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Wealth and Power

Why has China lagged behind the West in terms of wealth and power? Chinese leaders, writers, and activists offer their explanations.

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Wealth and Power
By Orville Schell and John Delury
Random House
496 pp.

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Ask an American about the Opium Wars and you’ll likely get a blank stare. Ask a Chinese citizen, however, and you’ll hear a detailed account of how Western powers humiliated China in the mid-19th century, forced opium on its people, and grabbed Chinese territory.

In Wealth and Power: China's Long March to the Twenty-first Century, Orville Schell and John Delury explain how, for more than a century and a half, Chinese leaders, writers, and activists have sought answers as to why China lags behind Western countries in wealth and power.

The authors go into great detail on the lives and philosophies of 11 prominent Chinese who represent a range of ideological beliefs, such as Nationalist Chiang Kai-shek, Communist Mao Zedong, reformist Deng Xiaoping, and modern-day dissidents. Despite their differences, the authors argue, all were obsessed with how to raise China’s status.

The book’s title is derived from a statement made by a Chinese philosopher more than 2,000 years ago: “If a wise ruler masters wealth and power, he can have whatever he desires.”

Schell has been writing about China as an academic and a journalist since the 1960s and first visited that country in 1974, during the Mao Zedong era. He is now Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York. John Delury is a senior fellow of the Center on U.S.-China Relations.

Despite the tremendous economic progress it has made in recent years, China seems to dwell on its victimhood, the book notes, even holding a National Day of Humiliation to remind citizens of the low points.

Critics contend that the emphasis on blaming foreigners for China’s past problems helps legitimize the Communist Party while downplaying the disasters of the Mao era.

One such disastrous campaign, the Great Leap Forward of 1958-60, resulted in at least 30 million deaths, as Mao implemented irrational policies he said would help China overtake Britain in steel production in 15 years.

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