We Need Global Leadership

For most of the 19th century, the Imperial government of China was under siege by threats of civil war, foreign invaders, and intergovernmental strife. The peak of humiliation–not only for the Qing Dynasty but for the once glorious Chinese civilization–was the end and aftermath of the Second Opium War in 1860, when the Emperor fled the Forbidden City while the British and the French burned the Summer Palaces.

Emperor Xianfeng’s half brother, Prince Gong, was instructed to remain behind and negotiate with the British. The decline of the Chinese civilization was all too evident as Prince Gong noted (rightly) that the Taiping Rebellion–an “organic disease”–was the immediate concern, while Russia–“aiming to nibble away our territory like a silk worm”–was the second. The British, despite her violent actions, was to trade and thus was not a priority.

The startling defeat and ongoing siege of the Qing Government sparked the “Self-Strengthening Movement.” From 1861 to 1895, the Qing Government attempted to implement a set of institutional reforms to modernize the military, collect taxes on trade, and industrialize the country–the latter of which was particularly controversial as the Chinese was accustomed to generating wealth from their lands. Li Hongzhang, a top-ranking official known for his campaign successes in the Taiping Rebellion, became a leading figure of the reform movement.

We now understand that many of these reforms and struggles were in vain, as the Qing Dynasty ultimately collapsed–culminating in the “Warlord Era” and finally, the Chinese Civil War which did not end until the founding of the People’s Republic of China by Mao Zedong on October 1, 1949.

But the efforts of reformists in late 19th century China cannot be understated. Conditioned by centuries of dynastic rule and convinced that China remains the “center of the world,” many of those within the Qing Government, including Empress Dowager Cixi (who held the real power) were fundamentally against institutional reforms. Prince Gong was vilified by conservative factions for being “friendly with foreigners,” while Li Hongzhang was stripped of his rank three times–but each time was recalled due to his superior diplomatic skills for dealing with foreign powers. To initiate and urge reforms in this tumultuous period in Chinese history required vision, bravery, perseverance, integrity, and statesmanship.

Today, China has risen to become yet again a world power–but more important, her citizens are living in a era of peace and stability, with access to food, shelter, education, and different life options. Over the last 35 years, Chinese leaders have built a well-oiled political framework for economic success–a political framework that took over 100 years to develop.

And today, we ask more of the Chinese and the Chinese government. We need Chinese leaders to step up as global leaders as the world deals with the after-effects of unregulated globalization (e.g. income inequalities, environmental destruction, bloated government and household balance sheets, etc.). The United States can no longer provide such leadership, and Western Europe is in internal disarray–caused by the deficiency of political and corporate leadership over the last several decades. Neither the G8 nor the G20 gatherings have achieved anything of substance–even in the face of breakdowns in the global financial system.

And finally, we should also ask more of ourselves–to take responsibility for our own lives as the global “nanny state” and corporate pension plans go out of fashion. We are responsible for our own happiness and financial security. Do it today–this is what being a leader is all about.

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