Enter the Dragon

The Last Empress: Madame Chiang Kai-shek and the Birth of Modern China BY Hannah Pakula. Simon & Schuster. Hardcover, 816 pages. $35.
When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order BY Martin Jacques. Penguin Press HC, The. Hardcover, 576 pages. $29.

The cover of The Last Empress: Madame Chiang Kai-shek and the Birth of Modern China The cover of When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order

On October 1 in Beijing, teams of weather-modification specialists stood at the ready as advanced military hardware, elaborately decorated floats, and ranks of gun-toting women in silvery boots paraded down Chang’an Avenue to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. It was another immense spectacle at the dawn of a predicted Chinese century, following the 2008 Beijing Olympics and in advance of the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai.

The scene was described and criticized in the American press as a celebration of six decades of Communist rule—sixty years of dictatorship by unregenerate Marxist-Leninist-Maoists, now grown strong and prosperous. But old-fashioned Red-baiting and contemporary human rights protests alike missed the point: It was a celebration of sixty years of rule, period. That Mao Zedong and the People’s Liberation Army were the ones who got control of China, after a century of decline, invasion, and entropy, is less important than that anyone did at all.

The problem of winning—or losing—control of China dominates both the foreground and the background of Hannah Pakula’s The Last Empress. The title somewhat miscasts Madame Chiang Kai-shek, whose imperiousness never quite translated into the basis of an empire. But for a while, in the chaos of twentieth-century China, she nearly made herself the embodiment of the nation, such as it was.

Madame Chiang was born in 1897 as Soong May-ling, the youngest of three daughters of the prosperous Shanghai industrialist Charlie Soong. He had gone to America to work at the age of twelve and returned as a college-educated Methodist, launching a Bible-publishing business. China was crumbling: Western powers had forcibly opened the empire to trade and foreign domination, and the Qing Dynasty was wheezing and bumbling toward failure. The Mandate of Heaven—the Chinese belief that a dynasty was ordained to rule, based on its demonstrated ability to do so—was in doubt, with rebellions breaking out against both the government and the occupying foreigners. A modernized and bellicose Japan was growing in power and ambition. Warlords and their personal armies were dividing up the local rulership. People were dying, from starvation and warfare, in the tens of millions.

Soong was born into this disaster, but she was largely reared in the United States. Her father’s modern sensibilities extended to a belief in educating females, so that all three daughters attended American colleges. Soong, at age ten, attached herself to her college-bound middle sister, Ching-ling, and got an American secondary school education before continuing on to Wellesley.

This was unusual for women, but not for the male members of the early-twentieth-century Chinese elite. Pakula’s account of that era describes a cosmopolitan upper caste in a country Americans regard as separate and alien. Sun Yat-sen, the father of the Chinese Republic, was educated in Hawaii. T. V. Soong, Soong May-ling’s eldest brother and the republic’s finance minister, went to Harvard; his rival, the financier H. H. Kung, went to Oberlin and Yale. When the Qing Dynasty finally collapsed, and Sun’s long-sought republic was founded, he was away in Denver on a fund-raising trip.

Yet amid all this foreign knowledge and influence, the two figures who emerged with the greatest success were provincial, in both senses: Chiang Kai-shek of Zhejiang and Mao Zedong of Hunan. And for all the clashing ideologies and powerful cultural and economic forces involved, the story of China in the first half of the twentieth century is one of history made by not only the great men but also the merely competent and even incompetent ones.

For example, the most pivotal figure in Soong’s—and early-twentieth-century China’s—saga, Generalissimo Chiang, emerges here as neither a politician nor a military genius but a man with a gift for the sort of politics practiced with armies: warlord politics, in the warlord-ruled aftermath of Qing China. Unfortunately for Chiang, Mao was better at it, and better at ruling the territory he controlled. Chiang’s struggle to defeat the Japanese, only to lose the country to the Communists, is the main event of the book, as the Nationalists fall back from one provisional capital to the next, till they end up off the mainland entirely.

Madame Chiang comes and goes in the struggle—now managing the air force, now smuggling furs and other goods through the overstrained military supply lines. She risks her life in the mud and chaos helping war victims and writes chatty letters back to a Wellesley classmate about the experience. She achieves her apotheosis not in China but in the US, on a prolonged lobbying tour seeking more aid in the fight against Japan: enrapturing Congress and lecture crowds with her speechmaking (and her wardrobe), convincing her hosts that they are in the presence of a great leader of a great democratic nation. She urges lawmakers to “help bring about the liberation of man’s spirit in every part of the world” and is at the center of a star-studded extravaganza for thirty thousand US sympathizers in the Hollywood Bowl.

The final retreat of the Republic of China to Taiwan and the decline of the government into irrelevance, of Chiang into senescence and death, and of Madame Chiang into semi-reclusive life in New York—this all feels, in Pakula’s treatment, somehow hasty and too long at the same time, an awkward aftermath measured in decades. Madame Chiang is much more enjoyable at her peak, when she goes so far as to carry on a torrid and barely concealed affair with former Republican presidential nominee Wendell Willkie. This new-world dalliance had her dreaming of dumping the generalissimo for an alliance to rule East and West together.

That fantasy was as ill starred and imaginary as her portrait of Chinese democracy under Chiang and the Kuomintang. Pakula’s book helpfully reminds us that the tragedies of twentieth-century China did not include the loss of any sort of viable, actual liberal government. Wellesley education or no, Madame Chiang had never cultivated a taste for liberating the masses, and she spent her twilight denouncing the democratization of Taiwan. The great political question of her lifetime was whether China would fall into the hands of Communist dictators or whether it could be kept safe for kleptocratic dictators instead.

