In a time when China and the United States are jockeying for global superiority, one of the world’s leading experts on Chinese-American relations is coming to Ketchum to offer his perspectives on the subject.
Journalist Orville Schell will speak at the Presbyterian Church of the Big Wood in Ketchum at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 10. As part of the Sun Valley Center for the Arts’ continuing series featuring subjects related to current events in China, Schell’s lecture will discuss emerging trends in Chinese politics and relations with the United States. Tickets are $20 for Center members, $30 for non-members.
In an interview this week, Schell talked about recent events in China and the changing international political spectrum. In his most recent book, “China’s Long March to Wealth and Power,” he discusses China as a major economic world superpower.
“China has always been trying to reinvent itself over and over again for a hundred years.”
IME: What would you like your readers to understand about U.S. and Chinese relations?
Schell: “This is a relationship that is probably the most primary and important bilateral relationship in the world that in one way or the other we have to work on and get right. No matter the differences in our political systems or values, there are so many issues that can’t be solved unless the U.S. and China can cooperate. We need to establish some kinds of new modes of acceptance and ability to deal with each other. The world is too dependent on both of us.”
IME: You will be speaking in Sun Valley about China’s economic boom over the years. Can you tell us more about their recent successes?
“The surprising fact is that after a century of repeated dead-ends and failures, China has been able to turn itself around economically. That presents a whole new set of equations for the United States. We need to understand how that change happened and what it means for the future. Where is China going? What is the state of grace between our two countries, and what is it that we don’t understand about China that we need to in order to get along? I want to talk about how China’s economic boom happened, the historical roots of it, and what does it mean for the rest of the world, either as our partner or our rival?”
IME: Do you think China is an example of a successful socialist model?
“I wouldn’t call China communist or socialist anymore. I would say China is Leninist. Lenin’s great contribution to the world was teaching people how to organize a one-party system with discipline and maintaining order. The Chinese learned that pretty well. Is it a good model? I hope not. But it certainly is able to get things done where democracies can’t.”
IME: How do you see this affecting the United States?
“There’s an interesting competition that’s going on right now between us. We used to think we were this city on a hill and beacon and model for the world, and yet this very authoritarian Chinese model has achieved economic success. Not only do we find ourselves confronting this new rival or partner, but we find ourselves challenged in ways we never imagined by this very undemocratic form of government. They don’t understand why United States has three governments in one all stopping each other and checking and balancing each other, and can’t get anything done. There is a challenge between political and economic models.”
IME: Do you think this inability to understand each other is the basis of our communication problems with China?
“China has always been trying to reinvent itself over and over again for a hundred years. It’s not like the United States or Europe with a very clear set of founding documents and principles and political philosophies, but a country that canceled itself and then tried to reinvent itself, and that’s part of the reason it’s so intellectually and spiritually unstable.”
IME: The United States often struggles with China’s tendency to lock up their greatest minds and dissidents. Do you see the Chinese continuing with this policy in the future?
“There are many fracture points and contradictions in China, so they’re bound to have a lot of turmoil. In fact, this scares the party to death. This is the reason they are so controlling and try to crack down all the time. They are so fearful that these centrifugal forces will just erupt as they often have in Chinese history, and run the train off the tracks. So, what they know best is when the going gets rough, control. China has for thousands of years been a control culture, and Leninism is certainly a political culture of control. Whether this will work in the modern world is one of the great experiments that we’re confronting.”
IME: What do you predict happening in China?
It’s very hard to tell and no one has predicted China well over the last 50 years. They’ve had an incredible streak of onward and upward development. Whether they’re at an inflection point where they’re going to have to do something radically different to cohere and maintain, nobody knows. I suspect this may be true, but they’ve survived in the past when everyone thought it was over. In many ways it’s counterintuitive. We can’t see the future very clearly and we can’t see the past, which would probably be our best guide to what would happen henceforth.
IME: Is this secrecy something that is reoccurring in China?
“China has always been secretive. I’ve been reviewing the Empress Dowager from a hundred years ago, and I’ve been struck by the similarities. Whether to reform, not to reform, the conservative elements, fighting against the government behind the veil—a lot of this is very Chinese. It’s the way they’ve done it for thousands of years.”
IME: How do you see them dealing with climate change?
“They are very aware, in fact painfully aware. The air is horrendous, the water is polluted and the food is toxic, so they know this is something concrete they have to deal with because people will revolt over this, and are revolting. I have some confidence—in fact maybe a little more than in the United States over a question like climate change—that they’ll be able to galvanize themselves to deal with this. They haven’t yet, but they’re realizing that they have to. They have a lot of structures and authoritarian levers to pull when they decide they have to do something. It’s not a good situation. There’s horrendous environmental exploitation at times, but there is starting to be a very profound awareness in high party circles that they’ve got to deal with this.”
IME: What do you think the U.S. should be doing diplomatically?
“On the one hand, we’re going to have to choke down aspects of China we really don’t like. On the other hand, we can’t walk away from them. We have to find a way to deal with it, and it’s something we’re not accustomed to. We walked away from China for 30 years, and they walked away from us. But the world is different now. Nobody can walk away from a country of that consequence.”