“China represents something akin to a laboratory,” philosopher Daniel Little wrote more than twenty years ago. And for understanding human organization and behavior, present-day China remains as intriguing and instructive as ever. Indeed, the country now feels like a steamy laboratory undertaking grand experiments that are profoundly shaping the country – and the world.
Of course, experimenting is nothing new in China. Ever since the country was forced open by the West some 170 years ago, it has tried all kinds of foreign and native ideas. Contrary to the official label, the “century of humiliation” was really a century of experimentation. The wholesale import of modern sciences and technology aside, politically and socioeconomically there were the failed effort to imitate the Japanese Meiji Restoration in 1898, and the frustrating experience of building an American-style republic in the 1910s to 1920s. Vladimir Lenin, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and Benito Mussolini were all used as models by various Chinese leaders, until the invading Japanese disrupted everything in 1937.
Backed by Moscow, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) experimented with a communist-led peasant rebellion to establish the People’s Republic of China in 1949. The spectacularly incompetent but unrestrictedly ambitious and despotic Mao Zedong ran China to the ground in his terrible experiment of the Great Leap Forward, which resulted in the death of tens of millions in just three years. Then, in order to preserve his personal power and place in history, Mao launched the even more “innovative” political experiment of the Cultural Revolution, which hurt Chinese culture beyond description.
The pragmatic Deng Xiaoping opened new rounds of experimentation, focusing on imitating East Asian neighbors to get rich via trial and error. Imported institutions, technology, and ideas flooded the country, despite vigilant political filtration. Unlike other rising powers in the past, the “Chinese Lab” has a limited ideological master plan or blueprint beyond the highly experimental hubris of rejuvenating Chinese civilization. It’s also clear on peeling through the thick propaganda that only one thing now remains off-limit to experimentation – the CCP’s monopoly of political power.
So what exactly is going on in China’s grand experiment? A few profound potential changes are underway.
First there’s the grand experiment of getting rich through imitation rather than innovation, and the effort to develop a dynamic capitalism under state monopoly. Then politically, China has become an empire without hereditary emperors. Internally, Beijing relies on nationalism to govern, yet suppresses the identities and demands of the numerous nationalities. Externally, China professes to rise peacefully, but toys with running a different shop for a new world order. Each of these experiments could lead to huge shifts of power across the globe, yet none of them is certain to succeed.