist Party is terrified of the peaceful religious group known as the Falun Gong. To comprehend Chinese foreign and domestic policy, one must first understand China's long dynastic history.

Since the founding of the first dynasty, the Shang, in roughly 1500 b.c., China has been caught in a continuous cycle of dynastic rise and fall. The Chinese have noted that a cycle begins when a leader consolidates and stabilizes the country and establishes reforms that usher in a period of prosperity. However, the situation eventually stagnates; population growth and declining agricultural productivity challenge the strength of the state; and leaders, usually isolated behind luxurious palace walls, become unable to meet the changing demands of the people. Dynasties then fall, resulting in fragmentation and chaos that lasts until the next consolidation. Although China's last dynasty, the Qing, ended in 1911 after a period of rapid decline that started with the Anglo-Chinese War of 1839--42, the concept of dynastic cycles continues to haunt modern China and its present-day policymakers.

According to Charles Hucker, historian and author of China's Imperial Past, the Sung dynasty (960--1279) fell because of its inability to adjust to a rapidly changing society. Traditional attitudes in rural China clashed with the entrepreneurial ideas coming from the urban centers, and socioeconomic disparities widened. Reforms were desperately needed, but most discussions were reduced to bitter disagreements; officials could not come to a meeting of the minds on the best direction for China's growth.


Today, 700 years later, Chinese society is again undergoing rapid, fundamental transformation. As before, the government is having trouble keeping up. …

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