Orville Schell, Asia Society, New York, Jan. 31, 2013. Robert Wright for the Cairo Review
Waiting for the Next Act
February 10, 2013
is hardly any American who knows China as well as Orville Schell. He has been studying the country, visiting it,
writing about it, and been fascinated by it, for more than fifty years. He
first arrived in Hong Kong, then a British crown colony, in 1961, when China
was still an impenetrable, revolutionary nation ruled by Mao Zedong. Even by
1975, when he took his maiden flight into Beijing, China remained, as he would
put it, a country lacking advertisements, private cars, fashion magazines, or
private property. “There was not a single other aircraft moving on its
runways,” he recalled. “It was as silent and dark as a tomb.” The young scholar
was able to get a rare glimpse of the isolated country by working for a month
at the Communist Party’s model village, Da Zhai.
has been a prolific chronicler of what he considers the “quite epic”
accomplishments of the Chinese in the ensuing decades—including the stunning
development and modernization that has enabled China to become the world’s
second largest economy after the United States. Besides authoring ten books on
the country, he has contributed reporting on China to leading newspapers,
magazines and broadcast programs, including serving for ten years (1975−85) as a China
specialist for the New Yorker. His reporting has earned numerous honors,
including an Overseas Press Club Award, an Emmy Award, a George Peabody Award,
and an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award.
House will publish Schell’s latest book on China in June: Wealth and Power:
China’s Long March to the Twenty-First Century. Condé Nast Traveler
Global Affairs Editor Dorinda Elliott
interviewed Schell on January 14, 2013, at the Asia Society in New York, where
he is the Arthur Ross Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: Chinese with more
suggestively liberal tendencies, like former Guangdong Party Secretary Wang
Yang, didn’t make it on to the standing committee in the leadership transition
last November. How do you view the new Chinese leadership?
ORVILLE SCHELL: You know, the Taoists have always spoken of an un-carved
block, and I think that we should look on the new Chinese leadership as being
something like that. Both as individuals and as a whole, they are still
roughhewn. It’s curious, but it seems that what is required to now get into
office in Beijing is not to make yourself distinctive, not to take positions
that give out a clear public persona, not to gain popular support, but to be as
blank as possible. And, so, it’s really hard to know where this leadership is
going to go. Basically, what we’ve had so far, in terms of the leadership
defining itself, is very little. We outsiders have engaged in a lot of
projections onto them. But, I don’t think anybody knows which projections will
end up being correct. It’s quite amazing that this country of such enormous
consequence has leaders that have managed to keep themselves so blank. Indeed,
it’s truly incredible!
DORINDA ELLIOTT: When
[newly elected Communist Party General Secretary] Xi Jinping made his first
official trip, to the south, where some liberal economic policies were
suggested, lots of people said “Aha! You see, this means he’s a reformer.”
I think it hints that he’s a reformer of a kind—of Deng Xiaoping-type of
economic reforms, but not the progenitor of other kinds of reform. And also, I
think one can interpret Xi’s actions to date as him seeking to go back to the
only source of legitimacy that this dynasty has known, namely, back to its
grand progenitor, Deng Xiaoping—to gain some new luster by walking back through
that piece of history again. That’s why Xi immediately went to Guangdong, just
as Deng did in 1992 when he wanted to re-kick start China’s economic reforms
DORINDA ELLIOTT: Even
Hu Jintao having been in office ten years—
ORVILLE SCHELL: Ten
years and we hardly know more about him ten years later than we did when he
entered—what he actually believes. We can, of course, see what he did, but even
that doesn’t tell us very much about what he believed. It tells us what he was
able to do. Most people say it was ten lost years and accuse him of being stiff
and rigid, and basically a failure. I look at it slightly differently. I mean,
during his tenure China had ten pretty good years! Nothing went too wrong!
DORINDA ELLIOTT: There
has been tremendous economic growth—
ORVILLE SCHELL: Yes,
but put another way, there was no great disruption, and that’s the name of the
game, for these guys. It’s “keep things stable.” So I think, in a certain
sense, even though personally I don’t think he was a great leader, you have to
acknowledge that at worst he prolonged a big bump, and at best, he enabled
China to get ten years further down the line, to get developmental foundations
more firmly built.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: Some
Chinese experts are saying China is facing a crisis, that without further
reform, its economy just can’t continue to grow, that the “economic miracle” is
going to hit a wall. What does that mean?
