For the last two decades, Chinese leaders have been diligently trying to build a new edifice in order to gain some of that missing respect. This made a successful Olympic Games, when all the world would be watching, an urgent matter.
But, now that the Games have ended, Chinese leaders cannot quite say, “Mission accomplished.”
While China’s achievement is worthy of genuine esteem, its efforts to gain a full measure of international respect and real “great power” status will not succeed until it matches its new economic and military power with a certain essential moral force. That, in turn, requires a society and a leadership that seeks to be exemplary in all ways that make human beings more human, including respect for truthfulness, openness, tolerance, and people’s right to disagree with their government.
I fear that China’s leaders and people will continue to feel a certain gnawing, inchoate sense of deficiency and incompleteness in their quest for global respect until they find the strength to begin addressing the crucial, but elusive, issue of making China an ethical, as well as an economic and military, power. For a country steeped in millennia of Confucianism, the need for ethical leadership should be clear.
To fully address the question of the moral and ethical base of a new form of Chinese governance, China’s government and its people must be able to look back freely and come to terms with their recent history: the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, the events of 1989, Tibet, and other sensitive issues. They must also freely be able to discuss the future and what kind of society they wish to see rise from the ashes of Mao’s revolution.