Sixty years after the Communists seized their own secular version of the Mandate of Heaven, capitalism and riches have made a dramatic comeback. But the outlook for democracy has not really improved much, the leftist journalist Martin Jacques argues in When China Rules the World. And he contends that Western observers are misguided to expect it to.

The book was in the works for more than ten years, through a period of almost incomprehensibly sweeping change in China, and it shows a certain strain from the effort of keeping up: Jacques’s project is to debunk the notion that economic development leads inexorably to liberal democracy and Westernization—a theory that had a stronger grip on the world’s imagination back in the late 1990s, when he started working on the subject. China, Jacques writes, is modernizing on its own terms, following cultural habits and priorities laid down over thousands of years. Western leaders fail to grasp this because the West is unable to reckon with its own decline, which is well under way as China rises. “The most traumatic consequences of this process will be felt by the West because it is the West that will find its historic position being usurped by China,” Jacques writes.

What are the characteristics of this twenty-first-century superpower? China, in this account, is not a mere nation-state, as Europeans understand it, but a “civilization state,” with an abiding and transcendent sense of unity, a shared attitude of racial solidarity, and an overwhelming belief in its cultural superiority. Its imperial habits of power, refreshed by its colossal economic growth, will pull the countries around it back into their ancient role as submissive tributaries.

Jacques’s insistence that China not be viewed through a Western frame gives some parts of the book a pragmatic clarity. His portrait of the workings of the Chinese regime—the way the central government has ceded power and control to its immense provinces—helps explain the country’s capacity for absorbing contradictions, from the launch of capitalist development zones through the “two systems” takeover of Hong Kong to the mainland’s tolerance of, and growing closeness to, Taiwan. His depiction of China’s maneuverings to build a commercial and financial sphere of influence in Asia over the past decade conveys Western fecklessness and complacency.

But China’s complexity and capacity for paradox also mean that the more Jacques aims for big predictions and sweeping conclusions, the more the particulars get mangled. He argues, for instance, that under the influence of Western modernity, the Chinese and Japanese have “comprehensively abandoned their sartorial traditions”—as if the Americans out my window at the bus stop are wearing anything an American would have in 1950. He swings back and forth between flatly saying China was colonized by the West and flatly saying it wasn’t—both of which can be true, but without fuller context the author just seems absent-minded.

For a writer seeking to jar readers into a new understanding of China, Jacques relies unfortunately on inert verbal formulae. “Seemingly the only constant is change,” he writes. And “China is, quite literally, changing the world before our very eyes, taking it into completely uncharted territory.” He can overinflate his evidence: “Those who speak Chinese often refer to it as . . . 'centre realm speech’: Sino-centrism, or what I will describe later as the Middle Kingdom mentality, even extends to how the Chinese perceive their language.”

This is overexotic silliness unto deception. “Middle Kingdom”—Zhongguo —is China’s name in Chinese. That reflects a self-centered mind-set, surely, but you don’t get to re-semanticize it for bonus credit every time the word China appears: The Chinese are so self-centered, they call the Bank of China the Center Realm Bank! They call Air China the Center Realm Airline! And people in the United States love Amerigo Vespucci so much they watch the popular Pie of the Land of Amerigo teen-sex-comedy movie series.

If anything, Jacques appears well acquainted with China and shows far less familiarity with the US. His account of the fading West seems overly influenced by the experience of his own native waning empire. The West is in thrall to rationality, he writes, and so cannot understand the deeply superstitious Chinese mind. Anyone who has lived in the land of angels, vaccine resisters, and the Prosperity Gospel might suppress a chuckle.

Still, all the theorizing, even when it’s wrong, can inspire some productive countertheorizing. When Jacques predicts, for instance, that English as a global language may go the way of French and Latin, fading with its speakers’ influence, it is one of the many moments where he seems to have forgotten the existence of India. And what if India’s linguistic and cultural bonds with Britain and the United States prove to be important in the world to come?

But the most important countertheory to consider arises from Jacques’s notion of unity as China’s defining feature. As he notes, China has spent a great deal of its history disunited, waiting sometimes centuries for the next ruler to come along and pull it together again. This does show China’s commitment to unity, but it also shows that the effort of governing a China-size China has historically been as much as any government can handle, and too much for many.

For China to conquer the world, the Communist technocrats will need to get past this historical limit—in the face of chronic and worsening drought, possible unrest among the losers in the economic transformation, the poisonous side effects of cramming the entire Industrial Revolution into a few decades, and a troubling surplus of male citizens thanks to the combined effect of sex bias and the one-child policy. These and other problems show no sign of bringing down the Communist regime, but they could certainly keep it busy at home.

In his less dramatic moments, Jacques is simply betting that, in the end, the West will become less important than it has previously been, which it will. He envisions a multipolar world to come, in which the old Euro-American “end of history” is reduced to one in a batch of different ways to be modern, and a vigorous, distinctively Chinese version of modernity becomes another.

From another angle, though, this notion of a modernity that preserves long-standing cultures, leading to a pluralistic balance, seems less a warning than a sweetly old-fashioned hope. In the future, people will still have roots, and China will reject the Western model out of faithfulness to its own character. Is that really how the global economic order will shape itself? As the United States requires its citizens to produce dossiers of identity documents, and as riot police preemptively round up would-be protesters before party conventions and international financial conferences in American cities, and as the US exports surveillance equipment and software to the Chinese government—as the twenty-first century shapes itself around us—more dismaying than the notion that a modernized China won’t model itself on the West is the possibility that it already has.

Tom Scocca is writing a book, Beijing Welcomes You, for Riverhead.