Well, we’ve been saying for almost three decades, starting in 1989, that this
boom can’t cohere and continue. And yet, somehow it has.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: Except
now there’s domestic pressure, even sort of officially recognized intellectuals
are making these statements—
ORVILLE SCHELL: Yes,
echoes of pre-1989. I do feel that they have come to the end of something. And
I think many people are now feeling a sort of fin de siècle air about
things. The question is, of course, what is the next episode of this long drama
going to be? Nobody quite knows. But I have to say, this whole progress with
China over the past twenty-five years, none of it quite made sense, and yet it
DORINDA ELLIOTT: Right!
It just didn’t seem likely. Who among us did not think that the Chinese
Communist Party’s days were over in 1989? So, you have to wonder at our
abilities at prognostication. I don’t think that Chinese leaders have any great
wisdom that we don’t have. And, I think they’ve been incredibly lucky. But,
they have evinced kind of an amazing guerilla flexibility. The ability to roll
with the punches and to be at once opportunistic and also pragmatic. But how
much further can they get on more tinkering? Well, it’s anybody’s guess. But,
it seems to me that, at some point, they’re going to have something like an
earthquake. Why? Because unrelieved tensions build up on the fault line and
inevitably seek release. And then suddenly you get a rupture.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: Lots
of Chinese economists are saying that China now needs to move away from the
state model and so much emphasis on the state-owned sector to promote more
private enterprise. But there are so many vested interests, right?
Yes, but it’s frightening to the party to have the state shrink to the point
where a tipping point is reached, where the state loses so much musculature
that it loses influence. That could happen, if the big state-owned monopolies
begin to be challenged.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: So
a shift to a more privatized economy could be a scary thing for the leadership?
ORVILLE SCHELL: Yeah.
The government loses clout. It loses influence in the resource base and begins
to have to contend with too much private power and influence.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: So
Americans and Chinese pushing for rapid change should be careful what they wish
DORINDA ELLIOTT: A
China that collapses because the central government doesn’t have the financial
clout to make things happen is not going to be good for anybody.
In that kind of a new situation, it would no longer have that many critical
economic levers in its hands—
DORINDA ELLIOTT: And
that’s not good for the United States and it’s not good for anybody.
No. Certainly not if it led to struggle and instability. One thing I’ve really
come to appreciate writing this book that I just finished, is that it has never
been any Chinese leader’s plan to implement democracy early on in the game. No
one has been for that over the last century. Starting with Sun Yat-sen, the
plan has always been that China would first have a period of martial law or
authoritarian tutelage, followed by a protracted period of guided democracy,
and then, only very slowly, reach constitutionalism. And of course the process
has ended up taking much longer than Sun. And it was Chiang Kai-shek’s plan.
Even, in a way, Mao’s plan. But it is certainly the expressed plan of recent
leaders. It was everybody’s plan, and they’ve actually stuck to it!
DORINDA ELLIOTT: What
China didn’t have back then is a middle class. So, you now have a middle class
that has much greater demands. Can China still get away with the idea of, “We
have to do everything for the sake of the nation” as opposed to enjoying life
as an individual, which would be the Western perspective? Is the middle class
going to be willing to accept that? Or is that willingness to accept
authoritarian rule dissipating with modernization?
That’s a very good question. I think that the middle class is very ambivalent.
On the one hand, they have needs and demands as they get rich and in certain
ways naturally come to want greater freedom and openness. But on the other
hand, they want government to protect their interests. After all, they now have
interests to protect. And their further interest is in getting even richer. Now
at some point, some of them will want a little more than just wealth. But
that’s not been that strong an impulse to date. However, the spiritual and the
democratic urge—and there’s been a current of tradition for these urges—has
flowed through modern Chinese history. But, we in the West have often mistaken
that current as being the main one. But I think the main current through this
period of history could be better described as the quest for a reinstatement of
China to greatness, which has had little to do with democracy. In fact, it has
had more to do with authoritarianism.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: China
is rising and, finally, is achieving that kind of greatness. At what point can
China cast off the burden of the 150 years of humiliation it suffered after the
Opium Wars, which keeps making China respond in such a paranoid fashion?
