Studies of China’s engagement with the outside world have been with us for well over a century. Those written in the West used to reflect an established orthodoxy, which held that reverence for the desiccated traditions of Confucianism kept China back from modernity, and that any change and progress must come from outside forces—meaning the West, and its surrogate, Japan. They were the activists, and China merely the passive recipient of their efforts.

Matters were never so simple, of course, and Odd Arne Westad’s survey of two and a half centuries expands those foreign influences to include not only Russia, but also Korea, Southeast Asia, and India, among others. His version is far more complex and interesting than a simple account of China’s adoption of Western ways in science, culture, or (either democratic or Marxist) politics. It includes the activities of Chinese themselves, such as those in the thriving overseas Chinese (huaqiao) commercial communities in Southeast Asia, whose establishment often followed the advance of Western imperialism. Since the 1870s, Chinese students abroad have played an important role in the transmission of knowledge (think of the Communist leaders Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping, for example). And if this transmission once seemed heavily one-way, it is no longer so, as the changes in global capitalism arising from China’s economic expansion have recently made evident (while also forcing us into new thinking about “desiccated” Confucianism).

Much of the story is familiar, but Westad’s clear account is extraordinarily useful, both for the context in which he puts it and for the use he makes of recent scholarship. He shows how from the eighteenth century on, traders and businessmen, mostly Western, made their way to China, often carving out little spheres for themselves in the newly opened seaports that would become the crucibles of modernity, Shanghai above all. Thus well over a century ago, coastal China, if not the hinterland, was already being integrated into the modern global economy. No one who has looked at this phenomenon, suggests Westad, should be at all surprised to find China in the late twentieth century emerging as an “export dynamo.” Indeed, he argues, the development would have come far sooner had it not been for foreign war, primarily against Japan from 1937 to 1945, and for the blindly destructive rule of Maoist communism after 1949.

Westad clearly enjoys demolishing some of the pious myths of earlier observers. Brutal and autocratic though he was, Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalists today no longer seem the hopeless failures of yore, and prior to the Japanese invasion of 1937 they had some real accomplishments in building a new China. When war came, it was largely their forces that engaged Japan, while Chiang’s Communist rivals restricted themselves to the sorts of guerrilla operations that would enhance their own position. Nor, he implies, was there ever an American “lost chance in China”—that notion beloved by historian Barbara Tuchman and her contemporaries, who held that a more understanding Washington might have enjoyed closer relations with Beijing after the Communist victory. Beijing’s isolation from most of the world after 1949 was largely “made in China,” reflecting Mao Zedong’s priorities. Even his alliance with the USSR lasted only to about 1960, when the chairman himself brought it down. The monomaniacal brutality of his rule and the cowing of his friends (like Zhou and Deng), visible in the purges and executions of his early years, reached its climax in the Great Famine of 1958–61 with its 45 million deaths (Westad here accepts the figure reached by his University of London colleague Frank Dikötter in his Mao’s Great Famine) and in the chaos of the Cultural Revolution (1966–76). Far from being a sign of China’s strength (as the chairman’s apologists, like the Sino-Belgian writer Han Suyin, claimed), the rapprochement with Nixon in 1972 was an admission of weakness, reflecting Mao’s fears of a Soviet attack. Not that the Americans understood that, mistaking Mao’s “gnomic statements on international strategy…as ultimate examples of the realist wisdom of an ancient civilization,” rather than perceiving the ignorance they actually reflected.

Presumably Westad has little use for the cautious revisionism of a few contemporary scholars who are now trying gently to resurrect something of Mao’s reputation. For him, Deng Xiaoping’s rapid opening of Mao’s tightly closed empire after 1978 marks a return to the earlier quest for international modernity that Mao had crushed. Though the 1980s (China’s “American decade,” he calls it) brought new hopes, they came to a sudden bloody end with the Beijing massacre of June 4, 1989. Once again foreign dreams of a peaceful China emerging into new freedoms were shattered, though it did not take long for Europe and North America to return to business as usual. By 1992 Deng, shaking off his conservative (read: leftist) antagonists, was propelling the country toward a growth even more extraordinary than in the past.

Today, Westad notes, Chinese capitalism follows the models of Thatcher and Reagan, resembling American forms much more than the less harsh European and Japanese varieties. Of course there have been difficulties, particularly with the West, over Taiwan, over trade, over allegations of currency manipulation, and over human rights, above all in Tibet. (Last month the Dalai Lama made his third visit to my small Vermont college; will we become a target of Beijing’s wrath?) Yet while relations with the West remain important (the EU is China’s largest trading partner), the connections with other parts of the world continue to rise in Beijing’s vision. The search for raw materials in Asia, Africa, and Latin America is part of it, as is the quest for stability in the Middle East to keep the desperately needed oil flowing.

Though relations with Russia under Putin have improved, and relations with Taiwan are at their best since 1949, Southeast Asia remains a problem, largely because of China’s claims to much of the oil- and gas-rich South China Sea—claims that, were any other country to make them, Beijing would immediately (and correctly) denounce as neo-imperialistic. Relations with Japan remain touchy, and the implications of a North Korean collapse bring nightmares to China’s leaders. Finally, there is India, not yet as well managed as China, perhaps, but in some ways with even more possibilities in the future.

As China emerges into modernity, it will be a modernity defined by the country’s own perceived needs, rather than by outsiders. So too, China will reinvent, rather than destroy, global capitalism (at Davos in 2010, Westad notes, Premier Wen Jiabao lectured Westerners on their sins that caused the great crash, but nowhere did he suggest that there was anything wrong with capitalism as such). Yet though many Chinese may dream of a capitalism that avoids the destructive extremes often found in the West, there is little sign of its emergence in their own country. And while it does not want confrontation with America, since Washington’s policies generally help Chinese growth, Beijing has yet to develop a genuinely global foreign policy, instead narrowly concentrating on its own needs, and “uninterested in peace plans, regional cooperation, or ethnic reconciliation.”

One quibble: Westad says he is writing a “somewhat revisionist” history, giving “equal time to missionaries, businessmen, diplomats, revolutionaries, workers and bosses,” but I’m not sure how revisionist it is. Very few today still write old-fashioned diplomatic history, as if all that counted were wars, treaties, and exchanges between Ambassador X and Foreign Minister Y. That point aside, I’m unaware of any other work of this chronological sweep that replaces the old “Western impact on China” treatises so well with the findings of modern scholarship.

Nicholas Clifford was professor emeritus of Middlebury College, and a frequent contributor to Commonweal.

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Published in the 2012-11-23 issue: View Contents
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