up in China

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

‘‘ 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.

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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.

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