CHINA IS BACK! Return of the “Central Kingdom”

China has already passed Germany and Japan in the race for economic superpower status, and is in the early stages of closing in on the United States-not only in productivity and financial strength but also in the overall accumulation and creation of scientific knowledge, technology, military power, and political clout.

There are the usual self-styled prophets who predict that the forces that have been unleashed in China are likely to have a “black hole” effect, with the whole economy spiraling downward and ending in chaos, but I believe that view is short-sighted and self-defeating.

I believe that much of the future of the civilization of mankind will be fundamentally influenced by China and its billion-plus people. In fact, it is already happening. Chinese influence is now being felt around the world in virtually every country-on a scale that will soon make the post-World War II emergence of Japan as an economic superpower seem piddling by comparison.

There are demographic, economic and cultural reasons why the Chinese will play an increasingly significant role in the affairs of the world-reasons that no other country can match, and this makes the story of the emerging China of special interest and importance.

To understand and appreciate the role that China will play in the future of the world it is necessary to know a number of key facts about the history of the country, beginning some 5,000 years ago.

One important historical note is that Zhong Guo (Joong Gwaw), the Chinese name for their country, means “Central Country” and refers to the fact that since ancient times the Chinese regarded China as the center of civilization and looked upon all other countries as tributaries inhabited by barbarians.

Belief in the “Central Country” view suffered a serious blow when China was overrun and virtually colonized by Western powers in the 18th and 19th centuries, but the idea did not disappear from the psyche of the people. It is now being rekindled-politically, economically and militarily.

While the Zhong Guo syndrome remains an important part of the mindset of the Chinese it is not the primary force for change that is now driving the country. That element-the personal freedom that the Chinese now have for the first time in the history of their country-has evolved from the fact that from the beginning of China’s history as a nation-state until 1976 the thinking and behavior of ordinary Chinese was controlled by imperial governments and deeply embedded cultural beliefs that prevented them from thinking and behaving as individuals.

These two factors made it absolutely mandatory that the Chinese repress and limit the physical, emotional, and sexual desires that are common to humanity, and to live more or less as mindless drones as directed by the emperors and traditions that had built up over the millennia.


One of the primary keys in the development of this kind of culture was the early deification of the rulers to the point that they became known as “the Sons of Heaven (Gods!), who acted as intermediaries between Heaven and humans, and were answerable only to Heaven.

Philosophers such as Confucius, who was born in 551 B.C. and died in 479 B.C., taught that absolute obedience to seniors, immediate superiors and emperors was the highest morality.

Confucian philosophy was based on ritualized etiquette that was designed to make every person think and behave properly according to his or her particular class. Obeying these rituals became the moral standard of China, and led to make-believe, play-acting and deception becoming an important part of the character of the people-because that was the only way they could survive.

Ordinary Chinese did not have the right to decide things for themselves. In a broad sense, their only reason for being was to serve the interests and needs of the emperors. Ancestor worship and an emphasis on the past became the hallmarks of Chinese culture.

Building on the philosophical foundations prescribed by Confucius and later scholars the imperial court and provincial mandarins developed a form of governmental bureaucracy that became more and more ritualized and hidebound as time passed.

Only a small percentage of the population became educated, and the vast majority lived at a subsistence level. Over the long centuries there were extraordinary inventions [the compass, gunpowder, paper] and technological innovations in architecture, engineering, arts and crafts. But these amazing and far-reaching developments did not result in emotional, intellectual or spiritual freedom for the bulk of the population.


Traditional China, with all of its hidebound bureaucracy and limitations on the thinking and behavior of the people, survived into modern times. There had been incursions into its heartland by outsiders over the millennia, but all were eventually absorbed into the mainstream of Chinese life.

It was not until the coming of Westerners who had gone through the Industrial Revolution and bypassed the Chinese in virtually all areas of human endeavor that the traditional culture came under attack, and was incapable of dealing with the technologically advanced nations of the West.

The encounter with the West led to a long series of student uprisings, civil rebellions and finally a revolution that ended the reign of the imperial court at the beginning of the 20th century.

Sporadic fighting between imperialists and nationalists continued until 1927 when Mao Zedung launched his communist revolution against both the nationalist and imperialist forces. This struggle was still going on in 1937 when Japan invaded China, resulting in the nationalists and the communists joining forces to fight the Japanese.

As soon as Japan was defeated by the Allies and withdrew its forces from China, the communists and nationalists renewed their war. In 1948, with massive support from the Soviet Union, Mao’s communist forces began a major campaign to totally destroy the nationalist forces, led by Gen. Chiang Kai-shek who was supported by the United States.

Despite aid from the U.S., Chiang Kai-shek and his followers were no match for the communists, and to avoid the complete destruction of his forces, he and the remnants of his army (with many of their families in tow) fled to Taiwan in 1949, leaving Mao master of the mainland.


Mao Zedung was a brilliant strategist as well as a powerful writer and poet who resembled the warlords of an earlier time, but his vision for a new China knew no bounds. He began a crash program to destroy the ancient culture that had ruled the country for more than four thousand years, and rebuild a new society based on communist ideology.

