For those who look at China from afar, or see it on a visit through the lens of the towering new buildings, stunning airport terminals, state-of-the-art high-speed rail systems and dazzling architecture of monuments, museums, concert and municipal halls that dot cityscapes, it may seem counterintuitive that the leaders who guided this economic counter-revolution should be so sensitive on so many issues.
A continuous sense of anxiety radiates throughout endless remedial political campaigns despite an economic miracle of incomparable dimensions, one unequalled by any society at any other time in the history. Do Chinese leaders not - as John Delury and I chronicle in our new book, "Wealth and Power: China's Long March to the 21st Century" - find themselves, at last, on the verge of attaining a long sought holy grail, restoration of China to a state of relative prosperity and strength, if not greatness? After such accomplishment, are these leaders and their citizens not deserving of a moment of victorious respite?
Yet the stunning levels of economic success are not accompanied by a greater sense of self-confidence. Instead, China's newly enthroned leaders seem compelled to keep elevating levels of political control, even when doing so is such an impediment to China attaining that other goal, much yearned for but elusive, global respect.
These attributes rarely derive from state control, manipulations or official propaganda campaigns. Instead, like soft power, they arise almost alchemically from societies and cultures left free to innovate and incubate new ideas. But, these attributes also derive from how a government interacts with its own people, depending on whether it has enough confidence in its legitimacy to afford the level of freedom necessary to generate a culture that is truly self-inspired and thus winsome to the rest of the world.
The right balance between necessary societal controls and freedoms is always extremely difficult to attain, and thus one must have certain sympathy for China's leaders who now find themselves riding a particularly challenging and insubordinate tiger, one that metaphorically might be said to have had a long and complicated history of abuse by its various serial keepers. Indeed, contemplating all the perfidies and savageries that the 20th century afflicted on this particular tiger is enough to make one marvel that it is alive and well at all, much less so successful!
Having accomplished one epic stage in a grand drama of development, what President Xi Jinping has taken to referring to as the "China Dream," Chinese leaders find themselves confronting a new and as yet unwritten next act, but one on which the curtain has already risen. The new script must be written not only with the actors already on the stage, but it will almost certainly require a different compact with "the people," one that does not depend so heavily on control.
In this regard, Document 9, released several months ago from the General Office of the Central Committee, which calls on Communist Party members to heighten vigilance against such trends as constitutionalism, civil society, democracy, human rights, press freedom and more is unsettling. The document may not be an expression of the president himself and could simply be the Communist Party's conservative side expressing itself. The truth is, we do not know. But whatever its provenance, the challenge for the party and current leaders is to figure out how to protect the country's past successes by sketching out a plan that plots a more enlightened political path.