NEW YORK — For some years now, I have been observing China from a distance, never going back to the country that I called my third home for many years. Back then, during my long stays in China, I learned a lot about the country and its culture. In the past, foreigners had to travel to cities like Beijing to experience Chinese culture, but these days, China travels to us. Modern China is here with us, on our streets, in our households and universities, even in the White House. This past week, Xi Jinping, the 62-year-old Chinese leader, visited the U.S. He is the most powerful man in China, a country that hopes to replace the United States on the World's throne.
In the late '70s, I first travelled to Beijing as a student, curious about a general lack of outside information on the country. In 1966, the country had entered a huge political turmoil, which escalated into a civil war and ended with complete isolation that lasted more than a decade — and general disconnectedness that lasted far longer. Mao Zedong, the dictator leading the country at the time, named this period the Great Cultural Revolution. In spite of such a lofty and noble term, I prefer to think that Mao actually started a civil war not to consolidate his power, as many think, but to eradicate Confucianist values that persisted in the society even after the Communist party took over in 1949. And yet, despite this iconoclastic spin on the Cultural Revolution, I doubt that Mao would have launched it if the Soviet Union had not turned its back on China in 1960, retrieving all the help it had sent and recalling Russian experts from the country. So after many years, China had to stand on its own, had to find its own way and place in the world. It was at that time that Mao started promoting the idea of the "Third World," made up of poor and underdeveloped countries exploited by the developed capitalist world. The so-called Third World was on the periphery of the world's capitalist society, and it could only be liberated with the creation of a new economic system and an independent market, parallel to the one dominated by the rich and developed first- and second-world countries, argued Mao.
It was not a bad idea. It was based on an equation of redistribution of surplus value, which should no longer be transferred from poor, underdeveloped countries to the rich ones of the developed world, Mao said. It was a utopian ideal whose extreme requirements for implementation pushed China into complete isolation. And so it was that Mao's China became an even more mysterious and exotic land. Once again, the country attracted the attention of the West, just as it had many times before. But this time, there were professional ideologues and Marxist-Leninists and even the rare sinologist — experts in Chinese studies — who reported on the country's new social experiments to the outside world. But this China also attracted young, adventurous minds like mine.
But once on the spot, we soon discovered that Mao's experiment was a disaster. The long isolation and immense ideological effort to clean the society of the decadent influence of the West only produced some bizarre revolutionary art and renewed the discussions about pure science, free of "capitalist" industrial influence. As sarcastic as this may sound, I do think that it is worth watching some of these rare products of human insanity, like the Red Detachment of Women, a glorious piece of Chinese revolutionary ballet, or East is Red, a sort of revolutionary musical. I don't think that these unique products of revolutionary art could ever be reproduced, that any contemporary or future ideology will be able to express such crazy yet wonderful pieces of art again. In short, I am convinced that the type of totalitarian ideology that produced such high levels of national cohesion and even artistic expression is dead forever. It has been replaced by modern means of surveillance and repression. However, while the sounds and images of revolutionary art resonated powerfully among the populace, the country's economy was in shambles. Never-functional handmade tractors lay abandoned in the middle of the paddy fields; farmland eroded because the farmers were forced to grow crops in soil and in climates that did not suit the plants. The damage was huge. Millions of people died of hunger. Citizens — sometimes even entire families — suffered political persecution.
It took till Mao's death in 1976 for China to start acknowledging its mistakes. It needed Deng Xiaoping, the "Little Big Man," as he was called, to turn Chinese society around. And after Deng passed away, three more leaders were enough to turn China from the poor, peripheral third world country where wearing leather shoes was not politically correct, into the noisiest, most dynamic, most polluted and the most economically powerful country of the world. It is a place where designer labels are embraced by the middle class as nowhere else.
In less than 40 years, China has transformed from a humble agricultural country into the superpower that is now requesting its place in the world.
There is one man who embodies all these changes. While most Americans were glued to the pope's moral messages this week, it was this Chinese man who was received at the White House on Friday by the American president with highest political honors and feted at a gala dinner of 500 people — the cream of the American economy, from show businessmen to politicians.
Xi Jinping represents the so-called Fifth Generation of Chinese leaders after the foundation of People's Republic in 1949. Every new generation of leaders should move China another step further away from its Maoist past. At least, this is what China wants us to believe — this is what Chinese experts are saying, hoping that the Chinese elite will one day integrate with global leadership.
