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Chinese Renaissance man is touched by America’s heartland

Xi Jingping
REUTERS/Sukree Sukplang
Will incoming Chinese President Xi Jingping be the next “one man to settle the fate” of the world’s most populous country and be Deng’s champion in the political realm?

History is destiny for the Chinese people, as Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping each proved the veracity of Confucius’ mantra: “It takes but one word, it takes but one man to settle the fate of an empire.” The Beijing’s leadership transition occurring shortly after America’s presidential election may possibly be another historic moment for China to begin the world anew — this time, for a new “Pacific” century.

Will the new Chinese president, Xi Jingping, take the “one word” of Deng’s “reform” and expand the meaning to include political restructuring? Through Deng’s strategies, over one-half of the Chinese people have been lifted out of poverty while other countries — including the United States — have benefited economically from China’s Peaceful Rise.

The $1 trillion question from Washington is: Will President Xi be the next “one man to settle the fate” of the world’s most populous country and be Deng’s champion in the political realm?

Political transformation

Translating China’s economic power into political reform involves a high-stakes gamesmanship. Regardless, the slated leadership of the Central Politburo Standing Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) will inevitably wrestle with the growing feelings of injustice and uncertainty among restless middle-class Chinese, especially the educated youth looking for financial and social mobility.

Alongside greater wealth and more education, a large number of Chinese have increasingly felt the taste of freedom. The freedom of expression to address grievances — especially by farmers and factory workers — is already shown as a healthy democratic sign, while over 150,000 mass protests yearly are recorded by CPC officials. The Chinese people want greater freedom and expect more justice. A Guangdong court, for example, just awarded a compensation of $131,000 (825,000 Yuan) for loss of “freedom and emotional distress” to 39-year-old Huang Liyi, who served 11 years in jail after being wrongfully convicted for fraud. Indeed, China is slowly changing; patience is a traditional Confucian virtue, which favors social order and political stability first.

Deng’s legacy, with his popular slogan “to get rich is glorious,” has proven to be costly. It is not only associated with corruption, environmental degradation and public-health concerns, but also with the unintended social and political consequences of Deng’s economic-reform policy.

With their material needs fulfilled by Deng’s Hamiltonian-like approach to economic prosperity (inspired by Alexander Hamilton, an American founding father), Chinese people will naturally turn to non-material aspirations like freedom and democracy. Another founding father, Thomas Jefferson, explained it this way: “Human nature is the same on every side of the Atlantic [and the Pacific] and will be alike influenced by the same causes.” This human tendency will undermine the political and economic power vested in the CPC.

Education for Renaissance

Paradoxically, however, both the Chinese government and families have attached great emphasis to education — a prized Confucian value. On the other side of the Pacific Ocean, Jefferson agreed with Confucius when he wrote: “Above all things I hope the education of the common people will be attended to; convinced that on their good sense we may rely with the most security for the preservation of a due degree of liberty.”

Education is the silent force behind societal transformation for greater public good. Last year alone, more than 150,000 Chinese students enrolled in U.S. universities. Several offspring of top-ranking CPC leaders attended prestigious American universities, such as the Harvard-educated grandchildren of Jiang Zemin and Zhao Ziyang, and the daughter of China’s new president, Xi Mingze, is now a Harvard student.

The implications of such educational and cultural exchanges are far-reaching; the eventual outcome of Western-educated Chinese returning home will fuel the needed creative tension for a Chinese renaissance era.

Stayed in Iowa in 1985

When Xi visited President Obama at the White House in February 2012, he told Americans that he had returned to see his “old friends” in Iowa: “My impression of the country came from you. For me, you are America.” Iowan farmers never imagined they would be having a tea and champagne reunion with the future communist leader of China.

Before the then-32-year old agricultural official from Hebei province first stayed with a Muscatine farming family in 1985, his father Xi Zhongxun had visited Iowa five years earlier as governor of Guangdong province.

