This small, 176-page book by Zhang, a professor at Fudan University and one-time interpreter for Deng Xiaoping, addresses the most gripping debate in and about China today: Should the most populous nation and the second largest economy in the world follow the Western, particularly American, model of economy and governance, or follow its own model of development while assimilating the best from the world? Zhang favours the latter and in this book, he provides his analysis and reasoning as to why he thinks so.
Modest and careful, Zhang sees two sides to every major issue, and recognising that statistics can be deceptive, he acknowledges that there may not be a great deal to rejoice in being the second largest economy. He remembers the lessons of history - that China lost the Opium Wars when it was then the world's largest economy. He understands that the "rise of China" irks as many as it impresses. He is cautious in rejoicing in China's new status not because he belongs to the camp that views it as a false dawn, but because he prefers (like Deng Xiaoping) that China keeps a low profile to avoid "unnecessarily heavy international burdens".
He issues a gentle but firm reminder to those who would scoff at the "rise of China" that China was not just an ordinary country rising through the application of a Western model economy. The nature of China's rise, in his view, "is the rise of a civilizational state which has amalgamated the world's longest continuous civilization with the modern state." This was made possible with the establishment of the three structures - the upper structure (which includes government ministries and the central bank) established during the republican years 1911-1949; the lower structure, established by Mao Tze Tung through land reforms and the mobilization of the peasants; and the middle structure established through Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms and China's entry into the modern market.
Carefully navigating through the landmark developments in the country's economic history, and constantly reaffirming the nature of Chinese society, Zhang compares the parallel history not just of America and Europe, but also China's tinier neighbours in Asia. One of the strengths of China (and for that matter, it ought to be the strength of every nation) is the people. Noting that education is invaluable and had played a crucial role in China's rise, one can at once understand why America is heading the opposite direction. Thus, just as Deng Xiaoping's ride in Japan's bullet train in 1978 inspired Deng to modernize China, Barak Obama remarked after riding in China's longer, faster bullet train in 2010 that: "There is no reason why China should have the fastest trains".
Zhang holds the view that had China adopted the Western model it would have disintegrated like the USSR and Yugoslavia. He presents a different assessment of China than that often characterized in foreign press and publications, especially Western ones. Thus he states that "yet the reality is that most Chinese are fair-minded: if you have good performance in the past, and if you are still working earnestly for the people, they tend to understand you and give you room for improvement." This may not be the view typically accepted by the West, but the answer to the question whether Zhang is repeating Chinese propaganda or making an astute judgment lies in the earnest and humble tone of this fascinating book.
More importantly, Zhang identifies two groups of Asian countries that had tried the Western model and he gives his critical appraisal of the outcome. The first are countries like Philippines and Thailand which embraced the Western model too early - while they were still poor. The second group, like South Korea and Taiwan, adopted the Western model after they had reached a higher level of modernization. In all these cases, he noted three problems. First, society becomes more divided; secondly, corruption generally increased rather than decreased; and thirdly, the economy is negatively affected. [Zhang mistakenly named Lim Kit Siang as a "Thai opposition leader". Lim is a Malaysian opposition leader. The author more likely had either Chavalit or Chuan Leekpai in mind.]
This book is important not only for China but Asian countries on the advantages and cost of embracing the Western model. There is a clear and unmistakable hint in Zhang's book "The China Wave" that one cannot adopt an economic model without letting in the cultural flood - that is why China has to ask itself, will Western culture bring down what it has taken China so long to build?