Anyone who is reasonably perceptive on the broad sweep of public affairs would be hard pressed to challenge the case that the massive economic, political, and societal transformation of China and, in particular, the future of its relationship with the United States, is the leading geopolitical issue of the 21st century. The only other issue that seems reasonably close is the final resolution of the worldwide conflict between the West and radical Islam, which will likewise occupy most of the remainder of this century.
It is very unlikely that I will be called upon for involvement at any close and personal level with the resolution of our problems with Islamofascism, for which I probably should be thankful, but I recently had a great opportunity to get a reasonably good feel for the former issue when I was invited to accompany a delegation of seven to visit China for dialogue with senior representatives of the Central Party School (CPS) of the Chinese Communist Party. This trip was a continuation of conversations and exchange visits that began about two years ago between that institution and The Texas Lyceum Assocation, an organization of which I was a founding Director and Past Chairman, to seek areas of common ground across a range of cultural, economic, and political subjects.
For those not familiar with the CPS (and I wasn’t before the trip), it was founded in the early 1930s by the Party as the primary institution for development of its future leaders and, in addition, now serves as the “think tank” for strategic issues facing the Party and the country. Its main campus is in Beijing, which accomodates about 3,000 students in both an undergraduate and graduate mode, and it has branches in each of China’s thirty provinces.
The meetings with our CPS hosts were fairly formal, conducted through very capable translators, and very open and candid. Much of the discussion revolved around the objectives of the two parties in the relationship going forward, and a significant development was the tentative agreement, subject to final arrangements, of a return trip to Texas by the senior CPS representatives for an extended visit later this year, to include forums with civic and business leaders and field trips to key institutions, as well as the publication of a journal of essays originated by the counterparts.
In addition to the meetings in Beijing, our hosts guided our visit to the amazing infrastructural development underway in the port city of Tianjin and meetings with the economic development leaderhip in that area. Mealtimes were businesslike, but very festive, and included many varieties of food and drink, almost none of which were on my diet! After the “official” part of our trip, several of us spent a few days touring significant sites in the cities of Xian and Shanghai, meeting business leaders on an informal basis, and getting a good introduction to Chinese life, at least in the eastern provinces, all of which to me was a big highlight of the trip since this was my first to the country.
Now for some observations:
* The Texas Lyceum has taken a major leadership step in developing and nurturing this relationship. Whatever your views about China and its problems and challenges, and there are many, or their relationship with the U. S., which has many moving and tricky parts, it remains an incontrovertible fact that we must deal very forthrightly with a country that constitutes 20% of the world’s population, occupies a very significant trade relationship with us and holds over $1 trillion of our debt, will no doubt soon pass the U. S. as the world largest economy at least in aggregate terms, will continue to expand its power and reach from both economic and military standpoints, and expects to command the respect and even deference that normally accompany such a configuration. The Lyceum’s leadership should be commended for bringing this relationship to this point and encouraged in its efforts to move it forward.
* Clearly, the future relationship with America is a very important consideration with Chinese leadership. They want to know everything about us, but primarily from a cultural perspective, and this was the most distinctive part of our dialogue on this trip. I heard the words “cultural context” about fifty times in two days of talks. They want lists of readings that treat American cultural heritage and political philosophy, they want to know about our religious institutions and habits, and to explore the possible cultural common ground between our country and theirs. In fact, although this project is somewhat about economic and business exchange, it is not primarily about these things, and anyone who pursues a meaningful dialogue beyond the surface without understanding this point will not succeed.
* The Chinese Communist Party is clearly struggling mightily to “stay ahead of the curve” and preserve its relevance so as to maintain power in a society changing at warp speed, and their leaders know that to do so they must continue to allow transformation of civic life on a parallel with economic life. In fact, Li Junru, the most senior CPS official who hosted our delegation, was quoted in China Economic Review while we were there as follows: “China’s economic reform has reached the stage in which it becomes a must to deepen the political system reform. The market economy has met many obstacles, and the majority of these obstacles have to do with the political system.”
* The primary tenets of communist ideology have, for all practical purposes, been totally undermined except in name only. While in Shanghai, I visited the Memorial House of the First National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party and read the founding Marxist/Leninist creed posted on the wall. With the exception of some remaining limitations on ownership of private property, all of the critical elements of this creed have been rendered obsolete. The fact only awaits the acknowledgement in official policy, which is sure to come. It’s a matter of time. Remember that Marxism is a product of Western philosophy, it is alien to their culture in the first place, and in the grand sweep of Chinese history will appear only as a blip on the screen.
* I was somewhat surprised at the continuing reverence for Chairman Mao Zedong, even among the younger generation who, although their reverence doesn’t reach to the divine status held by their grandparents, still project a certain veneration. His image is visible everywhere. I was asked by one of my guides, who is college educated and very knowledgeable, how Chairman Mao is treated in U. S. history books. My response was, not extensively, but fairly and appropriately harshly. I sense that in China as in Russia, there will soon be a need for much more transparency about their history, particulary that of their regimes of the 20th century.
* In their pursuit of the relationship with the U. S. that offers the optimal outcome for them as well as a peaceful transition to a more open and democratic polity, I sense that they have an opportunity to be much more successful than the Soviet Union in their transition. Much of this is because the Chinese went to school on Russia’s mistakes, but more of it is because of the discipline produced by many centuries of the tradition of the Tao, an approximation of the natural law tradition of the West, as well as the Confucian philosophy of discipline and the primacy of the family unit. My judgment is that these are very aggressive, talented, and disciplined people who will take the time necessary to “get it right”, and when they do, look out, for they will be fierce competitors for world leadership in every respect. And in the interim they will vigorously defend their strong sense of sovereignty over domestic affairs and their nationalism.
I have serious concerns with various aspects of our relationship with China and its conduct in domestic and world affairs–human rights, political rights, Tibet, Darfur, Taiwan, growing nationalism, the war with Islamofascism, etc.–and I have big problems with their 20th century regime, but there is symmetry in the relationship and it behooves us to do what we can to help make their transformation a peaceful one that respects human and civil rights and one that preserves American values and interests to the extent possible.