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Dr. William Johnson’s Policymakers Seminar Series Lecture, May 7, 2004

Dr. Johnson began his lecture by saying that China is coping with three or four Chinese traditions, and that his lecture would trace the tensions between and within each of the traditions. He believes that these traditions and tensions will interact with the international environment and will shape China in the future. He said that there is a widespread belief that China is static, but this is not true. China’s future is malleable and depends in part on what the US does, and how we act towards China. He then proceeded to break down the Chinese traditions into three time periods:

Tradition 1 Lasted from the 10th century to the turn of the 20th century

Tradition 2 Dominant trend towards revolutionary nationalism, 1911-1949

Tradition 3 Maoism, was really more of an aberration, 1949-1978

Tradition 4 Deng Xiaoping’s gaige kaifang reforms, from 1978-present

The political and social institutions during tradition 1 were made up of the Chinese gentry. These were a certified group of ruling elite who were put in place via an extensive examination system; there was no heredity involved in the selection of Chinese government officials during this time. However, this examination system tied the bureaucrats directly to the state apparatus itself, and this led to a lack of autonomy from the emperor for the ruling class. As a result, although China was by nature a bureaucratic meritocracy, the bureaucracy was completely centralized and absolute power rested with the emperor.

The strict bureaucracy of first tradition China was based on the Confucian principle of “filial piety.” This was essential a system of bureaucracy for organizing day to day life, the central tenet of which was the absolute obedience of the son to the father. This principle of absolute obedience of the “son” (the gentry) to the “father” (the emperor) led to a complete and absolute opposition to factions. Any factions that were discovered were harshly punished. A bedrock belief of the government at this time was that public interests can never be reconciled with the pursuit of private interests.

The period from 1830-1949 will forever be remembered as “the century of shame and humiliation.” During this period China was repeatedly beaten by myriad countries and forced to sign a number of damaging “unequal treaties.” Additionally, China was rocked by a series of embarrassing internal conflicts and rebellions against the crumbling imperial government. Modern-day Chinese remember this period well, and refuse to let China be so taken advantage of again. As a result of this national stigma, China has doggedly pursued wealth, as well as regional and global power. Since this period, China has pursued wealth and power, and this has been central to the rise and fall of Chinese governments. The final dynasty, the Qing Dynasty, eventually fell because of their failure to defend China, causing the Chinese to eventually question the system that had lead to their country’s demise.
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