American scholars would usually use “great power” to denote China and Russia, those countries that rank as second tier in the rank of all nations. Of course, the U.S. is the “super power”. The USSR was once considered a super power, but that’s not the case anymore, the Russian bear was downgraded from super power to great power.
In the final 60 days or so of U.S. presidential campaign, both GOP and Democrat candidates are working hard to promote themselves. While their opinions are in sharp contrast to each other, surprisingly or not so surprisingly, their overall campaign slogans bear resemblance: it is “Make America Great Again” for Trump and “Stronger Together” for Clinton.
Interestingly, while American government and American people usually hope to see their country “great”, the Chinese government and some Chinese people, on the other hand, rather see that their nation “powerful”. In Chinese language, being great and being powerful differ in only one character, but the realms the two words represent are simply too far apart. While there is no much misunderstanding for the meaning of greatness, the word power could mean many things, from strong to forceful, to even formidable. The latter is, it seems, exactly what the Chinese Communist regime is looking after.
Greatness signifies a situation, an ability, a quality or quantity, or excellence above and beyond the average and the usual. It could also imply grandeur, magnificent, sanctified, impressive, and exhilarating. Having or being a power is forceful and strong, but it could also imply intimidation and fear onto others around it. Greatness entails power, but goes beyond power, and is a force that is righteous and benevolent, and it is an accumulation and enrichment of positive energy. Having power could be the prerequisite of greatness and serve as the foundation of greatness, but it is not necessarily a part of greatness, as being powerful could also mean an accumulation and buildup of negative energy and forces.
Being powerful does not guarantee that you will not be defeated, as simply being stronger, having more muscle or larger fist does not give you a vantage point on morality and justice, just as a macho and masculine man in any society is not always the invincible one, as moral and spiritual factors also play a role in defeating your enemy, or defeating your enemy without a fight.
When Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong visited the United States upon the 50th anniversary of the diplomatic ties between the two nations, he said that “America is a great nation, not just because of your power and your wealth, but because of your high ideals, openness, and generosity of spirit. You seek to build a world where countries can prosper together.” What Lee said reflects the views of many in Asia.
When Americans say they want to build a “great” country, a powerful and strong country is embedded in, but also included in the concept are spiritual, moral, and social strengths of the society. When Chinese say they want to build a “strong” country, what they had in mind was military power, as the Chinese leadership has long talked about a strong navy, strong army, and strong air force for the PLA. The CCP has also indoctrinated the people that the Chinese nation has to be “strong”, so as not to be bullied by other powers. Because of the urge to be “strong”, China wants its best in developing military hardware, and whenever something new from American arsenal came into being, be it stealth fighter, drones, space launched weapons, or stealth warships, the whole world knows that the Chinese copycats are soon to follow.
In order to pursue “strong”, a country in that mode would always try to brag, boast, and blow their own horns without feeling any shame or indignity. Countries that pursue “greatness” would not boast, as boasting is in itself against the very idea of being great.
An overseas media in favor of CCP published an article entitled “30 billion Yuan of order, China is to surpass America!” It is said in the article that a company in Shen Zhen signed a contract with the Energy Department of Russia in a “strategic cooperation framework agreement”, on importing 30 billion Yuan worth of oil to China. 30 billion Yuan is about US$5 billion. Is an import of US$5 billion worth of petroleum enough to let China surpass the U.S.? Come on, the U.S. imports about 3 billion barrels of oil every year, costing about US$330 billion!
In 2005, the U.S. Navy hauled the decommissioned USS America (CV-66) to the sea to serve as a target to test the durability and toughness of aircraft carriers. After a month of bombardment by missiles, bombs, and torpedoes, the Americans sank the ship America to the sea bottom. When the ship went down, US sailors stood in line to salute the sacrifice of the ship for their country.
