Wednesday, January 3, 2024

Review of The New Chinese Empire: And What It Means For The United States by Ross Terrill

This book review was written by Eugene Kernes   

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“When China attacked a neighbor, it was considered almost a favor to that lesser people.  Heaven, through the instrumentality of the Chinese emperor, was reestablishing a proper order of things.  |  At times, non-Chinese regimes profited from fitting into this Chinese worldview.” – Ross Terrill, Chapter 3: We Are The World, Page 57

“The stones of Paris offer the visitor an actual presence of the medieval era.  But the contemporary French polity reflects little or nothing of the political system of Philip Augustus (ruled 1180-1223) or Louis IX (ruled 1226-1270).  With China the converse is true.  The edifices of the past are little to be found.  But the Way – of ruling, thinking, behaving – still lives.  It has endured in part because it was implicit, flexible, and honored as much in the breach as in the letter.  Also, because the Chinese Communist Party appropriated the more autocratic elements of the Way for its own social engineering purposes.” – Ross Terrill, Chapter 3: We Are The World, Page 76

“Yet central planning in a Communist system is a political policy.  Mao chose to hear only what he wanted to hear about the results of the Great Leap, and to blame “class enemies” for such of the disasters as could not be denied.  In turn, this hunt for class enemies reduced the chances of truths being uttered and tightened the screws of political repression.  Mao never renounced the centrally planned economy; he simply sought scapegoats for its failure.” – Ross Terrill, Chapter 5: Red Emperor, Page 127


Is This An Overview?

Ancient Chinese architecture might not have survived the ravages of time, but the way of ruling, thinking and behaving has endured.  Chinese traditions did not end with a fall of a government.  The traditions were rebuilt by forthcoming governments.  The methods were flexible, and could be adapted to by supporting or opposing them.  The autocratic elements of the traditions were used by the Chinese Communist Party for social engineering purposes. 

Rather than a religion, Chinese ethics philosophy of Confucianism was used to coordinate people’s behavior.  A malleable system that enabled its various interpretations throughout Chinese history, that provided an understanding on how to treat others.  Deference was needed for superiors.  Chinese sense of superiority was evident by foreign governments throughout history, which created a variety of misinterpretations from each perspective.  China was portrayed as virtuous, no matter their actions.  That China’s interventions in other regions were for the benefit of the others, to civilize the barbarians. 

China uses history as a weapon by disregarding unfavorable events, and changing events to favor Chinese views.  During the 20th century, China turned away from Dynasty and monarchy, but the methods were similar.  The government only accepted as true what they wanted to, and blamed others for that which could not be denied.  Using philosophy that enabled people’s deference to society over their own interests.  Inventing new methods to deal with problem, using prior methods differently, and applying foreign ideas in their own way. 


How Does China’s Philosophy Effect Behavior?

Confucianism is an ethic, rather than a religion.  Confucianism had mixed qualities, but what Confucianism did was provide an ethics that brought government and people together.  The ethics coordinated behavior.  Confucianism was malleable and could represent different ideas to different people and contexts. Confucian claims of virtue could be misused and favor the individual who does the action. 

Heaven was favorable to people, but had imperatives.  To have virtue, humans need to be filial, respectful, and obedient.  Confucius and Mencius logical systems overlapped with religious views and law-and-order Legalism.  Ordinary Chinese carefully paid deference to the Gods, emperor, and their immediate superiors.

Confucianism was made possible by government enforcement, through Legalism and institutions of governance.  A legal framework that could use physical force.  Emperor had a practical interest in statecraft, rather than the supernatural. 


How Does China Think About Others?

China has an enduring us-and-them system, a distinction between Chinese and Barbarian.  That China is the civilizing force and natural rulers of barbarians who are a lesser breed.  That the barbarians should be grateful to be influenced by China.  These views create a tendency to overlook what China learned from other people.  Foreign agents that interacted with the Chinese court, commented on Chinese sense of superiority.

The emperor was the representative of Heaven and Earth.  Giving justifications and virtue to any decisions made by the emperor.  When China attacked neighboring states, or governments who sought independence, China maintained a claim of virtue for their actions.  That their actions were justified and meant for the betterment of the people they were intervening in, to rid them of an oppressive regime.  Attacking a neighbor was a favor to lesser people, as that enabled Heaven to reestablished a proper order.  Chinese like to pretend that barbarians have accepted China’s reign of virtue rather than admit how regularly China had to use force against barbarians. 

Given their superiority attitude, China has a history of making political gifts given to them, be seen as tribute.  In this way, the supposed gifting party appears to have submitted to China, and China accepted them as a vassal.  These views caused conflict.  What is rarely referenced are the times that China had given gifts and tribute to others. 

China has a large Han majority who do not have much territory.  With minority nationalities who have the vast territory and resources.


How Is History Turned Into Politics?

For China, history is a political tool.  Changing and interpreting what happened to fit political goals.  Even archaeology is a political project.  Myths about history are used as political weapons.

Chinese history does reference events in which China was not the superior force.  Does not reference when China could not get its way.  Does not reference when others did not accept Chinese ways with China not being able to do anything about the situation.  This occurred when negotiating with semi-equal forces. 

One China has become the ideology, but Mao thought that China was to be divided into 27 countries.  China believes that any territory that has come into contact with China, has become part of China and is part of China’s history.  While other states that lost territory do not dispute the loss of the territory, China does dispute their prior losses.  Even the territories that were part of the conquerors of China are considered to be Chinese history and territory.


What Was The Succession Plan?

Emperors had a succession problem as they needed to designate a child, but they had many children.  Conflict and power struggles threatened the stability of the polity.  Gaining power through murder was common in ancient China and in the Communist Party.  Legitimacy and succession are perpetual problems. 


