Still in Formation

Book cover
The New Chinese Empireby By Ross TerrillBasic Books. 366p $30

Ross Terrill’s argument goes something like this: China is not a modern state. It has been unable to escape its heritage of empire and authoritarian political systems. The revolution against the Qing (Manchu) dynasty in 1911 and the Communist seizure of power in 1949 reinforced these premodern features. Mao’s Leninist party expanded the dynastic emperors’ use of coercion as the means of governance and maintained the imperial claim to be the font of all truth and virtue. The red emperors (Terrill’s terms for Mao, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin) continued the traditional imperial vision that all territory that the emperors had once ruled is to be brought under Beijing’s control. Culturally distinct provinces such as Xinjiang and Tibet are to be governed directly by Beijing. This premodern state, Terrill says, is best called the party-state. Whether this is, in fact, the new Chinese empire that the title proclaims is not clear. Indeed, Terrill does not say what the term means to him.

Other undefined labels also abound in the book. At various points, Terrill also calls China the Pretentious State, the Aggrieved State and the Fearful State. Labels are useful shorthand for phenomena if the author takes the time to discuss their meaning; there is little discussion here other than to assert that these are symptomatic of an imperial state, particularly one that is not as powerful as other states. Similarly, Terrill uses the term synergy to describe China’s relations with foreign states. That might be a very useful way of thinking about such critical connections, but it was hard for this reader to see the synergies as the term is usually defined. Rather, Terrill seemed to have in mind nothing more than the modus vivendi that China negotiated with the outside world.


Much of the book is a history of the dynastic and red empires. Terrill, a longtime China-watcher, journalist, author of numerous books on China and academic (currently dividing his time between Harvard’s Fairbank Center for East Asian Research and the University of Texas at Austin), has consulted many of the key sources on contemporary and ancient Chinese history. His presentation is lively and thoughtful, albeit repetitive regarding its major themes, one of which is a value judgment that lies at the heart of the book. The center of political life, he postulates, should be the autonomous individual rather than the authoritarian’s view that the individual is nothing more than a building block in the society that the rulers construct. In other words, the modern state for Terrill looks like a liberal Western democracy. Moreover, the modern state accepts territorial boundaries as meaningful divisions between peoples. Autonomous individuals have the right to make choices about their lives. A democratic Taiwan, for instance, should decide its future relationship with China. The United States should abandon its support for a One China policy, Terrill argues, if it means contravening the wishes of the Taiwanese.

Terrill does not deny that the party-state has changed. It has moved from Mao’s totalitarianism to Deng’s authoritarianism, where the individualindeed, many individualscan be disengaged from politics. Furthermore, Deng engineered a monumental change in economic policy some 25 years ago that allowed a loosened society and freer economy and ultimately brought about China’s integration into the international capitalist economy. The goal was to enhance Chinese national power abroad and provide the promised material benefits at home. Success, however, now creates the ultimate crisis for the party-state.

Terrill seems convinced that the end of the Chinese party-state is at hand. The important question is Can China evolve from its autocratic state, or must the polity crash, as the imperial system crashed in 1911-1912? Surely this is a critical question for everyone’s future. While Terrill approaches that question at various points in the book, the only sustained response comes in the last chapter. He wisely offers no clear prediction, pointing instead to a number of conditions that might lead to a crash, some of which played key roles in the fall of earlier dynasties, such as the polity’s inability to handle succession and legitimacy issues; a revolt by the farmers, especially in the peripheral provinces; and the emperor’s misjudgment of the power of outsidersinherent in an empire’s condescension toward others. He offers seven scenarios by which evolution or crash might occur. The crux of the argument, however, is this: Beijing’s unfailing instinct to put the maintenance of Communist autocratic power at the center of its calculations will eventually be its undoing. Chinese citizens of the future, like their compatriots of 1911, will jettison imperial rule to safeguard China.

Or will they? Some of the most interesting parts of Terrill’s book are his accounts of interactions with Chinese citizens. He was in Tienanmen Square when the Chinese military crushed the democracy movement in June 1989. Several years later he was arrested by the Chinese for having contacts with a suspected dissident. (Indeed, he says that these two incidents helped propel me to write this booka point made in the acknowledgments section.) Observing and listening to Chinese citizens can be sobering. Terrill admits that many Chinese are infected with the imperial outlook, particularly on sensitive issues such as Taiwan and what often appear to be American threats. He quotes from a Chinese source the following story: Before the crackdown of June 4, 1989, a student in Beijing, seeking to explain why he was not raising slogans calling for the overthrow of the Communist Party, said, You may say that a mother acted wrongfully but with good intentions, but you absolutely may not say that your mother is not your mother. Isn’t this so?’ So in the end, is the new Chinese empire still in the offing? Terrill admits that the imperial persuasion may remain strongparticularly in the center’s relationship to the peripheral, non-Han Chinese parts of China, and toward the external world. But suppose Terrill is right; the demise of the party-state completes China’s painful search for a modern polity. What an irony it would be to arrive there only to discover that the future of the modern state is increasingly uncertain in a globalizing world.

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