It’s not going to be soon. The amazing thing is how far their ability to cast
off their victim culture lags behind their actual accomplishment. They’ve
accomplished an enormous amount, and history has changed, but their victim
culture is as deep as ever.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: And,
perhaps, useful at times of political trouble at home?
Indeed! It’s become a whole way of relating to the world! I think eventually
they will overthrow it, but you know, we naively thought in the eighties they
would leave it behind, that it was over, that the effects of the unequal
treaties were gone, there was a feeling, “Let’s get on with it!” But now, we
find that they have brought it back. I think it’s very, very deep. So that’s
sort of what this book I just finished is about. How deep the humiliation was
and how strong nationalism became as a result.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: A
lot of people in the States, indeed, in the West, say that China’s rise is a
scary thing, that we should be concerned. Is that view misplaced?
I think it’s fair to say, that historically at least, this search for wealth
and power has initially been quite defensive—how can we protect ourselves, how
can we keep ourselves from being occupied, invaded, etc.? But I also think that
there can be a terrible and sometimes inescapable logic that the oppressed
yearn to become the oppressor, as a sign of their ending their own period of
agonizing oppression. It’s a very understandable human and national urge. But,
it’s a dangerous one.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: What’s
the evidence of that in China?
You know, when you’ve been pushed around for a long time, or feel you have been
bullied, there’s a powerful instinct to want to give some of those people a
shove when your time comes to be on top. Just to show them that you have
arrived and things have changed. Some of this sentiment can manifest itself in
indirect ways, such as in territorial disputes. And I think we see something of
this certainly in China’s current relations to Japan over the Diaoyu Islands
and the whole South China Sea fracas with Vietnam. The Philippines and Malaysia
were like satellite tribute states, and in the case of Vietnam, a country that
has recently beat China in a war. And now it could become payback time.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: So
that’s a way to view China’s behavior in the Spratlys and the Diaoyu/Senkaku
islands, where China has been flexing its muscles aggressively?
ORVILLE SCHELL: I
think that it gives these disputes a certain dangerous psychological energy. I
don’t know how far China will take it, or whether they’ll be able realize that
it isn’t finally in their interest to keep pushing this. But, it is a terrible
logic in history that, given the chance, the colonialized want to be the
colonizers, or the inferior want to be the superior, the dominated want to be
DORINDA ELLIOTT: It’s
important to remember too that China is not just one China. So many people in
China don’t understand how messed up and confused politics is in the United
States. The same thing goes for China, right? It’s a whole bunch of struggling
forces and factions.
It’s true now more than ever, because China lacks the solvent of a powerful
leader, to say: “Listen up guys, I’m the boss! Here’s what we’re going to do!”
So, there is now much more of a fractured power structure with a lot more
negotiating between everybody. We aren’t quite able to X-ray it and know for
sure how the pieces configure themselves, but we have some vague sense.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: How
do you think the United States views China right now? Are U.S.-China relations
on a pretty healthy footing?
It’s very manic. And I think actually that China would be smart to understand
that it’s as good as it’s going to get, with President Obama, Hillary [Clinton]
and [John] Kerry—and it’s pretty good, actually. They’re smart, reasonable people,
and they’re not trying to push China around, but they are going to hedge their
bets a bit. And, it’s not insane that they should.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: By
that you mean the so-called “Asia pivot.”
ORVILLE SCHELL: The
Americans don’t want to humiliate China, but they’re not going to just say,
“Oh, you’re sweet and lovely. We trust you 100 percent. Do whatever you want.”
I think they’re smart, realistic people and they’re well aware that when a
country is a resurgent power, it sometimes can run off the rails.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: From
China’s perspective, of course, it feels like containment. It feels like, “What
are you doing in our playground? This is our turf.”