But last Friday, when Xi Jinping and President Barack Obama stood together in the Rose Garden of the White House, they did not hold hands like Francois Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl did in 1984 in Verdun. I do not think that this will ever happen. At least not before the two giant countries clash, fight and perhaps even go to war in order to redefine the framework of the Old World Order, which no longer corresponds to the economic and political reality. Here is why, as explained by Harvard University's Graham Allison in a piece for the Atlantic Monthly:
When Deng Xiaoping initiated China's fast march to the market in 1978, he announced a policy known as "hide and bide." What China needed most abroad was stability and access to marketsâ€¦
With the arrival of China's new paramount leader, Xi Jinping, the era of "hide and bide" is over. Nearly three years into his 10-year term, Xi has stunned colleagues at home and China watchers abroad with the speed at which he has moved and the audacity of his ambitions. Domestically, he has bypassed rule by a seven-man standing committee and instead consolidated power in his own hands; ended flirtations with democratization by reasserting the Communist Party's monopoly on political power; and attempted to transform China's engine of growth from an export-focused economy to one driven by domestic consumption. Overseas, he has pursued a more active Chinese foreign policy that is increasingly assertive in advancing the country's interests.
Allison compares The United States and China with Sparta and Athens in Thucydides' chronicles of the war between the two ancient Greek states. "The tectonic shift caused by China's rise poses a challenge of genuinely Thucydidean proportions, where the growth of Athens, declarations about â€˜rebalancing,' or revitalizing â€˜engage and hedge,' or presidential hopefuls' calls for more â€˜muscular' or â€˜robust' variants of the same, amount to little more than aspirin treating cancer," writes Allison, who argues that it was the rise of Athens, and the fear that the city's rise inspired in Sparta, that made war inevitable.
A 1971 school book showing Chinese Red Guards from the Cultural Revolution — Source: Villa Giulia
"Based on the current trajectory, war between the United States and China in the decades ahead is not just possible, but much more likely than recognized at the moment. Indeed, judging by the historical record, war is more likely than not," Allison concludes.
I would like to add to this conclusion: from 2009, when Barack Obama first met with Chinese leaders, he was trying to convince them to sit at the table and reason together. Obama's idealism about sharing information and discussing options was rational, but such negotiations should be followed by political bargaining with other political tools. Obama has tried to seduce Hu Jintao, Mr. Xi's predecessor, first, and Xi Jinping after. In both cases, he got nothing back. He couldn't.
While Hu Jintao was a very uninspiring leader who carried out whatever the members of the powerful Politburo Standing Committee decided upon, Xi Jinping acts like a real emperor. Considered a princeling from the very start, he managed something that Deng Xiaoping's immediate successors (Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao) dared not or could not do. Destined to be elected as both his party's and his country's leader two years in advance, Xi played a game that scared everyone. In 2012, he disappeared from public life for several weeks. There were rumors that he was losing his battle against some strong opponents in the Politburo, that he was sick. Instead, Xi, sure that he was going to be the leader, disappeared and conditioned his return and acceptance of China's leadership position with more power in his hand. He knew that if he wanted to run the country, he needed to control the army from the start.
For decades, China had an unwritten rule that the country's leader would only get actual command of the army after two years in power. Since the army still has a lot of political leverage, the new leader had to compromise with generals, who present a hawkish political force in China. But with one little trick, Xi Jinping got the all the power on his first day of leadership. He controls the military; he barely listens to other Politburo members; he has control over his own speeches; and he is preparing changes that will improve the efficiency of the state apparatus by increasing his control of all segments of society.
The New Yorker published a very good, if long, profile on Xi Jinping in April. And two days before the arrival of the enigmatic and unsmiling Chinese president, the New York Times published another, shorter profile compiled by Didi Tatlow and Chris Buckley, an excellent reporter who recently returned to Beijing. Buckley, to whom Chinese authorities denied a visa for three years, focuses on the transformation of Xi Jinping from a young, romantic student, who loved the writing of Tang Dynasty poet Du Fu. Xi went through the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution with his father thrown in prison and his mother denouncing him, the future president of China.
Xi, who often mentions the seven years he had to spend in the countryside in the later period of the Cultural Revolution, almost never spoke in detail in public about his experiences from 1966 to 1968 at the tumultuous start of the Cultural Revolution. But as Buckley and Tatlow report, an examination of memoirs written by his contemporaries offers an unusually vivid look at how a shy, bookish youth, raised in the bosom of party privilege, was tested and changed by the chaos that unfolded after Mao's decision to turn the masses against the party establishment.
"Xi started his transformation in the equivalent of the seventh grade in the August 1 School, a cloistered boarding school largely reserved for children with parents in the senior ranks of the party and the military. When Cultural Revolution militants shut it down, he ended up at the No. 25 School, which was a hotbed of discontent with the party elite," write Buckley and Tatlow.
It has been said that Xi cherished Mao as leader, but because his family suffered the violence unleashed by Mao, Xi — who belonged to the deeply rooted political elite — rejected the turmoil that the movement caused.
Yongyi Song, a historian and librarian in Los Angeles who has long studied the Cultural Revolution, says that Xi's suffering under Mao actually increased his belief that those who are "born red," those children of the party elite, earned the right to inherit Mao's place at the center.
Watching Xi Jinping's political maneuvering to consolidate his power and realize "the Chinese dream," whatever that means, it is easy to see that this dream might be in fierce opposition to any kind of meaningful dialogue with America, a side whose dreams for the future are no doubt completely different.
*This article first appeared in Yonder.