Thirty-six years after “Great Helmsman” Mao Zedong died of a heart attack, leaving his country briefly rudderless during a time of crisis and uncertainty, the Chinese ship of state is still sailing. But is it still seaworthy? Observers are energetically debating whether the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party, which has endured so much, can endure. After all, the government today bases its legitimacy on economic growth, which may well be slowing. We can’t predict the future, but we can examine the past, and Chinese history suggests that, even if the Communist Party does face a legitimacy crisis, it would not be out of character for it to survive this particular storm.
The China-watchers who insist the country faces a crippling legitimacy crisis include, perhaps most famously, Gordon G. Chang, author of The Coming Collapse of China, as well as political scientist Minxin Pei. As they see it, there are simply too many contradictions inherent in the Chinese model for it to survive.
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As Britain basks in the glow of its successful Olympics, the thought that comes to this China specialist’s mind is, what a difference four years makes. There is a striking contrast indeed, where China is concerned, between the largely positive international chatter about that country in mid-2008, as the Beijing Games concluded, and the largely negative buzz about it now.
The change in China’s fortunes has little to do with medal counts or world records. Still, a look back to the Beijing Games helps place then-and-now contrasts into sharp relief.
Plenty of criticisms were leveled at China’s leaders just before the 2008 Olympics over issues such as repression in Tibet, and the Games were hardly free of controversy either, thanks to complaints about everything from parts of the opening ceremonies being faked (for example, the fireworks that looked like footprints in the sky being doctored digital effects) to underage gymnasts competing on the Chinese team. And yet, overall, a lot of things went right for the Party four years ago. As a result, a good number of international observers came away from China’s first Olympics seeing the country much as its leaders desperately want it to be seen: as a country that is respectful of its past yet surging toward a prosperous future; that is no longer poor, chaotic, isolated, with leaders prone to ideological extremism, personality cult rule, and factional infighting.
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It is foolish to make concrete predictions about China, due to how often – and how quickly – the country has been proving people wrong
Very occasionally, though, I feel something is such a sure bet that I’m ready to go out on a limb and describe something I’m sure will occur. Here’s my latest example: in the upcoming year or two, we’ll see a lot of new general interest books on the People’s Republic of China (PRC) show up at online sites like Amazon.com and in brick and mortar bookstores. I’ll go further than this and predict that the books will be by varied kinds of authors, from freelance writers to pundits, daily journalists to scholars, like me, who often write for specialized audiences but have decided to try to reach that elusive general educated reader. And one further point, of particular relevance to readers of this site: these books, while focusing on the present, will often make at least some nods to the past, in order to place recent events into historical perspective.
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Which direction now? A lot of China writers like to think they have the answer
A Texas-based media-tracking organization recently announced that it had concluded, via a sophisticated statistical analysis of news sources, that China’s leapfrog up the global economic hierarchy was the top story of the past decade. This claim is debatable: the Iraq War, climate change, terrorism and the financial crisis all garnered plenty of headlines. Still, there has certainly been a dramatic upsurge in fascination with and concern over the People’s Republic — and a concomitant proliferation of Big China Books, as I like to call works that carry titles that cry out to be put in bold type.
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