The New Chinese Empire: And What It Means for the United States

By Halloran, Richard | Parameters, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

The New Chinese Empire: And What It Means for the United States


Halloran, Richard, Parameters


The New Chinese Empire: And What it Means for the United States. By Ross Terrill. New York: Basic Books, 2003. 432 pages. $30.00. Reviewed by Richard Halloran, formerly with The New York Times as a foreign correspondent in Asia and military correspondent in Washington, who writes about US and Asia relations from Honolulu.

This is an altogether splendid book, lucid in writing, erudite without condescension, courageous in spirit. The author boldly predicts the end of the Communist Party's rule of China at a date uncertain but to be followed by a time of turbulence. The book should be read by military officers, political leaders, diplomats, business executives, and anyone else who plans to deal seriously with China over the next decade or longer.

Terrill's fundamental theme is that the Communist Party is in many ways a lineal descendant of the Chinese dynasties of yore, notably the Manchu or Qing (Ch'ing) that ruled from 1644 to 1912. "The PRC," he writes, referring to the People's Republic of China, "is an empire in that it appropriates an imperial idea of China, reinventing a 2,500 year old autocracy to control its population and hector non-Chinese neighboring peoples."

The author, who is at the Center for East Asian Research at Harvard, sees today's Chinese regime as a party-state in contrast to the nation-states of the West. In a nation-state, sovereignty resides in the people and power percolates from the bottom up. In Terrill's party-state, sovereignty is held by the party, which controls the government as power trickles down.

That party-state, to borrow a Marxist phrase, contains the seeds of its own destruction. "The Beijing regime is overstretched on its western and southeastern flanks, deeply corrupt, politically unstable, yet extremely ambitious," Terrill says. It has become vulnerable because "Communism has outlived its world historical role. Economic growth and crude nationalism are insufficient supports for long-term continuance of a regime. No cultural tissue connects government and people. A hovering army of unemployed grows."

Terrill, who has written six other books about China, asserts that China cannot evolve but will crash, as have the dynasties before it. "I believe the Chinese populace and the rest of the world really will notice when the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] loses its monopoly of political power," he contends. "No regime in Chinese history has ever given up power without bloodshed. I do not believe the CCP party-state will be the first."

In the long run, Terrill holds out a gleam of hope for the Chinese and everyone who believes that democracy is the last best hope of the human race. He says a democratic China "will ultimately come into existence, ending the dream of a Chinese empire. China as a democratic federation could be a leading force in the world and our fruitful partner in Asia for decades." Such a nation, he maintains, "infused with the actual wishes, wisdom, and heterogeneous strands of thought of the populace, will be worthy of Chinese civilization."

This will not happen easily or soon. "Simple prudence," Terrill concludes, "requires the United States and the rest of the world to prepare for drastic political discontinuity within China." The coming changes, he says, "will affect every American and also every East Asian and Central Asian who lives on China's borders. …

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