"The past is speaking quite loudly in the present," observed Orville Schell, Arthur Ross Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York. Schell was commenting on the powerful influence that past events and former leaders have on the current "China model," and the way that China is perceived by others.
Schell, who has been following events in China for more than 40 years, first went to China in 1975. "It was unthinkable then to imagine the changes we have seen," he said. It was just three years later, in 1978, that Deng Xiaoping became the leader of China. With remarkable speed, Deng redefined "what it meant to be Chinese." It was Deng, according to Schell, who pioneered the China model. "He exploited and encouraged economic reform while discouraging political reform." There was a growing sense at the time that "we were all on the same path and moving in the same direction," Schell said, describing the 1980s as "an extraordinarily open and liberal period." Everything changed though with the violent crackdown following the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. According to Schell, the lesson the Communist Party took from those protests was "never again."