It does. And it’s nothing new! I mean, we’ve been out there since the end of the
Second World War! It’s just that we kind of got preoccupied with the Middle
East for a while. I think China can make out our Asian presence what they will,
and there’s no arguing with someone who has a viewpoint that’s born of an
emotion rather than the logic of the situation. They can tease things out of
the situation to back up their view of being contained, but it doesn’t make
them right. I think the U.S. would far prefer not to have to be wary about
China. You know that expression in Chinese to “find bones in an egg”? I think
the Chinese do a bit of that. They make the world conform to their view of it.
Even though there are technocrats and engineers who believe in science and
logic, there’s also a deep emotional fire that still burns within that was born
of history. And the Communist Party has tended to excite it and use it, as much
as to allay it, and bank it. I think in certain critical ways the Chinese have
blown it. You know, in a matter of a few short years, they’ve move from
“peaceful rise,” that reassured their neighbors, to a very aggressive forward
posture. They’ve completely pissed off everybody. Why do that? Unless it
benefits you? I suppose, because you’re getting some charge out of it.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: There’s
no logic to what’s going on in the Diaoyu and Spratlys. It’s purely emotional.
It’s not in China’s self-interest, so there has to be some other pay-off, and I
think it must be some kind of psychological pay-off—at last, being able to
throw their weight around a little.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: And
that all plays well domestically in China, right? To look like they are playing
It does. But, you know, Deng Xiaoping on the other hand, he was a very able and
strong leader, and he was able to counsel: “Keep your head down and bide your
time.” The new leaders have sort of cancelled that admonition, and what they
say now is: “Well, that that was then and this is now.”
DORINDA ELLIOTT: If
I were sitting in Zhongnanhai [the leadership compound], knowing that there are
more than 180,000 protests around China every year, probably more, I’d feel
pretty nervous about what’s going on.
ORVILLE SCHELL: Nationalism is a
little bit like using that fire retardant foam they spray on airport runways
before someone crash lands. That’s the way they experience these protests—as a
way to extinguish the possibility of further conflagration. This may seem
somewhat counter-intuitive from the outside, because they’ve got actually quite
a bit going for them. Their recent accomplishments have been quite epic. And
yet, because the government has so few sources of legitimacy, it gets panicked
by any kind of unrest. It’s so used to controlling everything, that when some
things somewhat get out of control, it kind of overreacts. You look at India.
The place is blowing up left and right, every day, and people just view it as
part of business-as-usual.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: The
social tensions that China experiences these days: excessive taxes to forced
land grabs; official brutality, rebellions in the countryside; state-owned
enterprise lay-offs; loss of retirement pensions, all leading to protests and
riots in the cities; demands for freedom of spiritual beliefs; ethnic-minority
demands; and even Hong Kong is becoming obstreperous. And finally, growing
concerns about the environment. When I look at a list like this, I think, why
hasn’t there been another revolution?
The reason for that is that China’s leaders have managed to make so much
economic progress. I mean, look what they’ve done. And, whatever you think of
their program, they’ve done it. And, it has transformed the face of China from
“sick man of Asia” to superpower. There may still be a lot of problems, but
many people now have a much better life. Look at all the damn new urban cities
and skylines, look at the transportation systems, look at all the
infrastructure they’ve built. Even if the whole thing blows up tomorrow,
they’ve laid down a century’s worth of infrastructure. It’s an incredible
DORINDA ELLIOTT: It’s
Indeed! People may still have a lot of grievances, but there’s still a promise
of getting in on the spoils of an expanding universe through further
development. And that is a powerful promise for many.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: I
finished reading Garlic Ballads by Mo Yan, who just won
the Nobel Prize for Literature amid lots of controversy. It describes a brutal
life in the countryside. I think it’s important to remember just how bad it is
in the villages, and just how, even though it may have not looked like much to
us Westerners, life has improved a little bit for these people who moved to the
cities. Life is tough, but it’s better than being stuck in a truly feudal
True. But, even most of the villages are better than before. It was pretty bad.