In Confucian societies, value of friendship, loyalty and family matters. Unlike Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s visit to Iowa in 1959, the Chinese leader’s return has sent a message of unprecedented amity from Beijing to Washington.

Despite the CPC’s occasional anti-American rhetoric, Xi’s reunion with his host family represents a promise of a greater bond between the two leading nations. His reunion is an emotionally beneficial investment that’s acutely needed to dispel certain misconceptions — on both sides of the Pacific. The man from rural China was indeed touched by America’s Heartland; “Coming here is really like coming back home,” Xi told a group of his “old friends” in the living room of his Iowa hosts.

Will Xi be the next Gorbachev?

Like Mikhail Gorbachev (the first Soviet leader to have been born after the October Revolution of 1917), Xi is the first Chinese leader born after the birth of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949. But Xi is unlikely to launch a historical repeat of a Perestroika-like Soviet political restructuring in China — that would be catastrophic.

Instead, Chinese strategists and politicians are studious. They may return to following Deng’s Confucian-like advice: “We must conceal our potential and gain time. We must immerse ourselves silently in our work, without brandishing the flag, without doing anything excessive.”

Leading-up to the Beijing 2008 Olympic (and its “One World, One Dream” theme), a 2005-CPC White Paper on Political Democracy stated, “Democracy is an outcome of the development of political civilization of mankind. It is also the common desire of people all over the world.”

In China, however, democracy will probably emerge and evolve gradually with some characteristics of Confucian philosophy. It might look more like a Singaporean-style Confucian nation-state. The vast land-mass of China with over 1.3 billion people is the Confucian cradle of “civilization-state” as opposed to a tiny city-state of slightly over 5 million Singaporeans.  

Fate of modern empire largely depends on Xi

But as the product of new generation, might President Xi do the unthinkable by taking the advice from the revered Sun Zi’s “Art of War”? The ancient Chinese military strategist advised: “Let your plans be as obscure and impenetrable as the night. But when you decide to move, fall onto the enemy like lightning.”

If the new president takes China down this path, all bets are off the table for a Chinese Renaissance and a Pacific century. The fate of this modern empire largely depends on Xi and his leadership skills within the constraints of Beijing’s Politburo.

Patrick Mendis,  a distinguished senior fellow and affiliate professor of public and international affairs at George Mason University’s School of Public Policy, is the author of “Trade for Peace.”   A former exchange student from Sri Lanka to the United States, he earned his Ph.D. in geography/applied economics and agriculture from the University of Minnesota and his M.A. in international development and foreign affairs from the Hubert Humphrey School of Public Affairs. He is also a distinguished visiting professor in the Center for American Studies at Guangdong University of Foreign Studies in Guangzhou, China. 

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Comments (1)

Chinese Renaissance?

I am intrigued by Patrick Mendis's phrase and by his repeated reference to the Confucian principles he sees at work in today's Chinese leadership.

There are many parallels between modern China and Renaissance Europe, despite the obvious differences. One of the similarities is modern China's engagement with the classical ideas of ancient China. Just as humanist scholars of the European Renaissance learned Greek and read Plato and Aristotle, modern Chinese look to Master Kung and Sun Zi for guidance in an exciting and frightening new world of technological change and economic injustice and instability, which are the constant companions of China's new wealth. Like Gutenberg's printing press, the Internet brings the threat and the promise of honest, critical discussion into a giant nation whose leaders struggle to keep their ruling strategy a secret.

The possibility that China may also turn outwardly aggressive is also prefigured in the aggressive European colonial movement that made Europe's Renaissance a calamity for the native populations of the New World.

But Mendis also sees a pragmatism in the Chinese Renaissance that is the greatest argument against our fear of an aggressive China. Mr. Xi has genuine connections with the pragmatic US-American heartland, and thousands of Chinese students study the world through US-American universities. I like this vision, because it implies that there is something we can do to encourage our neighbors on the far side of the Pacific to grow in harmony with us rather than in conflict.