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From The Asian Reporter, V14, #11 (March 9, 2004), page 16.

Author says relations between China and U.S. are "sweet and sour"

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

By Ross Terrill

Basic Books, 2003

Hardcover, 416 pages, $30.00

By Dave Johnson

This summer, before I returned from the Russian Far East, I made it a habit to hike down to a railing along the embankment of the Amur River to gaze across this wide expanse to an urban stretch in China called Hei Hei. This bustling metropolis with its post-modern towers and glistening neon was a vivid contrast to the drab skyline of Blagoveschensk, a city struggling to survive along with the rest of Russia.

My visual excursions to the Land of the Sleeping Dragon gave me opportunities to meditate on the lush history of this country across the river and its enigmatic role in the modern world. What is going to happen, I pondered, if the Communist regime collapses as it did in Russia? Since China is undeniably a serious player in the gambling den of global economics, I wondered, what’s next on its agenda? How will its geopolitical forays impact Europe, the U.S., and other nations while it endures internal strife, over-population, and world trade uncertainties.

These ruminations have been addressed eloquently and thoroughly with the publication of Ross Terrill’s The New Chinese Empire: And What It Means For the United States.

Terrill starts his reflections with a quote from China hand Gordon Bennett, who observes, "China today is more certain of what it does not want than of what it does want." Terrill adds that, "The failure to find a respected, modern replacement for monarchical rule is connected with Communist Beijing’s clinging to the ways of empire."

But it is clear to those aware of the political, social, and economical turmoil in China that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is not an empire but, as Terrill concludes, a country that is "dysfunctional in the world of nation states."

Regardless of its shaky status as a geopolitical player, the Chinese autocracy is reinforced internally with what Terrill calls pre-modern Chinese universalism or Da yitong (Great Systemic Whole). According to the author, the fading of global Marxism has reduced the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to a "political-moral monolith that occupies all available philosophical space."

How does this stance impact China’s relations with the U.S.? Terrill says the interaction is currently "sweet and sour." America is deeply involved in a brisk trade with a creaky authoritarian regime that has allowed its society to put the pedal to the economic metal. But foreign-policy wonks inside the Beltway are still reeling from the accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade and the capture of the American bomber that invaded China’s airspace. And, of course, there are the festering issues of Taiwan and Tibet. In short, America knows that the PRC is geopolitically touchy and nervous about a populace that vividly remembers the events that put Tiananmen Square on the global map.

Terrill succinctly tells his readers that "Since the death of Mao, the first neo-emperor of the PRC dynasty, China has been hurtling down one road in economics and limping down a different road in politics."

The author backs up his intriguing reflections and insightful prognosis with a wealth of historical background. Readers who have little concern over the interaction between the Eagle and the Dragon will learn how China has spent millennia struggling to govern a multitude of subcultures. But for those who are uneasy about China’s role in the stability and fortune of the U.S., this is an excellent tutorial.

As Terrill says, "How a Chinese civilization still afflicted with repressive imperial rule adjusts to its new economic strength, a growing middle class of independent producers and avid consumers, and a world of nation-states will affect every American ...."

Ross Terrill works at Harvard’s Fairbank Center for East Asian Research. He first visited China in 1964 and in 1989 he witnessed the tragic events at Tiananmen Square. He now travels to China every year. His work includes 800,000,000: The Real China, Flowers on an Iron Tree, Mao, and Madame Mao. He lives in Boston, Massachusetts.


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