I mean, if your baseline is the Great Leap Forward, it is far better! I am
always amazed when I go out to remote areas like Guizhou, China’s poorest
province. It’s still pretty incredible what you find. There are roads and
there’s power. The stores are full of goods. Of course, there is also grinding
poverty in rural areas. But, it’s materially light years better than before. In
these areas the real problem, and this is quite traditional, is the local
corruption and local malfeasances in office. It’s pretty extreme in some
places. And it’s born of the toxic marriage of the state owning the banks and
property. So you get these big land grabs. There’s no private property, no
protection. Local officials control property and can get money from the banks,
so they take land from peasants for a pittance and make a killing.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: There’s
talk of rule of law, but there are no real checks and balances.
When real push comes to shove, for little stuff, the law can work. However, for
big things, everybody knows the law is suspended in the interest of the party
and the state. And, when corrupt local officials represent both, ordinary
people have little recourse to remedies.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: Xi
Jinping has been pushing the crackdown on corruption. Do you think it will go
When you have a system where people are only paid a couple thousand dollars a
month at very most, and they have access to all this property and all these
bank loans, and they know there’s no way to get things like stock options, it’s
an incredible temptation. So, in a certain sense, people are taking what they
think they deserve, and then some, by nefarious means. The system is so weird, caught
between communism and capitalism. It’s so out of kilter in terms of the norms
of the modern world. If you’re working in a state-owned enterprise and you’re
making a thousand, max two thousand, dollars a month, and you’re doing deals
worth a million dollars, and you could break off a couple of hundred thousand
into a foreign bank account, well, you might find it an irresistible
DORINDA ELLIOTT: Like, you’d
be an idiot not to do it.
It takes a really moral person, but then you have to ask, toward what honorable
end besides their own honor would they be serving? They used to be able to
justify such behavior by saying that they were helping the country, building
the party, or promoting revolution, whatever. But now, what’s the ethical
imperative to be straight? There really isn’t any. People might even consider
you a sucker, if you are too upright in this new world where wealth rules.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: Is
China’s quest for natural resources around the world going to inevitably lead to
a conflict with the United States and with the West? How is that going to be
That doesn’t necessarily have to lead to a conflict, because we’re all sort of
in the global market place and in this strange new world where we share so many
commons that we actually have a lot of common interest—even though we do not
always immediately see it. But, China has a very Victorian notion of
sovereignty and national interest. The leaders do not feel they can trust
international regimes that encroach on absolute sovereignty. They think: “We
need to own the resource we need. We just can’t trust international markets,
because they have traditionally been loaded against us. The market might shut
us out.” So, they think, we’ll own oil wells in Sudan, copper mines in
Afghanistan, other mines in Congo, etc. I think the United States has tried to
integrate China into the orderly world market in a somewhat exemplary way. But
because of a lot of history, China still distrusts our motives. And so they’re
very aggressively moving around the world vacuuming up resources. You can’t
fault them for that, actually.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: Because they’ve got a
big economy they need to keep moving.
Because they’ve got a big economy that needs huge numbers of natural resources
from outside of China. And, now that they are wealthy and more powerful, they
can do whatever they like. Actually, I think they find this new prerogative
quite exhilarating. And, if we Americans don’t want to get into Africa or Latin
America, okay, they’ll go. But, of course, there is a danger that they will do
so with a sort of muscular bravado that manifests itself in a kind of truculent
unilateralism—something in which the U.S. has also excelled. The Chinese look
at U.S. behavior and think, “Okay, what’s fair for the goose is fair for the
DORINDA ELLIOTT: What
about Taiwan, which seems to have, under President Ma Ying-jeou, moved a lot
closer to mainland China?
Yes. Here we have something of a success story. And, I think if China is smart,
they’ll just lay off Taiwan, not push it, and just wait. At some point I do
believe Taiwan and China will come back together again. When will that be? When
China becomes more democratic. And there’s nothing anyone can say or do before
then that’s going to make the Taiwanese feel comfortable. So, Beijing should
just forget it for now and be pleased with the status quo with everyone making
money. You know, they have a relationship that’s now pretty good. They’re trading
like crazy. Beijing ought to count its blessings and recognize that the time
for betrothal has not come. They are just living together, and they’re not
going to get married for a while.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: There’s
an assumption there that China is going to somehow become democratic?
Well, Jeffersonian democracy is not going to spring out like Athena from the
head of Zeus any time soon. But, I do think China will eventually have to
broach the subject of political reform. That will ripen the situation for a
closer reintegration with Taiwan. You also have to hand it to China’s leaders.
