NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Economic Tiger, Political Dinosaur

May 1, 2003

The past quarter century has been a time of undeniable achievement for China. Rapid economic growth and the opening of society has changed the lives of the Chinese people for the better. As a result, China's many outside boosters have become confident that economic and social progress will eventually lead to a more open political system.

Don't be fooled writes author Ross Terrill in his new book "The New Chinese Empire and What It Means for the United States." China's humming factories may make it the world's leading workshop, but its political system is a dinosaur.

Terrill analyses China's past 2,000 years and its relevance today. He concludes that the Chinese regime is "dysfunctional in the world of nation-states" because it still clings to the ways of empire." He cites the following examples:

  • Over the years, China has used its moments of strength to grab neighboring territory, from what is now Yunnan province to Tibet and Xinjiang.
  • During periods of weakness, China bided its time, disguising frailty as power -- to awe their subjects, the mandarins falsely maintained that leaders ranging from Britain's King George III to Muslim warrior-king Tamerlane were paying tribute to them.
  • Today, the state continues to turn weakness into strength -- for example, convincing many foreigners, including some Americans, that in both business and diplomacy, they need China more than China needs them.

China remains, in Terrill's telling, an "empire of theatre and presumption," a country that is "deeply corrupt, politically unstable, yet extremely ambitious. Beijing is trying to do something impossible -- combine a market economy and Communist paternalism -- and the resulting strains will not go away."

Source: Mark L. Clifford, "Is China Bound to Explode?" BusinessWeek, May 5, 2003; review of Ross Terrill, "The New Chinese Empire And What It Means for the United States" (New York: Basic Books, 2003).

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