In reflecting upon the 60th anniversary of China’s Liberation Day, one must use the occasion not only to assess where China may be going to in the global firmament, but also where it has come from. China’s history should give the world some idea of its anxieties and aspirations.
When Mao Zedong stated that never would China be humiliated again, as a Chinese nationalist and keen historian, he was acutely aware of China’s shamed past. There are many distinctive (or “unique”) characteristics about China. There is, of course, its 4,000-year-old history, its national unity stretching back to the emperor Qin Shi-Huang in the 2nd century BC. But also one must not forget its precipitate decline in the course of the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries.
Photograph: Vincent Thian / AP
No nation, no civilization, fell so low from so high so quickly. As the Middle Kingdom, China correctly saw itself as the centre of global civilization. Everything else was, to a greater or lesser extent, barbarian. And this state of affairs also radiated as far as the West. There was an aura about China that greatly captivated Western imagination; this was true not only in the pages of Marco Polo’s Travels in the 13th century, and continued in the accounts written by Jesuit missionaries from China in the 16th and 17th centuries, but also in the works of the 18th century Enlightenment philosophers. China was rich in cultural and material terms.
The decline can be gauged from China’s global economic standing. In 1820, China accounted for 33% of global gross domestic product. By the time Mao entered Beijing, it had fallen to somewhere in the region of 3%. In the interim, China can be said to have been “gang-raped”. China was repeatedly invaded—first by the British in 1839 in the First Opium War; then by the British again, this time with the help of the French, in the Second Opium War; then in the ensuing decades by virtually every other Western power. Finally, from the late 19th century onwards, the Japanese presence, starting with the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, manifested itself most egregiously in the Nanking Massacre of 1937.
Though bits and pieces of the Chinese periphery were colonized—Hong Kong by the British in 1841, Taiwan in 1895 and Manchuria in 1931 by the Japanese, with Tibet also being invaded by the British in 1904—mainland China per se, unlike India, was not colonized. In theory, it remained a sovereign state. As the leader of the 1911 Revolution and founder of the first Chinese Republic, Sun Yat-sen stated, however, that China had become a “poly-colony”. In other words, no single nation actually colonized China, but multiple nations cut out their spheres of influence and their own neo-colonial outposts. One of the features of these neo-colonial outposts were the “treaty settlements”. These consisted of areas reserved for Westerners (and eventually Japanese) and that were under Western and not Chinese jurisdiction and jurisprudence. In reality, China was everybody’s puppet state.
After World War I, the Chinese discovered at the Paris Peace Conference that the Germans’ Chinese concessions were being secretly handed over to the Japanese. This caused numerous riots and brought together Chinese nationalist reformist intellectuals who founded what came to be known as the May 4th (1919) Movement, which in turn lay the foundations for the establishment of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) two years later. It took an additional 30 years and five months for liberation at the hands of Mao.
Many have argued that though the CCP was undoubtedly Marxist-Leninist (at least initially) and eventually Maoist, it was perhaps above all nationalist. Marxism-Leninism-Maoism was seen as the means to restore China’s place in the world and to liberate its people from feudalist and imperialist oppression.
In the first three decades after 1949, there was some very bitter and quite violent ideological infighting between the so-called “capitalist roaders”—the pejorative term for those seen to side with bourgeois ideas—and the Maoist fundamentalists. But the battle remained essentially one of means: What was the best means to restore Chinese greatness?
There was, on the part of the Maoists, a justified fear that if China chose the capitalist road, once again it would be flooded and overwhelmed by neo-imperialist foreign capital. In 1979, as China began liberalizing under Deng Xiaoping, leading reformist intellectual Zheng Bijian noted: “The most important strategic choice the Chinese made was to embrace globalization rather than detach themselves from it.”
It seems to have been indeed a very wise choice. China has soared in the global economy from virtually nowhere. Not only has it emerged as a major economic power, but it has also resumed its position as a leading global nation. Once humiliated, China is now highly respected. But while the wounds of the past century and a half of humiliation may have healed, the scars are still there.
This 60th anniversary constitutes an appropriate occasion for everyone, Chinese and non-Chinese, to reflect on the past. While conscious of the many daunting challenges ahead, the West and China (and other nations such as India) must work together. But, in seeking to go forward, ignoring history would be definitely perilous.
Jean-Pierre Lehmann is professor of international political economy at IMD, a business school in Lausanne, Switzerland. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org