What Was China’s 20th Century Experience?

After the collapse of the monarchy, China has been trying to reconcile the methods of monarchy and fitting into the different political understandings.  They have kept much the same, while the changes have not made them into an effective state that manages the different social expectations of the era.  Unlike a democratic state whose political system is shaped and reshaped continuously by the citizens decisions.  China’s imperial components remain even if the imperial structure was removed.  China still relies on imperial repression and myths to hold together the diverse cultures. 

During the early 20th century, when the Qing Dynasty was failing, many provinces declared independence.  Their reasons for independence were diverse, but they could not apply different political systems than those already used.  The revolutionaries had immediate success, but could not provide a constructive agenda afterwards.

Mao wanted China to be neutral to foreign governments.  But the Chinese Communist Party saw central power as a tool for China’s advancement.  Provincial autonomy and federalism were dismissed.  The feudalism that emerged after Qing Dynasty, was party new and partly a continuation.  New western tools such as the railroad, were used as methods of power to control the kingdom.  Bolshevism offered China a way to be progressive and anti-Western, while also provide quick solutions to Western influence on China. 

One party state meant that no alternative political parties were allowed, no elections, or free press.  A system akin to an emperor, authoritarian, political tutor.  CCP’s reach was greater than prior governance structures.  CCP branches existed in every county.  A surveillance network meant to foster benevolent paternalism and work.  The party controlled communication and what everyone was able to do.  Socialism was omnipresent, with class categories separating various peoples, and how the individual was meant to subordinate to the collective purpose.  Truth was what the CCP wanted truth to be.  There needed to be unfailing loyalty in the leader, who was infallible and needed to be constantly studied.  Death was an accepted means of punishment to maintain the collective morality.

Mao recognized that very little information came to Mao.  Mao chose what to hear which were only favorable information about the Great Leap.  Information that could not be denied, Mao blamed the problems on scapegoats which were class enemies.  Mao could not accept socialism as a flawed political system, therefore did not accept outcomes that indicated the flaws.

Ideology began to be reduced during Deng’s changes, but that did not allow for plurality of ideologies.  There was no individual independence, nor was criticizing China an option.  People were trusted with their money, but not their minds.  What was allowed was what the Communist Party found acceptable.  Publishers were shut down for politically incorrect viewpoints. 

China is oppressive and afraid of its own people.  Freedoms have been experimented with, giving some freedoms to people, but the government has generally opted for repression when disorder was a perceived threat.  The legal system remained harsh and was attached to the wants of the political party rather than justice and proportioned appropriate punishment.  The state depends on confessions, false confessions, to justify the system.

Marketization under Deng enabled private firms, and joint ventures between the foreign and local capital.  The private business and joint ventures crowded out state factories.  State factories began to produce less share of the market, and they were mainly losing money.  Banks were closely attached to the government that lead to the subsidization of state factories, which made profit and loss meaningless.  China’s socialism is enduring, transforming into market socialism rather than becoming capitalistic.



The focus of the book is on China during the 20th century.  There is a lot of information on China’s history before that era, but that information is sporadic and is used to provide evidence for a claim.  The reader would need to research more Chinese history for a better understanding of the events. 

The struggle between a changing and changeless China is part of the myth structure that the author describes, disagreeing with, but applies as a theme in the book.  The problem is that appearances of similarity, does not represent similarity in anything but appearance.  There were ideas and methods that appear to be a theme, but what makes them similar is their association with China rather than the core claims being consistent.  The ideas and methods were influential, but as the author recognizes, they have been misused and reinterpreted. 

The author expresses Chinas flexibility and creativity, and criticism when considering China as perpetually stagnant, changeless, and isolated, as those views were formed by the end of the Qing Dynasty which had become rigid.  But throughout the book the author considers various themes in China to have been reused, used differently, but still considered consistent even if much has changed.  Alternatively, the author provides the impression that other states have more completely changed their political systems.  Other states also have used their historic methods to legitimize their own political structures through support or disagreement with the prior methods.  Just as Chinese governments had chosen how to use their historic methods to legitimize their rule.     

Questions to Consider while Reading the Book

•What is the raison d’etre of the book?  For what purpose did the author write the book?  Why do people read this book?
•What are some limitations of the book?
•To whom would you suggest this book?
•How has China changed and stayed the same?
•What is the life cycle of Chinese traditions compared to other traditions?
•What traditions did the Chinese Communist Party utilize?
•How did China change after removing the monarchy?
•What is Confucianism?
•What are the concepts of Heaven and Earth? 
•Why does China have a sense of superiority?   
•How to treat others?
•What is China’s us-and-them system? 
•Did China learn from other peoples? 
•How did China view gifts from other peoples? 
•Why did China intervene in other regions? 
•How are Chinese actions morally defined?
•How does China use history?
•Which regions belong to China? 
•What is allowed to be accepted?  What is rejected? 
•What is the Nationalist regime that came after the Qing Dynasty?  
•How did Mao use Hong Kong? 
•What did Mao want for China?  How did Mao’s views about China change? 
•How did China use Bolshevism? 
•What does a one party state imply? 
•How did China change and stay the same under Deng’s governance? 
•Which foreign power tried to change China?  What effect did they have on China? 
•How did USSR effect China?
•Why did China defect from USSR influence? 

Book Details
Publisher:               Basic Books [Perseus Books Group]
Edition ISBN:         0465084125
Pages to read:          342
Publication:             2003
1st Edition:              2003
Format:                    Hardcover 

Ratings out of 5:
Readability    5
Content          5
Overall          4