China’s fu­ture through its past

China Daily (Canada) - - ACROSSAMERICA - By KELLY CHUNG DAW­SON in New York kdaw­son@chi­nadai­lyusa.com

Con­trary to the pop­u­lar his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive that China’s ex­po­sure to the West in the 1800s has­tened a slew of prob­lems for an in­ward-look­ing Qing Dy­nasty (1644-1911), his­to­rian Odd Arne Wes­tad ar­gues that the Qing were not only ea­ger to ex­pand out­ward but ben­e­fited im­mea­sur­ably from Western cre­ativ­ity and knowl­edge.

In his new book Rest­less Em­pire: China and the World Since 1750, which was re­cently named win­ner of the 2013 Asia So­ci­ety Bernard Schwartz Book Award for its con­tri­bu­tion to ad­vanc­ing the un­der­stand­ing of con­tem­po­rary Asia, Wes­tad traces China’s de­vel­op­ment through its in­ter­ac­tions with the out­side world from a Chi­nese per­spec­tive.

“There’s very lit­tle in this book about a sup­pos­edly in­ward-look­ing China, or an iso­lated China that is self-sat­is­fied about its past suc­cesses, but in­stead the China I see back then and to­day is a China that is open to change and al­ways has been,” Wes­tad said in re­marks at the Asia So­ci­ety this week.

“China to­day is a hy­brid that’s been cre­ated as the re­sult of both do­mes­tic and for­eign influences, to a higher de­gree than al­most any other coun­try. In fact, one of the only other coun­tries that com­pares is the United States, and more should be made of that com­par­i­son, in terms of the rest­less­ness and will­ing­ness to em­brace change seen in both coun­tries,” he ex­plained.

Al­though he doesn’t down­play the wrong­do­ings in­flicted by var­i­ous Western im­pe­rial pow­ers, he does ar­gue that the Western-des­ig­nated con­ces­sion dis­tricts in ur­ban cities gave the Chi­nese the op­por­tu­nity to cre­ate “new iden­ti­ties for them­selves as work­ers, traders, shop­keep­ers, or part of the in­tel­li­gentsia, in ways that would not have been open to them had Qing power … stayed in­tact.”

Of equal im­por­tance to the for­eign diplo­mats and lead­ers that came into con­tact with China were the busi­ness­peo­ple, mis­sion­ar­ies, teach­ers and ad­vis­ers that were vi­tal in China’s mod­ern­iza­tion, he writes. Among the forces that trans­formed China’s think­ing about the world and its own so­ci­ety were com­mu­nism, cap­i­tal­ism and im­pe­ri­al­ism.

Wes­tad sets forth three ideas that re­main cen­tral to the Chi­nese char­ac­ter: Jus­tice, and the be­lief that China has been treated poorly; the cru­cial role of rules and rit­u­als; and a deep sense of cen­tral­ity that places China at the crux of its sur­round­ings.

De­spite the coun­try’s grow­ing power, it re­mains first and fore­most a re­gional power, he said.

How­ever, the big dif­fer­ence be­tween China and the US in the early days of its as­cent to in­ter­na­tional power is China’s in­te­gra­tion into the global econ­omy, he said.

“China’s growth this way is dif­fer­ent from any­thing we’ve seen be­fore, be­cause its eco­nomic link­ages are much greater than we’ve seen with pre­vi­ous ris­ing pow­ers,” he said.

The book, which was cho­sen by the Asia So­ci­ety from over 130 nom­i­na­tions, fits into the frame­work of the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s own work to con­sider the depth of his­tory in un­der­stand­ing the fu­ture, said Asia So­ci­ety pres­i­dent Josette Sheeran.

“The past 250 years of for­eign pol­icy ex­pe­ri­ence in China are prob­a­bly the most im­por­tant years for us to un­der­stand where China is headed in the fu­ture,” she said. “Even though [Wes­tad] is a his­to­rian, like all great his­to­ri­ans [he] tells us more about the fu­ture than the past.”

For the Nor­we­gian-born and Amer­i­can-ed­u­cated Wes­tad, who first trav­eled to China as a for­eign ex­change stu­dent in 1979, the book rep­re­sents the cul­mi­na­tion of what has been the “great in­tel­lec­tual ad­ven­ture” of his life: the be­lief that in or­der to un­der­stand China’s present and fu­ture, a deep un­der­stand­ing of the past is nec­es­sary, he said.

“This book is a dec­la­ra­tion of a great love af­fair with China,” he said. “Be­yond in­tel­lec­tual en­gage­ment, it is about a coun­try that I carry with me — its sights, its sounds and smells.”

Wes­tad is also a pro­fes­sor of in­ter­na­tional his­tory at The Lon­don School of Eco­nom­ics and Po­lit­i­cal Sci­ence. His 2007 book The Global Cold War won the Akira Iriye In­ter­na­tional his­tory Award, and the Ban­croft Prize.

Too of­ten, non- fic­tion books are left un­read by peo­ple out­side a field of in­quiry, Wes­tad noted. With an ap­proach that “stresses cul­tural trans­for­ma­tions and hy­brid iden­ti­ties as much as con­flicts and na­tion­alisms,” he presents an al­ter­na­tive his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive that might sur­prise even long­time China watch­ers.

Odd Arne Wes­tad

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