up in China
‘‘ Because so much of the history of the 20th century seemed to have been about revolution, students tended to look for the ‘ causes’, ‘ roots’, ‘ stages’ and ‘ origins’ of communism, a grid through which a unitary understanding of modern China could be created,’’ Dikotter writes.
We have a historiography, he says, ‘‘ rich on ‘ exploitation’, counterbalanced only recently by work on charity; it is abundant on ‘ communism’, even if work on democracy has steadily been growing; there are gangsters, warlords and prostitutes in abundance, and only gradually are we gaining new insights on polyglot diplomats, returned migrants and businesswomen . . . The notion of ‘ warlordism’ has also been used to obfuscate federalist ideas’’ which remain essentially forbidden, isolating China as the only large non-federal nation. Hu Shi, a critic of nationalist ideology, said that disorder did not come from warlords but from attempts to unify the country by force from above.
Local administrators were successful in implementing central policies even if the central republican government was itself weak. Today’s national boundaries are roughly those secured through three centuries of ambitious Qing military campaigns. Insisting on the need for a ‘‘ strong state’’ to secure them, Dikotter writes, is like doing the same for the Austro-Hungarian empire in Europe, ‘‘ conniving in the confusion between nation and empire which lies at the heart of geopolitics on the region referred to as China’’.
In 1912, 40 million Chinese voted at a national election, and in 1947 a fully democratic constitution was adopted. Many villages and towns held direct elections at this time. Vast numbers of associations and organisations, from chambers of commerce to beggar unions, were established that were truly independent from the government. There are none today.
The battles for power, regional and national, were intense and prolonged, almost from the time that the last emperor, Pu Yi, was forced to abdicate. But military forces remained modest in size in republican China, comprising in 1933 less than 2 per cent of males aged between 15 and 44, and with less than 1 per cent of rural households receiving income from military service. Military spending reached 4 per cent of economic output by the ’ 30s, twice Australia’s present ratio. Wars between 1917 and 1930 killed 400,000: terrible, but only about 1 per cent of the casualties of the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution.
More than 1000 newspapers were published. ‘‘ Even with censorship, the opportunities for political expression outside of the ruling party far exceeded anything even remotely possible under emperor or Mao,’’ Dikotter writes.
There were sustained efforts at legal reform despite many abuses, though today’s courts remain arms of the party. There were 350,000 officially registered foreigners living in China in 1919, many of whom had made it their home. There are fewer than that today and only a handful of foreigners have been permitted to become citizens of the People’s Republic.
The foreign settlements deployed local taxes and foreign investment to build massive urban infrastructures that set the development pace, including in education and women’s roles, and helped China integrate with the broader international community.
In the decades to 1937, about 10 per cent of China’s gross domestic product was traded, accelerated by the treaty ports. Technological transfers were boosted by the openness of Chinese society. Agricultural production grew twice as fast as population in central and coastal China from 1890 to 1930.
Chinese students outnumbered all other foreigners at US universities by 1930. Bilingual Chinese judges sat at the International Court of Justice in The Hague. In 1948, Zhang Pengjun helped draft the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.
Dikotter writes: ‘‘ Religious expression was also allowed to thrive in a climate of relative tolerance, while culture bloomed in the absence of a monopoly on power and knowledge.’’
Concluding this exciting, mind-spinning account of a world so different from what most people both inside and outside China have imagined, he says: ‘‘ The era between empire and communism is routinely portrayed as a catastrophic interlude [ but] the extent and depth of engagement with the rest of the world was such that we can see closure under Mao instead as the exception.’’
The communist party has turned back to openness to secure its legitimacy through economic growth. That shift will inspire big celebrations in China this month. But they should be accompanied by a rueful and apologetic backward glance at what was lost when the civil war was won. Rowan Callick was until recently The Australian’s Beijing correspondent.