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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At the beginning of this year, Chinese premier Hu Jintao wrote an essay in which he pronounced: “The international culture of the West is strong while we are weak.”

Hu was referring to ‘soft power,’ a term coined by Harvard professor Joseph Nye to describe the value of attractiveness. US soft power sees the world gobble up Hollywood films and pop culture, generating a positive view of the country. Now China is engaged in a multi-billion dollar push to increase its own soft power.

Global events such as the Beijing Olympics and the Shanghai Expo have provided an opportunity for China to show to the world a new face, and big investments in the developing world have seen China’s image improve among the Africans and South Americans.

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For unsurprising reasons, the people’s uprising in Egypt has been widely cast as an epochal event for Arab political culture, and somewhat more widely, for the entire Middle East.

To limit our understanding of these events in this way, however, is to lose sight of a story playing out against an immensely larger backdrop. The putative and much discussed decline of the United States in recent years has been cast against the perceived successes, or at least the argued attractiveness, of an authoritarian other.

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