This incidence is simply unthinkable and inconceivable to the Chinese. People in China would view the sinking of a ship with the name of their own country unlucky and inauspicious, and something completely unimaginable. A country with power but not greatness would not have that kind of confidence and self-assurance, and a country with both power and greatness would have that kind of certitude and courage…
When the Chinese Communist Party describes itself, they are never stingy in using the word “great”, such as in the infamous saying that the party is “Great, Glorious, and Righteous”. Nowadays in China, that term has become a lamentable phrase used by the masses to laugh at the party. When China buys modern machinery and equipment from the West, they never used the word “purchase” or “procurement”, but always the term “introduce” in Chinese, meaning they were gracious in allowing and introducing others to enter the Chinese market. When Chinese copycat is produced, they would then boast again, saying that they have developed by themselves something at a level that parallels the most advanced in the world!
A country that is seeking power without being powerful enough yet will, at all the opportunities, boast and brag to make others believe that it is strong and powerful. The only thing is, that self-proclamation is often times pitiful and lamentable in the eyes of others, but not in their own eyes. Recently, Chinese state run media said that a country just granted Chinese citizens a visa waiver, and therefore the “gold content” of PRC passport is “enhanced greatly!” Really? Which country is that? It is in fact a small island country called Tonga, which is not that appealing to the would be Chinese immigrants.
Face-saving is the number one priority of a country seeking power, because they are just too afraid of losing face. During the G20 meeting in Hangzhou this month, it’s simply a meeting of some 20 heads of state, and having nothing to do with the life of ordinary people. Yet the regime made it so serious as if the future of the cosmos is at stake in this meeting. The whole city is on high alert and all the shops, markets, and grocery stores are closed, even businesses had to enter a vacation mode. A meeting like this in an ordinary country would need probably only a hotel, or even half of a hotel, and shops will not be closed, but may be open for extra hours. A “great” country, on the other hand, has enough confidence so it does not need to show off, neither does it need to cover up.
Seeking power would disenable the intellectuals and thinkers from thinking long term and strategically, and there would be no reflection on the society, but only tactics to appease to the will of high ranking officials. Seeking greatness would encourage the scholars and theorists to criticize the government and government policies, providing warnings to the public, and serving as a provider of true, good, and enduring guidance to the nation.
In fact, Americans are the first to say that America is not great. The media in the U.S. warns about the surge of Japan, the rise of China, the American decline, and the death of American century, etc. Donald Trump, the Republican presidential candidate, even wrote a book about “crippled” America, therefore an effort to make America great again becomes necessary.
True greatness of a nation must be built on the basis of high moral standards, where the society has unparalleled advantage in social structure, ideal, and justice. Even though the Chinese regime may know the difference between “great” and “power”, they are, nevertheless, unable to turn China into a great country. It’s their ideology, or a lack of a respectful, upright, and virtuous ideology, that renders them unable to lead a nation on that path. While when a governing body knows that greatness is beyond its reach, powerfulness, favored by dictators old and new, becomes their next best choice.
The gap between China and America can be quantified to a certain extent, believe it or not. We can use a proxy of the smuggling fee to measure it. That fee is what a person wishing to be smuggled from Fujian, China to Flushing, New York, has to pay the snakehead to have it done. The cost was about US$40,000 to 50,000 many years ago, and then to US$60,000 to 70,000 a few years ago, to about US$80,000 today. The rise in the smuggling fee and the associated opportunity cost, demonstrate exactly the difference between a “great country” and a “powerful country”.
Does the above argument mean that China will never catch up or surpass America? Of course not. In history, China had been the greatest country on earth at least several times, for example in the Tang Dynasty, where the country was known for its openness and diversity, tolerance and empathy, and of course power and prosperity. Those very nature and attributes are no longer visible even remotely in China today, thanks to the ruthless rule of the Communists over the past 60 years. So, China under the Communist could be strong at most, but will never attain greatness, exactly because of a lack of openness, diversity, and tolerance.
So why is China after power but not greatness? The reason is simple: China is controlled by the Communist regime, and the regime needs power to sustain itself and not become extinct. While the people of China long for greatness, something that the Chinese people had many times and for a long time in ancient history, the Chinese Communists do not want that, as greatness means empowering people and restoring traditions, neither is what Zhongnanhai has in mind.
Dr. Frank Tian Xie is John M. Olin Palmetto Professor of Business and Associate Professor of Marketing at the University of South Carolina Aiken, in Aiken, SC, USA.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.