They have been evincing much forward progress, at least in terms of economic
reform. And in what they’ve been doing, albeit with some terribly savage train
wrecks along the way, preparing for the next stage of their development. They
have been laying the precursor stages for the next act of the development
DORINDA ELLIOTT: What
do you mean by that?
They are becoming more unified, building better infrastructure, becoming
wealthier, developing a middle class, becoming more worldly, and better
integrated into the global economy. They’ve even begun to restore some degree
of traditional culture that was so savagely attacked during the Cultural
Revolution. When the Qing Dynasty fell, they thought they could have a republic
in 1912. But, when you look back on that period now, you realize that such a
hope was an absolute pipe dream. They simply were not ready. The pre-conditions
had not been laid down. But that is no longer true. It’s still going to be
very, very hard, but it is much more likely that constitutional government
could take root now than forty, fifty, sixty, seventy, eighty, ninety, a
hundred years ago. So, in a funny way, I look at China as being kind of right
on schedule now—just a very much more protracted schedule than was originally
DORINDA ELLIOTT: Yeah. And as they keep
telling us, “We’re a very big country!”
And we’re not ready! And, we have no democratic tradition. And, our people are
still poor and backward, etc., etc., etc. But in a certain sense it’s an alibi
for the party to remain autocratic. But in another sense, it’s absolutely true.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: It
drives me absolutely crazy when Chinese say, to me, “Well, we couldn’t have
democracy tomorrow!” That is not even what the pro-democracy activists are
calling for. They’re calling for more openness, they’re calling for
Indeed. As Hu Shi said way back in the 1920s, “The only way to have democracy
is to have democracy.” In other words, you learn democracy by practicing
democracy. But, it still takes stages.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: They’re
talking about a freer media.
ORVILLE SCHELL: Sure.
It will come. That’s why I think that right now we’re at the end of something.
It’s just that the party doesn’t quite know how to lay down the track for the
next phase of China’s transition, without subverting themselves and pushing
themselves to the point where they’d be put into the ash heap of history. But,
in a certain sense, they have been preparing the country in a lot of very
important ways for the next act. I don’t quite know how they get from here to
wherever it is they’re going. It’s not clear to me. But, there will be another
act! History is not fond of standing still. This is what the new leaders have
to figure out.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: Deng
always said “We’ll grope our way across the stones,” but in some ways it looks
like there was a plan.
ORVILLE SCHELL: The
plan was “more.” More wealth, more power. And, now that they’ve got “more,” the
question is: at what point does this system, as it’s constructed, cease to be
able to keep generating even more? They just wanted to get wealthy and
powerful. Those are the two characters that just keep recurring throughout
modern Chinese history. But having attained these goals in large measure,
they’ve got to figure out, what’s the next step? There’s a great paradox that
occurs here. It used to be that Chinese reformers thought that if they could
get wealthy and powerful, and expel the foreigners, respect would come
naturally from the outside world. Then they would no longer be this abject
whipping post for the world. But, now that they have gotten wealthy and
powerful, they are beginning to find that respect doesn’t necessarily follow
simple wealth and power, and they’re somewhat confused. They wonder: “Why the
hell don’t you respect us?” And, so what they’re beginning to discover, but
still incompletely, is that to win the respect of the world—which is what
wealth and power were supposed to gain them—a country must first also treat its
own people with respect. And, the party doesn’t quite know how to do that. And
they’re frustrated. They came to the end of this Herculean effort to rejuvenate
their country, and there are all these rejuvenations, but somehow it still
hasn’t done the trick. They finally got a Nobel Peace Prize, but their
laureate, Liu Xiaobo, is locked up in jail. People still think Chinese leaders
are somehow not respectable, and it makes them completely insane.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: Don’t
you think there’s a generational thing? Chinese love to say it’s a transitional
stage. It’s just hard for me to believe that the next generation does not
They are very nationalistic! How many generations have we been waiting for
China’s self-confidence to reform? But nationalism born of humiliation is
something that sticks to all of them. It’s like genetic material you can’t get
off the genome. It keeps re-expressing itself. I think in many ways the people
of the eighties were more open.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: That’s
And they were somehow less stuck in victim culture than people now, even the
young people of today.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: That’s
why you can argue that the bloody crackdown on the student movement of 1989 is
such a tragic missed opportunity. China was at a crossroads and chose the wrong
Even though the 1989 demonstrations could be totally justified in terms of rights,
the effect of it was to throw China back into the world over there. They were
not only again oppressing themselves, but they were seeing the outside world as
savagely oppressing them. It was a terrible throwback to the very syndrome from
which they were trying to escape. And, they experienced Western criticism as a
new kind of Western exploitation, this time via the media.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: On
the environment, I’m reading these reports about Beijing, the air quality index
is 750 or something like that, on a scale of 1-500. China’s pollution is
extreme, fueled by its need for economic growth. On the other hand, the
government has implemented policies and is aware of the problems and is trying
to do something.
