Is China Bound to Explode?

By Mark L. Clifford


And What It Means for the United States

By Ross Terrill Basic Books -- 384pp -- $30

If you want to understand why China's government has engaged in a massive cover-up of the severe acute respiratory syndrome epidemic, read Ross Terrill's The New Chinese Empire. The book, of course, was in the can long before SARS erupted, presenting Beijing's leaders with their worst crisis since the 1989 Tiananmen massacre and its aftermath. But the pattern of paternalistic posturing, blatant lying, and dismissive slapping-down of anyone who questions official truth follows a pattern common in China for two millenniums. It is just this imperial attitude and its relation to the range of current problems that Terrill analyzes so cogently.

The past quarter century has been a time of undeniable achievement for China. Rapid economic growth has lifted more than 200 million people out of absolute poverty and given hundreds of millions more a lifestyle that their parents could barely imagine. Society, too, has opened up in important ways: No longer does the state decide where citizens live, work, or send their children to school. As a result, China's many outside boosters have become confident that, in a decade or two, economic and social progress will automatically lead to a more open political system.

Don't be fooled, warns the author. China's humming factories may make it the world's leading workshop, but its political system is a dinosaur. An ancient, autocratic tradition of realpolitik known as Legalism has fused with the Leninist structure of the ruling Communist Party to produce a brittle political setup that is incapable of the change that China's more modern economy and society demand. One way or another, Terrill contends, the day of reckoning -- possibly a violent one -- is drawing nigh.

Terrill joins a long line of observers, including lawyer Gordon Chang and journalist Joe Studwell, who have argued that China's communist regime is doomed. The author is a former "friend of China," as the country's government terms those who are sympathetic to the regime. He first traveled to the country more than 30 years ago. What makes Terrill stand out among other China pessimists -- and what makes up the bulk of this volume's nearly 400 pages -- is his solid analysis of China's past 2,000 years, and of that history's relevance today.

Among the symptoms that the Chinese regime is "dysfunctional in the world of nation-states," Terrill says, is its clinging to the ways of empire. Over the years, the author shows, China has used its moments of strength to grab neighboring territory, from what is now Yunnan province to Tibet and Xinjiang. During periods of weakness, China bided its time, disguising frailty as power. To awe their subjects, the mandarins falsely maintained that leaders ranging from Britain's King George III to Muslim warrior-king Tamerlane were paying tribute to them. Today, the state continues to turn weakness into strength -- for example, convincing many foreigners, including some Americans, that in both business and diplomacy, they need China more than China needs them. China remains, in Terrill's telling, an "empire of theatre and presumption," a country that is "deeply corrupt, politically unstable, yet extremely ambitious."

Like the empires of old, the Communist state today has a deeply ingrained sense of its right to rule, and doesn't see the necessity for democratic processes. Where rulers once claimed to have the mandate of heaven, the Chinese Communist Party says its dictatorial mandate comes from history. The SARS cover-up supports Terrill's indictment of Beijing.

Yet strains are growing between the need for economic growth and integration into the wider world -- and the necessity for repression. China's citizens are ever more confident and ever less willing to defer to the government. Investors, both foreign and domestic, want the certainty that the rule of law can bring. And they need the free flow of information that lubricates a modern market economy. Such demands are anathema to the party. Says Terrill: "Beijing is trying to do something impossible -- combine a market economy and Communist paternalism -- and the resulting strains will not go away."

Terrill excels at analysis of the past, but his sense of where things go from here is less persuasive. Believing that "for the coming years, politics is destiny," he offers seven possible scenarios for the future that downplay cultural and economic developments. One possible outcome, he suggests, involves a party fracture followed by a military takeover. There is little discussion of the notion that China could evolve into a pluralistic, democratic society, as Taiwan and South Korea have done in the past 15 years. Nor is there much analysis of the pressures for change brought about by China's turn to a more market-oriented economy and its entry into the World Trade Organization.

Terrill may not have a great crystal ball. And the book's subtitle, What It Means for the United States, bears little relation to the book and seems like a marketing gimmick. However, his refusal to be blinded by the facade of economic and social progress makes this a valuable work. Although no one can predict what will take place, by looking at China's past, Terrill has provided an excellent road map for understanding its future.

Hong Kong-based Clifford is Asia Regional Editor.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.