Page last updated at 11:17 GMT, Monday, 2 June 2008 12:17 UK

Making sense of modern China

By Angus Foster
BBC News

People cheer during the Olympic torch relay in Hefei, central China on 28 May 2008
The Olympics will be the biggest sporting event ever hosted by China
In just 66 days' time, after a three-and-a-half hour opening ceremony designed to "spread the essence of Chinese culture to the world", the Beijing Olympics will muscle in on TV schedules and news reports across every continent.

China's Communist Party rulers have been dreaming of this moment for at least 15 years.

Winning and then staging what are sure to be spectacular and successful games will help justify the party's continued rigid authority, and let it bask in most Chinese people's excitement to be hosts.

But the games will also be seen as one of history's most expensive, and well-orchestrated, coming-out parties.

After three decades of breakneck economic growth, the gleaming new airport, sports stadiums, ring roads and underground stations are set to send a powerful message around the world - that China has arrived.

Neighbours' unease

So how should the rest of us respond?

It's a pretty rootless society, highlighted by the fact there's 100m people on the move, looking for jobs
Prof Jonathan Spence

Clearly it is a moment for celebration, that a country which for large parts of the 20th Century suffered civil war, famines, political mayhem and introversion, is now wealthy, stable and worldly enough to begin the new century with such confidence.

Yet many will also be watching with unease.

For neighbours like Japan or India, China's revival as an economic and political power is also a challenge, especially over energy resources. For the US, China's increased military spending makes it an emerging Pacific Ocean rival.

China's environmental problems are serious enough for the whole world to choke on. And it continues to be ruled by an unelected elite ready to lock up critics and pander to nationalism to serve its cause.

'Entry into the big time'

Professor Jonathan Spence, who delivers this year's BBC Radio 4 Reith Lectures, is well placed to make sense of the competing visions.

Born and educated in England, he moved to Yale University in the US in 1965 and is now one of the West's most eminent historians of China.

His best-selling books - like The Search for Modern China and To Change China - have explored first European then American attempts to understand the continent-sized country, and also our fascination with it.

"China sees [the Olympics] as its entry into the big time, even more so than their huge trade success," he says.

"There's a feeling [in China] that Chinese were not admired in the West, that China was on the less desirable end of the scale, in sports, and terms of strength. Now, China is going to take 25 gold medals, some in person-to-person competition. For people in China, the thought of winning all that is intoxicating," he says.

Sense of the past

In delivering the Reith lectures, which this year celebrate their 60th year - a particularly propitious anniversary in China - Prof Spence has tried to appeal to a general audience, rather than specialists in China's long history.

"If you're not interested in it, it sounds very technical, the dynastic cycle is very hard to sort out," he says, with a donnish tolerance.

So there are to be four lectures. The first is on Confucius, the 5th Century BC thinker whose teachings came to dominate Chinese ideas of social justice and family relations.

Confucius was outlawed as feudalistic by the Communist Party after 1949. But in the last two decades there has been an upsurge in popular interest - epitomised by the academic-turned-celebrity Yu Dan, whose book on the Analects has sold more than 10 million copies.

The reasons are complex. New generations are trying to make sense of their past, some fear a moral vacuum now that communism has been upstaged by market economics. And economic growth has led to tremendous social upheaval, forcing millions of people to leave their rural homes to find work.

"It's a pretty rootless society, highlighted by the fact there's 100m people on the move, looking for jobs. And there's no simple formula for moral behaviour that schools can instil.

"So in that sense, Confucius is vacuum filler, and you can pump up different aspects to fill your needs," Prof Spence says.

The last lecture is about changing Chinese ideals of the body, from the bound feet and queue of the Qing dynasty, to the 7ft6in (229cm) international basketball and advertising star Yao Ming.

The other two will explore British and American interactions with China - though Mr Spence hints that while British traders were there first, it is now only the US which realises China's future potential.

"In the UK, one gets the sense that people think it's just another country," he says.

Power hold

But what will that future look like?

The West's consensus view is that so long as the economy keeps hauling millions of people out of poverty, the Communist Party can survive in power.

Its challenges are enormous. Twenty million people enter the job market each year and need to be found work.

We could wish they [the Chinese] changed much faster, but we should be glad they are changing at the speed they are
Prof Jonathan Spence

A recent increase in local-level protests suggests millions more feel left behind by growth so far, and resentful. There is simmering popular anger about official corruption and environmental damage.

Yet the biggest challenge will be political.

Can China's authoritarian leaders, who have risen to the pinnacle of a one-party state, be prevailed upon to accept competing visions of how the country should be governed, and even share power?

And can they do so before the tensions being stoked by such unprecedented social and economic upheaval become overwhelming?

Prof Spence does not ignore the risks, but sees more grounds for optimism.

He points to the ballooning number of university graduates, the emergence of grassroots civil groups, and the vast improvement in the education levels of top leaders as evidence that change will have to come.

"The whole idea of representation is being explored. Remember China had a hard time with representative government, which fell apart under the warlord era [in 1915].

"China is backtracking into the past, looking for ways of making changes. We could wish they changed much faster, but we should be glad they are changing at the speed they are," he says.

Hear Professor Jonathan Spence deliver the 2008 Reith lectures:
BBC Radio 4, Tuesdays from 3 June, 0900BST
BBC World Service, Saturdays from 7 June, 1800 BST
Listen online or download the podcast at the
Reith lectures website.

Print Sponsor


Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2019 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific