China’s rise as a great power over the last thirty years has radically transformed our world. With its enormous economic might, it is capable of sending out shockwaves that touch us directly. It is a country in constant transformation. Beginning with its accession to the World Trade Organization in December 2001, China has sought to climb up the value chain, turning its attention from T-shirts and trainers to industrial robots, electric vehicles, 5G infrastructure and quantum computers. Some of its major corporations (Alibaba, Baidu, Geely, Huawei and Tencent among them) are world class, as are some of its feats of engineering, such as the 1,200 mile long Qinghai–Tibet railway, which on one stretch is so high (16,640 feet above sea level) that each passenger is equipped with an oxygen mask.
China has also transformed international relations. Its enormous financial firepower has led it to become the primary developmental and trading partner of emerging economies from Chile to Ethiopia, while the land and sea Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) reaches across Eurasia. The BRI is vast, involving investments twelve times (taking inflation into account) the size of the postwar US Marshall Plan, with which it is often erroneously compared.
Hopes that greater Western economic engagement with China would result in political liberalisation have proved illusory, as illustrated by the fact that Walmart, which forbids union membership in its US outlets, has Communist Party cells inside its shops in China, as do 70 per cent of foreign firms operating there. Under President Xi Jinping, who came to power in 2012, Communist Party control of society has been tightened, not least through the world’s most advanced electronic surveillance state, the extent of which seems to shock Westerners, even those living in cities where there are CCTV cameras at every corner and drones are used to monitor (legal) demonstrations.
Xi’s long-overdue anti-corruption campaign purged officialdom (including China’s head of national security and generals who sold promotions) from the top downwards and eliminated any rivals to Xi himself, notably Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai and his clients. At least until the coronavirus pandemic, Chinese soft power had been gaining ground, thanks in particular to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, while the Western world was experiencing economic crises and populist challenges to the status quo. The advent of Trump in 2016 further enabled the Chinese to pose as defenders of the international order, to which Trump took a wrecking ball so as to get better deals for his country. Trump has done China another favour by manifestly not caring a jot about human rights issues. Win-win, as they often say in Beijing, which is why the Chinese leadership wants this biddable figure to defeat Biden.
China’s authoritarianism has caused blowback in the West. It has also been exploited by those in the United States who fear this capable peer competitor. With some input from its Australian and British helpmates, notably in think-tanks and the Murdoch press, the United States has waged an aggressive campaign to curtail Chinese influence and exclude its technologies, both at home and in other Western countries. Who a decade ago would have imagined US embassy personnel trying to strong-arm Finnish universities into closing down exchange programmes with China?
This context makes the two fine books under review timely. Richard McGregor has written prize-winning works on the Chinese Communist Party and superpower diplomacy in the Asia-Pacific (the United States is trying to replace that term with ‘Indo-Pacific’) region. Xi Jinping: The Backlash is a brief and brilliant account of the rise of Xi and how the world is reacting to his more assertive leadership. Coolly written and argued, it is quite simply the best short book one can read on contemporary China, a place the Mandarin-speaking author knows extremely well. It describes a powerful country that has become cocky, certain that it is becoming the sun around which lesser planets will orbit, the role the Middle Kingdom played within its East Asian neighbourhood for most of the period before 1800.
Xi was, ironically, chosen in 2007 as the next general secretary of the Communist Party as the compromise candidate: he had an impeccable party background but no personal power base. In spite of this, he rapidly exceeded whatever mandate he was given to become a strongman leader, in contrast to his predecessor, the colourless Hu Jintao. Whereas Hu and his premier, Wen Jiabao, were often bracketed together, no one speaks of a duopoly of Xi and his premier, Li Keqiang. Xi is the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao.
But Xi also has his critics in China, however guarded they sometimes have to be, and he operates in a new world of social media, which the regime does not fully control. His equivocations over the pandemic and then his militarisation of the response to it did not convince many in cities like Wuhan. Some criticism comes from those millions of privileged people who were indirectly touched by Xi’s anti-corruption campaign. Successful entrepreneurs, such as the charismatic Jack Ma, have been ‘retired’ from their own firms and others, such as Wu Xiaohui of Anbang Insurance Group, have received long jail sentences for fraud and embezzlement. Yet investigations have not reached Xi’s own family. When a Hong Kong financier who had handled the family’s off-loading of hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of assets spilled the beans to American journalists, he was abducted. He has not been heard from since.
