Book Examines Who Sowed Seeds For China's Economic Boom

Renee Montagne talks to China scholars Orville Schell and John DeLury about their new book, Wealth and Power: China's Long March to the 21st Century. It examines the roots of China's recent economic development boom.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And for Americans trying to understand how China has risen so far so fast, we turn now to Orville Schell and his fellow China scholar John Delury. Their new book is "Wealth and Power: China's Long March to the 21st Century." It looks back at the original documents and writings that reveal the thinking of 11 key figures in China's modern past, from a famous satirist to a dowager empress to Mao. And it zeroes in on the reformers who sowed the seeds of the current boom.

Good morning to both of you.

JOHN DELURY: Good morning.

ORVILLE SCHELL: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Let me start with you, John Delury. Where do you place the start of China's stunning economic development?

DELURY: Well, what we tried to do is look at least back into the early 19th century, because that was a period where China began its descent from greatness. It hit this skid starting with the First Opium War around 1840 and then continuing, one defeat after the other. So that's where we sort of pick up the story, is to show how there were these efforts to bring back wealth and power. One after another we traced how they fail until finally something starts to click very recently, in the last 30 years. So we think it's critical to understanding why this recent period of rise is for Chinese a restoration.

SCHELL: The question we really wanted to ask was, what is it that is flowing throughout this period that suddenly catalyzes in the 1980s and you get this extraordinary, very counterintuitive and unexpected period of economic dynamism. And one of the things that just keeps reappearing is this fixation on restoration of Chinese greatness that's sort of represented by these two characters, fuqiang, for wealth and power. And it's that memory of that loss which is so deep and is now being reexpressed with all this energy.

MONTAGNE: Your book points out that when it comes to that loss, I mean many other countries build national pride based on achievements and victories throughout their history. Chinese leaders have long nurtured a sense of humiliation and victimization. How did this come to dominate the national psyche? I mean - and also, how does it play into drive for economic development?

DELURY: You know, there's a different concept of shame among these reformers in the Chinese tradition. They're actually actively seeking to make the people feel humiliated. And this is a very old Confucian idea that humiliation is the source of strength. That once you realize your inferiority, that's when you really begin to work at self-improvement. So that was an ancient notion that you can find 2000 years ago being discussed in China. And it explodes in the modern period among this group of thinkers and leaders that we look at, and that's very critical to understand because otherwise, the victimization complex doesn't make as much sense. You know, it's not about passivity; it's really a stimulant rather than a depressant.

MONTAGNE: And something else you bring up, China's new president Xi Jinping has started talking about something called the China Dream. Where does this lie along the continuum of China's quest for wealth and power, and does it have anything in common with the American dream?

SCHELL: Well, that's a really wonderful question, and I mean the China Dream is sort of the mantra now in China. If you go to China, everybody's talking about the China Dream. But what is it? Well, nobody really has defined it yet. But I think one can say that it's quite different from the American dream, because what it sort of plays upon are these yearnings within China; again, not so much for Horatio Alger to pull himself up individually by his bootstraps; but for China as a country, as a nation, to pull itself up by its bootstraps and to be once again not only wealthy and powerful but a nation of consequence and to win respect.

MONTAGNE: Are they there? Have they achieved the China Dream? I mean are they at least on the edge of achieving the China Dream?

SCHELL: Well, it's interesting to ask. Of course, for history there is never any there there, it always moves on. But one would have to say, I think, that if you just stop history right now, they've had a hell of a run. I mean many, many problems, to be sure, and one could catalog them all. But the last 30 years has laid down a kind of an infrastructure in China, which for the next century is going to provide an incomparable, you know, base for them to continue.

MONTAGNE: China scholars John Delury and Orville Schell are authors of the new book, "Wealth and Power: China's Long March to the 21st Century." Thanks very much for joining us.

SCHELL: Pleasure.

DELURY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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