Over the long haul, I worry less about conventional forms of pollution, like
air and water and soil, because actually those you can correct, and we know how
to do that. It’s a question of galvanizing the country and spending the money.
What I’m more concerned about is energy, carbon emissions, and climate change,
which are irremediable and which are going to have a more profound and harmful
an effect, not just in China, but on everybody on the planet. And, China will
get it worse than the rest of us, because they are more people and it is still
quite poor. There are two parallel environmental catastrophes going on
simultaneously. The first, we’re very familiar with from the industrial
revolution. We screwed up the Hudson River, New York air was wicked, London fog
was horrible, the Rhine was a sewer, etc., and then we largely cleaned it up.
But this new form of global environmental challenge, which involves climatic
changes, is something for which we have no immediate remedy. And it is a direct
outgrowth of, not only what we have done in our past, but now of what China is
doing presently to industrialize. And, it has all largely grown out of the
burning of fossil fuels, especially the burning of coal.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: So where do you see
that conversation moving China? Do you think that the need for economic growth
is so paramount that it will always prevail?
ORVILLE SCHELL: Because
economic development is the major source of the party’s legitimacy, we’re stuck
with it. The Chinese leadership is also painfully aware of this problem. But
they can’t solve it alone. And with the United States so brain-dead [on climate
change], we lack a certain essential leadership. We and they are the ones who
should be really collaborating on this. But, for too long the United States
utterly and totally abdicated its leadership role. The Chinese don’t always
like the Americans bullying and hectoring, even leading. But in this case, I
think they would welcome some collaborative American leadership. It’s sort of
like a child that is always rebelling against the parent, but when the parent
leaves, it gets scary and disorienting.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: Let’s
be a little bit more specific.
On the question of climate change, the U.S. still has an essential leadership
role to play. And, we have not played that role. I think China would actually
welcome a stronger partnership here. But, we need to be able to put the
necessary resources into it. That would enable us to take the leadership
position. The Kyoto Protocol calls for this fund of a hundred billion dollars
to help developing nations curb their carbon emissions. Well, it’s not there. I
mean, these are very symbolic, but they’re also very real, steps. And, the
Chinese notice this absence. The United States has really been paralyzed both
at home and internationally. We haven’t signed anything. We are the odd man
out. The Germans are spending 1.5 percent of GDP on climate change. Our
Congress won’t even recognize climate change. So, how are we going to expect to
get together with China on this generational issue? I think they’re willing to
do a lot, particularly if there be some kind of a concord on this thing, maybe
not setting absolute limits the way Copenhagen was calling for.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: What
can they do, if they risk having economic growth slowdown?
They’re going to want to continue growth and to burn coal. But on the other
hand, I think they’ll also be willing to pitch in on all kinds of accelerated
programs, for renewables, green tech, and all of these other things, which in
the long run, could be very meaningful. Four years ago, the Asia Society put
together a whole report on this—how a U.S.-China collaboration on climate
issues would work. How would they get together to test carbon capture and
sequestration? China is the place to do it. It’s cheap, and there are fewer
environmental regulations to worry about. That’s how we could jointly
experiment on a crucial clean coal technology and scale it up. But, nobody is
going to act on it because there’s no money. This is just one example of the
kind of things, if there would have been U.S. leadership, that we could and
should do with China on a large scale. Alas, the yahoos in Congress would never
appropriate money to do an experiment in China, even though it would manifestly
benefit both countries, that was cheaper, faster, and more efficient. You never
could get support for such a project in this country. So, that’s our curse.
