A lot of commentary about China today, particularly as a result of the prominence the country has because of its economy, and its role in global affairs from the environment to public health (witness the COVID19 pandemic), often makes the country seem as though it has arrived from no-where. It is framed as a newcomer to the international scene, a place which has surprised many because of how it figures in our lives outside in ways which were never expected, and therefore never planned for.
Knowledge of where China has been before, and the path it has taken, is not high in Europe or North America. It is the domain more often than not of specialists, or those with exotic tastes. Museums may have a small portion set aside for Asia, and a smaller part of that for China – and world histories will cover the rise of the country. But on the whole, one can go through the whole education system in the UK or America now and end up being highly educated, and still knowing nothing about the past story of a country where a fifth of humanity live, and where a fifth of global GDP is now produced.
Because in terms of language, cultural, society, and political model, the current People’s Republic is so different to the other dominant economies in the world’s top ten, and in particular from the one sole superpower now, the US, this lack of widespread knowledge is increasingly a problem. In addition to all these other issues about how China is different, there is the added one that its story is not a simple one. There have been many phases, going back a long time. There is no easy way of capturing this narrative. It often divides, splits and then comes together again, in ways which suggest it is not Chinese history but histories that everyone needs to learn.
One way of at least trying to make this vast task manageable is to recognise that the China that exists now makes little sense without at least some acknowledgement of what it has been, and done, and experienced before. The mindsets of modern Chinese, and their leaders, are shaped by these historic experiences. They do have a story that they have made out of this. Using that story as a way for those outside China to at least try to work out what makes the current country tick is important.
It is clear that the modern history of China since the middle of the 19th century was a traumatic one. China’s first encounters with western modernity in the form of the Great British navy and its imposition of trade agreements around the sale of opium resulted in a long period in which the imperial Qing, and then the Republican regime that followed it in 1911, saw themselves largely as victims of a stronger world around them, and as needing to quickly speed up their own reform and development.
The experiences in the 1920s to the 1940s were a mixture of attempts to reform, alongside fragmentation and confusion, culminating in the devastation of the Sino-Japanese war from 1937. The Second World War had a searing impact, leading to over 20 million deaths, and 50 million displaced. It exposed all of China’s vulnerabilities and weaknesses. That the country survived at all is in some ways a miracle. The victory of the Communists in 1949 therefore, whatever one might think of its political significance, was also seen as a stage of a new beginning. That new history has continued to this day.
There are many events and acts in the early decades of the People’s Republic under the Communists that were catastrophic and problematic. The Great Leap Forward in 1957 was ambitious in intent and focussed on the desire to see the country rapidly catch up with industrialised nations – but it led to overreach, and, indirectly, to the famines of the early 1960s. The Cultural Revolution led to a decade of inner fighting and turmoil, an event that still haunts the memories of most people over the age of 60 in China to this day. But from 1978, the focus has been relentless – reform and opening up to ensure that people’s material wellbeing rises, and that the Party stays in power as a result of that.
However different the country that exists today is to its predecessors in the last century and a half, there is one mission that does link them – the rectification of the harms done to China by itself and others because of its weakness, and the cast iron objective to never be in a position of vulnerability again. Over the decades since 1978, as economic reforms have had time to take effect, and prosperity levels rise, sometimes dramatically, the language of China being on the road to a great renaissance, a period of resurrection from the ashes of its traumatic past, has intensified. So too have feelings of patriotism. Some of these have been moulded and encouraged by the government. But others come from the sincere emotions of Chinese people who may feel ambiguous to negative about their government, but want to see their country succeed and be secure.
The framework of a grand process of renewal and replenishment, going through different stages and experiencing varying ups and downs, is one of the most accessible, and the most helpful, in understanding modern Chinese history. It helps explain what links different phases of this history – the tactics being used often changed, as did the immediate outcomes, but the long-term objective of national revival remained the same. It also helps in working out the links between various groups in the county, and how it relates to the outside world. Chinese nationalism which springs from this great process of renewal is often a hard thing to be comfortable with outside of China. In the country, however, it makes absolute sense.
Under current leader Xi Jinping, the talk has often been about him being a new Mao – a strong leader who dominates everything and controls all he sees. In some ways, this may be true. But there is one crucial area where it fails to catch what the source of his authority is. He is the servant of the great nationalist mission, ongoing for over a hundred years. Most importantly, he is doing this in the period when China stands within reach of achieving its goal – becoming a middle-income county, with a per capita GDP of USD13000. By the middle of the next decade, China may well be the world’s largest economy. The renewal will have surmounted one of its most important goals. China may well be an ancient civilisation. But all too often in modern history it has looked like one in perpetual decline. In the 21st century, the Communist Party has promised it will make sure that China will not only not decline, but flourish. It is delivery of that on which its fate sinks or swims.
Kerry Brown is Professor of Chinese Studies and Director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College London as well as the author of China, available July 17th from Polity.