Some of the reforms instituted by Mao were admirable and positive. He made women equal with men under the law, launched land reforms that made millions of farmers owners of their own tiny fields, made it mandatory that Mandarin (the language of Beijing and the northern area of China) be taught in all schools as the national language, and more.

But his efforts from 1958 to 1962 to modernize the economy and turn China into an industrial power virtually overnight-epitomized by what he called the “Great Leap Forward”-was an abject failure that resulted in the death of 20 million people, unimaginable suffering for more millions, and a virtually complete breakdown in the economy.

In 1966, in a last-ditch effort to stave off complete failure, Mao inaugurated what he called “The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution”-a campaign to literally eradicate all vestiges of the traditional culture and society and rebuild the country as a Marxist-Lenin paradise. To help promote this revolution, his communist cohorts, led by Lin Piao, published a small book made up of quotations from his many speeches and writings on his philosophy and plans for remaking China.

Entitled Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung, this little red-covered book quickly became the “cult bible” of the communist movement, selling 700 million copies and turning Mao into a kind of god-figure.

Mao turned the vanguard of his cultural revolution over to the youth of the country who formed a huge number of “Red Guard” groups to carry out his goals.

The youths, by this time angry and disillusioned by the chaos around them, began a 10-year long campaign that became an orgy of humiliation, torture, death, imprisonment, and slave labor for members of the educated class. Children were induced to become spies, turning their parents in for such things as owning books and having eye glasses. Libraries, museums, schools, and religious artifacts were burned. Extraordinary efforts were made to eliminate all references to the teachings of Confucius.

Millions of city dwellers were sent to the countryside without advance preparation to work as peasants, with millions of families separated from each other. No one was immune to the rampages of the Red Guards and their backers in the communist government. Even Deng Xiaoping who had been a lifelong ally of Mao on the highest order [and was later to become the chairman of the communist party and make the famous declaration “to get rich is glorious!”] was purged from his high position and exiled to the countryside. His son was thrown from an upper storey window by Red Guards and crippled for life.


The so-called Cultural Revolution did not end until after Mao died in 1976, by which time his reputation as an infallible “god” had become irreparably tainted. Shocked into some semblance of rationality, the ruling members of the communist party recalled Deng Xiaoping from his exile and restored him to power.

Far more open-minded and pragmatic than Mao (which was what got him exiled in the first place), Deng began promoting the reconstruction of China along more capitalistic lines-and the rest, as the saying goes, is history.

But the memories of the holocaust-kind of tragedy inflicted on China by Mao and the Red Guards was to forever change the mindset of most Chinese. From 1976 on, the stories told by survivors of the labor camps and prisons were beyond the imagination of most people. Many of the Red Guards, by then in their 20s, had become disillusioned with the revolution and regretted their actions.

One of the unintended consequences of this incredible period in China’s history was that it turned most people against the Communist ideology, and from then on most of the urban population who were members of the party remained members because that was often the only way they could get and keep jobs.


The new China that arose from the death and destruction inflicted upon the country by Mao was unlike anything ever seen before. For the first time in the history of the people they had some freedom to help themselves as individuals-and millions of them set out to do just that despite the extraordinary restrictions and handicaps placed on them by the still ruling Communist Party.

In an incredible demonstration of the power of even limited personal freedom millions of Chinese-with their pent-up energy released for the first time in the history of the country-began an all-out effort to build rich, new lives for themselves without thinking about political labels.


By 1986, just 10 years after the end of the Cultural Revolution, there were millions of entrepreneurs in China-and thousands of them had become millionaires. Today, China is awash in millionaires and the number of wealthy people is growing exponentially.

Urban Chinese born in the 1980s and later grew up in a new world-a world so different from the past that they became a new breed of people, virtually identical to freewheeling Americans in their lifestyles and appearance. By the year 2000, Chinese cities in the eastern portion of the country had modern and futuristic buildings and high-end shops and stores that were astounding to even the most sophisticated visitors.

For those who had visited China between 1976 and 1986, the evidence of affluence was mind-boggling.


But the Westernization and modernization of the face of China does not mean that all of the cultural traits that have made the Chinese a formidable people for thousands of years have disappeared.

Their traditional work-ethic and their obsession with getting an education have been retained, and now that they have achieved the freedom to utilize all of their talents in the pursuit of success their combined energy and efforts have become an irresistible force.

Another traditional trait that has survived into modern times is their extraordinary ability to distract, entertain and please foreigners. This is a factor that Western businesspeople, diplomats and politicians should keep in mind when they are dealing with their Chinese counterparts.

Most foreigners who visit China are impressed if not overwhelmed by the size of the country, by the number of people, by its amazing history, and by what the Chinese have accomplished since 1976, and are far more susceptible than usual to being flattered and manipulated.

The Chinese have more than enough going for them, and it is not wise to give them an extra advantage out of a sense of politeness and attempts to demonstrate goodwill-no matter how genuine these feelings.

Copyright © 2011 by Boyé Lafayette De Mente. All rights reserved.