"Let China sleep. For when China wakes, it will shake the world." Napoleon Bonaparte
Ancient China was arguably one of the strongest, richest empires in existence - so much so that her rulers saw little value in contacting anyone else in the world. So it was easy for western leaders like Napoleon to see China as a sleeping giant.
Since western countries first began exploring the world several centuries ago, they have tended to either ignore or exploit China in world politics. And yet the presence of China is deeply felt, sometimes promising riches and cooperation, and other times threatening competition and destruction. Today China stands as one of the few remaining communist nations, with few signs of renouncing communism. China is by some standards a less developed country, but on the other hand the country is emerging as a major world power, partly because of recent dramatic improvements in GNP and standards of living. And China no longer sleeps. Her leaders seek membership in the World Trade Organization, travel frequently to other countries, and take active part in the United Nations.
SOURCES OF PUBLIC AUTHORITY AND POLITICAL POWER
Until the 20th century China’s history was characterized by dynastic cycles – long periods of rule by a family punctuated by times of “chaos”, when the family lost its power and was challenged by a new, and ultimately successful, ruling dynasty. Power was determined by the mandate of heaven, or the right to rule as seen by the collective ancestral wisdom that guided the empire from the heavens above. For many centuries public authority rested in the hands of the emperor and an elaborate bureaucracy that exercised this highly centralized power. After a time of chaos in the early 20th century, Communist leader Mao Zedong took over China in 1949, bringing in a new regime whose values often disagreed with traditional concepts of power. How different is the new China from the old? Have the changes brought instability, or have they successfully transformed the country into a modern world power?
Under dynastic rule, Chinese citizens were subjects of the emperor. Legitimacy was established through the mandate of heaven, and power passed from one emperor to the next through hereditary connections within the ruling family. As long as things went well, the emperor’s authority was generally accepted, but when problems occurred and the dynasty weakened, rival families challenged the throne, claiming that the emperor had lost the mandate. Legitimacy was not for peasants to determine, although popular rebellions and unrest in the countryside served as signs that the emperor was failing.
The Revolution of 1911 gave birth to the Chinese Republic, with western-educated Sun Yat-sen as its first president. The new regime was supposed to be democratic, with legitimacy resting on popular government. However, regional warlords challenged the government, much as they always had done in times of political chaos. Emerging from the mayhem was Mao Zedong, with his own version of authority, an ideology known as Maoism. The People’s Republic of China was established in 1949, and Mao led the Communist Party as the new source of power until his death in 1976.
Maoism was idealistic and egalitarian, and even though it endorsed centralized power exercised through the top leaders of the party, it stressed the importance of staying connected to the peasants through a process called mass line. Mass line required leaders to listen to and communicate with ordinary folks, and without it, the legitimacy of the rulers was questionable.
Since Mao’s death, the Politburo remains the legitimate source of power in China, but the leadership has come under a great deal of criticism in recent years. The Party is said to be corrupt and irrelevant, holding authoritarian power over an increasingly market-based