Other critics have been appalled by the extrajudicial reach of the party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, and by the party-state’s incursions into the private sector, the most dynamic part of the economy, as well as by the colossal waste involved in some BRI projects. Many Chinese resent splashing money on the likes of Pakistan when there are so many areas requiring attention at home. McGregor argues that as the economic headwinds increase – GDP growth is already probably below the official 6 per cent figure – and foreign powers combine to check China’s activities, the next party congress in 2022 might throw up some unwelcome surprises for Xi, even if he has eliminated every obvious possible successor.
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Rana Mitter is the author of several splendid books on the neglected role of China in the Second World War, a conflict that cost the Chinese fourteen million people and created a hundred million internal refugees. China tied up 600,000 Japanese troops, who might have invaded the Soviet Union, and it lent an important hand to Allied campaigns in Burma. China’s wartime leader, Chiang Kai-shek, attended the 1943 Cairo Conference, which looms very large in Chinese official memory. Before the war ended, Roosevelt designated him one of the UN’s ‘Four Policemen’ on the new Security Council. China was therefore present at the creation of the postwar world, something that is largely forgotten in the West. The Chinese today regard this as a source of legitimacy for their attempts to reshape the world order.
Mitter’s main achievement in his fascinating new book is to trace China’s ‘circuit of memory’ relating to the war. The narrative he describes resembles the more familiar ones of Russia’s Great Patriotic War and Britain’s lonesome stand in 1940. What makes China unusual is that, for a time, it really did stand alone against imperial Japan (without even the assistance of an empire or Polish and Czech fighter pilots, it should be added). It should also be remembered that it was the nationalists, the side that would go on to lose the civil war of 1946–9, that did most of the fighting against the Japanese, though there are some well-publicised examples of communist gallantry too.
Mitter shows how, under Mao, the story of the Second World War was subordinated to the official narrative of class struggle, the Communist Party’s victory in the civil war, the Great Leap Forward and China’s fight against worldwide imperialism. The aid Mao provided to liberation movements in Africa has since served China’s commercial interests very nicely, since many of the continent’s postcolonial leaders remember well who helped them and their movements come to power.
Mitter’s book is an excellent guide to Chinese historiography as well as to nonfiction, films, memorials and museums. The major shift began with Deng’s Four Modernisations of 1977, which licensed ‘scientific’ – meaning objective – historical research (and the opening of archives) and was accelerated by the publication in 1981 of an innocuous-sounding document, ‘Resolution of Certain Questions in Our Party’s History’, which reappraised the wartime role of Chiang’s Kuomintang government (though difficulties remain, as demonstrated by the new Chinese blockbuster film The Eight Hundred, where the flag of Chiang’s nationalist forces heroically resisting the Japanese has been deliberately obscured). This also served to remind the economically ascendant and bumptious Japanese of the crimes they had committed across Asia, though so far this reappraisal has not extended to the study of wartime collaborator regimes in Manchuria or Nanking.
Patriotic memories of the war are also increasingly important as a substitute for a Marxism that scarcely applies to the realities of a competitive consumerist society, in which spoiled single children are glued to their smartphones and there is little or no sense of collective identity and self-sacrifice. Indignant victimhood is proving highly serviceable. Internationally, the regime has been seeking to use the war to establish its moral legitimacy, notably by comparing the Rape of Nanking (in which 300,000 people perished) to the Holocaust, which figures large in China’s mind thanks to repeat visits by historians to Yad Vashem (the Israeli site has clearly influenced the design of some of the bigger war memorials China has built in recent decades).
In this reframing, China’s eight years of war has become fourteen: the official start of the war has been moved back from 1937, the year of the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, to 1931, when Japan invaded Manchuria. The war now forms the main part of a narrative of Chinese suffering at the hands of imperialists. The story begins in the previous century, during the rule of the Qing dynasty, when the peripheries of China were colonised by the West and Japan. The history of China under Chiang has been partially absorbed into this story, not least as China uses Chiang’s ‘nine-dash line’ to assert control over its newly built maritime ‘features’ in the South China Sea. This is the most obvious way in which China uses the war to assert its claim to be the joint custodian of an international order that itself evolved during and immediately after the war. The Chinese version of events runs up against the US narrative of a glorious American-led war of democratic liberation in the Asia-Pacific region (which leaves out the fact that the postwar regimes in South Korea, Burma and Taiwan were by no means liberal or democratic).
Mitter has written an important book that should serve to counter some of the cruder ways in which China is being misrepresented in the United States, which seems to be in a panic about a power whose methods do not conform to the way the US military-industrial complex likes to do things. After all, China has just one overseas military base (in Djibouti) while the United States has some seven hundred. The rest of us will need to choose wisely if someone’s paranoias provoke conflict.