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Book Review: Understanding China

Inside the mind of the ambitious economic power.

6:30 AM, Nov 23, 2010 • By PHILIP TERZIAN
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China, the sleeping giant, the middle kingdom, the inscrutable republic of a billion entrepreneurial Marxists lurking behind a Great Wall, is destined to claim the attention of the world in the foreseeable future. And as its economic power continues to multiply, and underwrites China’s traditional view of its destiny, that attention will largely be devoted to contending with the challenge of Chinese power. So the questions are: How do the Chinese see themselves in global terms? And what, if anything, can the West do about it?

Book Review: Understanding China

Enter Christopher A. Ford, a Hudson Institute fellow and former diplomat, who has given much thought to the sources of Chinese thinking about the outside world. Specifically, he is struck by the common themes encountered in the Analects of Confucius and the life and work of Hugo Grotius, the 16th-century Dutch legal theorist widely considered the father of international law.

Grotius and Confucius, although separated by two millennia, shared the common interest of senior civil servants in organizing power and authority in cultures and societies riven by history. But therein lies the difference, and a problem. For while Grotius codified the Western definition of statehood, and the coexistence of nation-states in rough equality, Confucius defined his ideal world in vertical terms, governed by highly centralized (Chinese) power.

Ford’s reading of Confucius is both shrewd and instructive, with implications for contemporary policymakers. China may currently be governed by a hybrid of entrepreneurial capitalism and rigid central control—the world’s largest fascist state, strictly speaking—but its ruling principles and aspirations remain grounded in Confucian thought. Today, as at any time in the historical past, the Chinese are obsessed by the maintenance of internal order; and their notion of goodwill among nations is the patient acquiescence of the outside world to Chinese national interests. Western nations may agonize about the moral implications of national policy; the Chinese idea of a logical moral order is the advancement of Chinese power. This can be seen not only in China’s aggressive policies in East Asia but in its willingness to conduct global business with whomever and whatever is conveniently at hand.

The broad implication of Mr. Ford’s thesis is simple: So long as the current regime in Beijing maintains order, and the Chinese economy grows at the same rate as Western indebtedness to China, the challenge to the West will be not to contain Chinese power but to adapt to it. The short-term challenge is to recognize the sources of Chinese thinking about the world, and design policies for dealing with Beijing that comprehend China’s unique worldview.

The Mind of Empire is an ideal guidebook for contending with the People’s Republic: a scholarly analysis of Chinese history written with considerable authority and flair, and a sobering account of what dealing with Chinese power and ambition means to us—and, especially, to them.

The Mind of Empire: China’s History and Modern Foreign Relations by Christopher A. Ford, Kentucky, 378pp., $45

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