They’re losing over fifty-eight square miles of grasslands per year because of
overgrazing, which to me begs the question on many environmental levels: Is
this a matter that the central government just doesn’t have control over the
local governments anymore?
ORVILLE SCHELL: Overgrazing is part of it, but I also think a lot of
China’s desertification problems have to do with climate changes and changes in
rainfall patterns. We don’t really know. I mean, the situation probably varies
from place to place, but it isn’t simply a question of land use. In China, the
Ministry of Environmental Protection has enormous limits on what it can do. In
China the main fault line is between the central ministry, which is very weak,
and the provinces, which are the places where policy has to be affected. The
central government has very little control over what they actually do in the
provinces, what monies they appropriate to affect laws, so there’s a real
disconnect. It’s sort of an area where authoritarianism doesn’t work as well as
it might. This is where regional power is accrued, but to the harm, I think, of
the common wheel. So that’s a real problem.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: Will
there be positive movement in the rule of law?
I think expanding the rule of law is in a state of some suspension right now.
It has sort of gotten to a certain point and it has run into conflict with the
party’s instinct to control, and the law’s an independent power center and can
sometimes be very threatening. So I think that’s part of the reason we have
this feeling that something’s got to change, that things have come up against
the end of an evolutionary phase in their present scheme of things. You can
identify many, many other fronts where this is also true.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: So
Xi Jinping has got to move quickly, consolidate his power, and figure this out?
Hu Jintao was lucky to get out of there before the roof fell in, if it’s going
to fall in. Xi Jinping has an incredible challenge ahead of him: somehow, not
only to keep China from unraveling, but to keep pushing it forward. And, he
must do all this at a time when there’s all of this emphasis on not rocking the
boat. Deng Xiaoping rocked the boat. But he had a certain, you know, droit
du seigneur. He had greater latitude to do what he wanted. In key ways Xi
does not have this mandate.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: Although
Xi Jinping has a bit of that feeling about him. I’ve been struck seeing him
speak at how confident he seems. He’s not reading from a prepared text, and all
Well, we will see what he can get away with. If he did prove to be very bold
and forward, it will all make sense we’d say, “Oh, yes, and his father, and
this and that.” If he can’t, we’d say, “Alright, it makes sense, he just
couldn’t do it. The leadership is now too timid, consensual, and paralyzed.”
DORINDA ELLIOTT: His
father, Xi Zhongxun, having been stationed on the east coast, pushed reforms,
economic reforms, and export economy, and not only that, but he allegedly came
out and criticized the crackdown in 1989. So in theory, his father was a real
kind of liberal reformer.
Well, in theory more than “in theory,” Wen Jiabao was with Zhao Ziyang his last
night in Tiananmen Square. There are a lot of theories that seem to get trumped
by the reality of the power-sharing system. Xi Jinping is like a stem cell. He
hasn’t developed yet into any discernible organ, or any discernible tissue. And
the amazing thing about Hu Jintao was, ten years later, he hadn’t yet either.
But, we do not yet know what Xi Jinping may yet become and what political views
he may be able to express and act upon.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: How
old do you have to be in China to be allowed to actually be yourself?
That’s why I say, I’ve waited through probably three or four generations with
people always telling me, “Wait for the next generation.” The next generation
comes and things do change, but what is equally as amazing is what has not
changed. Truthfully, I don’t know where things are going. In China, things are
always going in opposite directions at the same time. And there is no
understanding the place, unless you can embrace such contradictions in your
head at the same time.
Dorinda Elliott is the
global affairs editor at Condé Nast Traveler. She was a correspondent at Newsweek
from 1985 to 2000, serving as bureau chief in Beijing, Moscow, and Hong Kong.
She was editor-in-chief of Asiaweek from 2000 to 2001, and an
editor-at-large and assistant managing editor at TIME from 2003 to 2006.
She was the recipient of an Overseas Press Club award in 1996 and 1997 for her
reporting on China.