Deng Xiaoping

Americans tend to have three preoccupations about the recent past: the rights revolutions of the 1960s; Ronald Reagan, his conservative movement, and its legacy; and American-led globalization.1 Remarkably, to an American reader, Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st C

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This year’s succession of power has been far from smooth. China’s political elite is clearly divided against itself.

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The Partial Reformer

Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of ChinaBy Ezra F. Vogel (Belknap Press, 876 pp., $39.95)  Revolutionaries get all the attention, but reform is much harder. A reformer has to reshape a rigid structure without breaking it. Before Deng Xiaoping, only Kemal Atatürk in the twentieth century managed to do this. Others, like Nasser and the Shah of Iran, left key parts of the old system intact, or, like Gorbachev, destroyed the regime in trying to save it. The China that Deng inherited from Mao Zedong was just such a brittle system.

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In October 2008, a month after the collapse of Lehman Brothers—with the United States’s financial system seemingly about to buckle and Washington in desperate need of cash to prevent a total economic collapse—a State Department official contacted his Chinese counterpart about China buying U.S. securities. To his surprise, the Chinese, who had previously displayed an insatiable appetite for U.S. Treasury bills, suddenly balked at lending a hand. The reason, the Chinese official said, was the recent announcement of an impending sale of U.S.

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The Belligerents

Each year, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its affiliated organizations hold hundreds of meetings, at which officials from countries across Asia come together to issue bland, verbose communiqués about everything from agriculture management to the handling of spiny dogfish and to listen to interchangeable speeches by government officials. Along with an inevitable level of boredom, the meetings feature exaggerated, affected displays of courtesy that would not have been out of place at the Tudor Court.

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Behold China

For decades, various Chinese officials and outsiders have reassured the world that the country’s Communist Party leadership eventually planned to open up its one-party political system. The regime would undertake major political reforms and liberalization, it was said, to accompany the economic reforms launched by Deng Xiaoping in the late ’70s. It was merely a question of choosing the right time. Writing in Foreign Affairs two years ago, John L.

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I was interviewing Hong Kong tycoon Albert Yeung in his office on a recent afternoon when he suddenly changed the subject to ask whether I knew that his forebears had come from Chiu Chow, a region in south China famous for breeding tough guys. A Chiu Chow is the Chinese equivalent of a Sicilian. I took the bait, and told Yeung that some people had advised me to stay away from him because he was reputed to be a dangerous man. He did not even try to conceal his delight.

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Purging the Posters

Back in the good old days—when Mao Zedong was always right and Deng Xiaoping was a capitalist roader—wall posters were all the rage in China. In one frenzied week during the Cultural Revolution in 1966, students at Peking University churned out 100,000 posters, enough to cover the Great Wall from end to end. Communist party cadres had to string wires along factory and office corridors so workers could hang up their latest attacks against revisionist superiors, “Anything goes,” a Communist party official told a group of factory workers. “The main thing is to get the discussion going.

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