The Challenges for (Students of) Contemporary China

by Anastas Vangeli

It is impossible to do other than assent to the unanimous verdict that China has at length come to the hour of her destiny … The contempt for foreigners is a thing of the past … Even in remote places we have found the new spirit – its evidence, strangely enough, the almost universal desire to learn English … as knowledge of English is held to be the way to advancement, the key to a knowledge of the science and art, the philosophy and policy, of the West.

– As cited in the Oxford’s Very Short Introduction to Modern China by Rana Mitter

To the reader’s surprise, the passage above is not authored by someone who recently traveled through China (or as Mitter says, someone who just “landed back at Kennedy or Heathrow airports on one of the many Air China 747s that ferry thousands of travelers daily between China and the West”). It was back in the year of 1910, when the two Western authors, William Young Fullerton and C. E. Wilson noted down these words, part of their book titled New China. The old “New China” was a modern society, a well faring economy, part of the global discourse and as the authors suggested, had a very bright future ahead.

And how could they predict that China as the world had known it by then, was coming to its end. In 1911/2, due to the corrupt rule of the Qing dynasty, and due to the increasing foreign involvement, the Chinese empire cracked, albeit the modernization efforts instigated by Empress Cixi a decade earlier. Decades of unstable and contentious politics, tyranny of warlords, civil wars, colonization, foreign invasions, bloodbaths and famines followed, that had drawn China back and pretty much annihilated all the progress that Fullerton and White were paying tribute to.

Nonetheless, for many Chinese today this narrative seems as distant as it would for any foreigner. (As Jeffrey Wasserstrom has noted, more than 40% of the Chinese are born after Mao’s death, and about 25% are born after the events of Tianamen  Square 1989 – for them, as for me, Yao Ming is a much more important figure than any of the historic leaders)

China today is all about maintaining the reform and opening up discourse established by Deng Xiaoping, sustaining economic growth and catching up or even surpassing the West in many areas. As the decades of chaos (in Mandarin luan, a word with a very negative connotation) had devastated China, the period of slightly less than three decades of reform has managed to lift millions out of poverty and turn China into the most significant emerging power of the twenty-first century [often dubbed Chinese century]. And not only it has put on a new face at home, but China’s soft power is transforming the world as well – an especially hot topic is the Chinese influence in Europe, exercised through shopping diplomacy [this, in addition to the Chinese influence in the Americas and Africa].

However, China’s progress today is not to be taken for granted, as the country still faces many challenges on the road to even higher achievement. Maintaining a nation of 1.3/1.4 billion people happy is certainly the utmost contest any policymaker has ever faced. Internally, China’s government is confronted with the immense task of combating corruption of the world’s largest public administration – what President Hu has recognized as a major threat for the popular support of the CPC. Corruption was part of the many debates on the recent train crash in Wenzhou, an accident that has caused the tip of public deliberation. In the crash aftermath, we could witness the power of Chinese netizens (the world’s largest online population), who exposed many of the weaknesses of the CPC regime and arguably, managed to set their own agenda on the issue. Besides corruption and the growing demands of the Chinese public sphere, increasingly worrying matter for the CPC is the potential burst of several economic bubbles (in the first place, the real estate one). There is as well the growing gap between the rich and the poor that troubles the very socialist ideal that the Party has fought for; another problem is the decay of the environment, one of the downsides of the rapid economic progress. China also faces growing tensions in its hinterland provinces where minorities demand greater autonomy and eventually secession (in the first place, it’s the Uyghurs in Xinjiang and the Mongols of Inner Mongolia). Externally, besides the continuous tug of war with Taiwan and the on-and-off tensions in the South China See, China experiences the risks and uncertainties of contemporary global economy and interdependence.With the US debt limit debates, China faced the sour truth that its foreign currency reserves one day might plummet. In addition, as her global engagement increases, China will be often forced to abandon its impartial behavior (for instance, China’s support for the intervention in Libya might be the start of new Chinese pro-active foreign policy, where resource and security interests won over the neutrality principle). Finally, as her interaction with the West increases, China will be even more often challenged on issues such as Tibet, the treatment of its dissidents and respect of human rights; yet, China’s leaders so far are pretty successful in sticking to the “we agree to disagree on certain matters” rhetoric. The growing fear of China in the West is another test for Chinese leaders, who for the first time will have to accept the role of a global superpower with all its pros and cons.

The biggest challenge for China, however, will be to successfully complete the upcoming leadership transfer. 2012 is the year of changes – the year when President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao are stepping down, and will most likely hand the top positions to their deputies, the princeling Xi Jingpin and Li Keqiang. At the same time, China sees the emergence of another princeling (the label princeling in China denotes a son of a former high rank Party official, and used to have a somewhat derogatory meaning).  and a charismatic leader (often labeled a populist), Bo Xilai of Chongqing, who pushes for reintroduction of Maoist ideas and practices. Policy preferences of the future leaders, however, are yet to be declared.

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China of today is a dynamic polity and a vibrant culture. Its proportions, diversity and complexity are mind-boggling and at the same time challenging for many foreigners. The Western stereotypes of the distant and underdeveloped isolated land and people are promptly fading away, as the opening up has enabled and encouraged people from all sides of the globe to explore China.

In just a few weeks, I am commencing with my graduate studies of contemporary China. This post has been just a rough outline and a gentle reminder of how puzzling contemporary China really is. Whatever the challenges for its leaders might be, they resemble an even greater challenge (and a geeky pleasure) for its students. Not having any formal background in Asia studies (albeit lecture series and abundant reading on the topic), I for one, cannot wait for my school year to begin.