- The New Chinese Empire and What It Means for the United States
After four decades at the interface between scholarship on the People's Republic of China and the English-reading public, Ross Terrill has now produced The New Chinese Empire, which readers may regard as his most ambitious book. Those familiar with his writing will know that Terrill is an excellent communicator and storyteller with unusual zest and flair. He has an uncanny ability to put profound ideas and insights into crisp, pithy, almost sound-bite-like sentences.
Terrill's erudition in this latest book is impressive. In it he covers China's millennial history, leaping effortlessly over the centuries between the China of antiquity and the China of today. His mindset seems to have been deeply influenced by his firsthand experience of the power of the Chinese state when he was "expelled from China" in 1992 after an unsuccessful attempt to hold a Beijing hotel press conference with former Tiananmen democracy movement leader Shen Tong (then a student at Boston University). In the present work Terrill writes forcefully, skillfully, and with broad understanding, not limited by the constraints of any one scholarly discipline, as tenure-track academicians are apt to be.
In The New Chinese Empire Terrill has gathered and distilled data and insights on China since his first visit there in 1964, displaying just how much his overall perspective on the People's Republic has shifted during his long career as a writer and educator. For example, more than three decades ago he wrote, in 800, 000,000: The Real China (Little, Brown and Company, 1972): "I am . . . against both the "jungle" of capitalism and the "prison" of communism" (p. 234). Now, however, the weight of criticism in The New Chinese Empire is definitely heavy on the communist prison and light on the global capitalist jungle of today.
Terrill's thesis is that the top-down rule of the old imperial China has been overlaid in the twentieth century by an absolutist Leninist system of Party power, which has stifled the Chinese people and their creativity. The rulers of today (as in the past, never elected by the people) maintain absolute power over the population, buttressed by the old ideology of Confucian Legalism.
Even despite China's phenomenal growth over the last quarter of a century, a market economy, Terrill keeps reminding us, is fundamentally incompatible with China's present totalitarian system. Using this top-down, father-knows-best paradigm, Terrill consistently draws negative examples from China's long history to demonstrate that whatever dramatic changes are happening in the Chinese economy today, the leaders of the Communist Party still carry the cultural DNA of the old dynastic system. [End Page 182]
For Terrill, the leaders of the People's Republic are imbued with an "imperial imagination" and "wishful thinking," reinforced by the powerful myth of "Zhongguo"—China as the center of the universe. Borrowing from Lucian Pye, Terrill sees modern-day China as still "a civilization pretending to be a nation," reluctant to be simply one country among many. It holds to the belief in the inevitable "historical trend," in that Communist China, like the China of the dynastic emperors before it, has been given a heavenly "mandate" that commands the deference and tribute of its neighbors.
Both the title and subtitle of The New Chinese Empire echo the message of one of Terrill's first books, China and Ourselves (1970). He still sees America as "the chief beacon of democracy and individual freedom." But at a time when daily images in the news media of the U.S. presence in Iraq show American soldiers in full combat gear poised with rifles, ready to shoot to kill the attackers whose country they occupy, Terrill's statement sounds incongruous. What about the present U.S. administration, with it's own brand of empire, its policy of unilateral action and preemptive strikes, and its tributary-like system, in which "those who are...