How China Grabbed Hold of the World In Order to Survive and Compete: ‘Restless Empire’

“For this kind of job, you British are incompetent, and you should learn from the Chinese how to fight the Japanese,” (267) said Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek to General Sir Archibald Percival Wavell.

As Chiang went on, early in 1942, to dispatch nine Chinese divisions into Burma — swiftly to be beaten back by the Japanese — nobody imagined that 70 years later, his country would be planning missions to Mars. Or that it would be on the brink of becoming the planet’s largest economy. Or that the Chinese Academy of Sciences would be expecting it to be “the world’s technological powerhouse” in around 20 years’ time, having “eradicated poverty among its more than 1.5 billion citizens, while increasing their life expectancy to eighty” (1).

It’s time for the world to catch up with China, and Odd Arne Westad’s Restless Empire, a one-volume history of China’s foreign relations from 1750 to today, is here to help us.

The book begins at the height of the mighty Qing (or Manchu) Empire, which colonized, collected tribute from, and engaged in trade and diplomacy with neighbors. (Alexander Suvorov, the Tsar’s general, later “rode against Napoleon under banners made from Chinese silk”, 34). Eventually, though, imperial overreach and weak leaders allowed Westerners to ship in a lethal commodity — opium. The Opium War of 1839-42 was “the first time in 200 years that a Chinese regime had lost a war” (44).

“What we then have to learn from the barbarians,” wrote one Confucian scholar in 1860, “is only one thing: solid ships and effective guns” (91). Learning had to be quick, for China’s elites were facing the Taiping Rebellion, a “thirteen-year war that killed at least twenty million people and laid waste to large parts of south, central, and eastern China” (48). The rebels, mostly poor Chinese, wanted a worldwide, peaceful Christian state. They were crushed by the Emperor with the help of a mercenary army led first by American Frederick Townsend Ward and then by Brit Charles Gordon (“who later lost his head to the Mahdi’s army in Sudan”, 48).

Sensing China’s weakness, foreign powers swooped down on the Empire, picking off pieces of it until, by the eve of WWI, Europeans and other outsiders had 48 Chinese ports under their jurisdiction; the Russians had helped Outer Mongolia secede and were now eyeing Xinjiang; and the Japanese, having annexed Taiwan and Korea, were circling above Manchuria and much of the rest of China.

Now, China’s rulers needed more than ships and guns. Science, commercial law, modern education, Western architecture — everything the world was throwing at them they grabbed hold of to survive and compete. Most urgently, they adopted modern, populist nationalism. The Qing dynasty (now vilified as ‘Manchu’ foreigners) was toppled by revolution in 1911, and China became a republic headed by the nationalistic Guomindang [GMD] party, which, with the partial support of the Communists, led the 1926-28 Northern Expedition that reunified the country.

By this point, Russia was Soviet and friendly — but not so much that she would hand back the Chinese Eastern Railway. The Nazis trained and supplied China’s army — until Hitler allied himself with Japan. Around two million Chinese combatants and 12 million civilians were killed as a direct result of WWII — at least half a million of them by drowning when, in another ill-fated attempt to thwart Japan’s advance, Chiang Kai-shek’s government destroyed a dike on the Yellow river.

“Some of the methods that the Communists later used to rule China were first tested out by the GMD during the war against Japan,” (271) writes Westad, mentioning as examples production quotas, price controls, and militarization. With Japan defeated and Europe in retreat, China’s new rulers turned much of their attention home. It was a time, said Chairman Mao Zedong, for “cleaning house before entertaining guests” (301).

The Communists’ house-cleaning program cleared out some real garbage — Westad mentions women’s improved position among other achievements — but its cost was huge. It killed up to 45 million as a result of the Great Leap Forward of 1958-61; provoked, then suppressed by force, the Cultural Revolution launched in 1966; and still today is creating one of the most unequal and exploitative societies on Earth. Nationalism, laced with pseudo-Marxism, has been the main justification all along. One 17-year old girl, for example, whose only crime was to praise US-made shoe polish, was sent to labor camp in 1958 for “worshipping and having blind faith in foreign imperialist things” (321).

“It was a world of struggle, the Chairman insisted, and China had to catch up quickly or be annihilated.” (331)

Given this history, Westad’s hope that China will seek “cooperation with others based on its own values and lessons of the past” (16) seems naive. In our cutthroat world, cooperation is often just an aspect of competition. In the ’70s, China cooperated with Cambodian Pol Pot’s attacks on Vietnam. More recently, she “secretly cooperated with the United States at the UN to enable a resolution that, postfactum, found the foreign occupation of Iraq ‘legal,’ so that oil exports could continue” (437) — including oil exports to China herself.

Today, the combined pulls of China’s stunning rise and a global downturn are raising tensions over economic policy and in areas such as the South China Sea — where, for the first time since the 15th century, China has a “predominant naval presence” (425). Westad believes China is “not headed for a form of Cold War with the United States” (464), but says little that’s reassuring or practical about the more worrying prospect of hot wars.

In spite of blind spots such as these, and of the almost-criminal dearth of illustrations (only a few maps, no photos) this book is a worthwhile read. It gives a competent first approximation to China’s modern history; it shows, in detail, that Chinese have long reached out to the rest of the world in peace — for example through migration, though Chinese migrants have often been mistreated; and it lets China’s rise — achieved, in part, by learning from others — teach us a lesson about the “impermanency of all things” and the “rapidity of change” (440).

In today’s mainland China, Restless Empire wouldn’t make it past the censors; but in other respects, change there is rapid, indeed. The most embarrassing moment for a Chinese student Westad witnessed, he says, wasn’t having to explain Mao’s policies or the Tiananmen Square massacre — it was “when the student had to explain to newly arrived foreign classmates that Facebook is blocked in China” (453).

RATING 7 / 10
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