International Affairs Forum:
You've looked closely at the relationship between connections between war and nationalism in China. How has war been used by the Chinese leadership over the years for its own ends?
Dr. Rana Mitter:
One thing it is important to realize is that in some sense China has been in or was in a state of war all the way from the mid-19th century all the way into quite late in the 20th. It's perfectly possible for instance to interpret events in Mao's period in power, the Cultural Revolution and so forth, as actually being a kind of military civil war. So if you think about China's history until really the relatively recent past as being a period in which the country is in one sense or another constantly in conflict - either with itself or the outside world - you come to understand why conflict and war come to be so prominent in the minds of its leaders.
This also helps to explain to some extent some decisions that we don't find entirely satisfactory in the West - things such as the clampdown on free speech, which in a sense the Chinese leadership would regard as trying to prevent a return to a situation not all that long ago where essentially things got out of control in China.
So to that extent, the using of any one particular war by the Chinese leadership is part of a much longer tradition. In recent years, it is the war against the Japanese that has been stressed in a major way in Chinese political culture and popular culture. Just a couple of generations ago it was a different war - the Korean War - which obviously was the war that helped to solidify and unite the Chinese state behind the then new rule of Chairman Mao. And even now, but certainly in the early part of that century, there was a great deal of talk by Chinese leaders about what was called "national humiliation." This was the idea that the imperialists in the Opium Wars in the mid-19th century had managed to invade China, impose their will on the country, and that somehow this needed to be combated.
To what extent would you say this history has been distorted?
There are two points on how history is distorted, or at least altered, in China. And I think it is important to understand that China, like many other countries around the world, does two things - it has a form of history for public consumption, and it has a form of history that is for universities, academic research centers and so forth.
On the first type of history, I think it's fair to say that China is more restrictive than the West, but also that it has a lot more flexibility than casual outside observers often realize.
So let’s look at public history. I think any country tends to shape its history for public consumption. Go to the Mall in Washington or the Smithsonian museum and places commemorating Washington and Lincoln and so forth, and you'll find that aspects of these people are stressed. For example, Washington the liberator is stressed, but Washington the slave owner is not very much put into the public domain, to give a specific example. In China, obviously a great deal of public attention is paid to the role of the Chinese Communist Party in the leadership of the Chinese people. The fact that the predecessor government, the nationalist government, actually had some contribution to make toward modernizing China wasn't actually stressed that much. So you can certainly see a bias within the Chinese application of history about the role of the Chinese Communist Party that perhaps make it stronger on occasions than perhaps it was. But it is generally an alteration rather than these days a complete fabrication - there is usually some basis in reality for what is being put forward.
In the academic field, China has really changed very radically since the 1980s. China used to be a place where academic research had to follow a very strict, very regimented system of censorship. Now today it is the case that there are topics that are difficult to research in China itself, such as the history of the very high leadership. But at the same time, it is also the case that there has been a major blossoming in scholarship in China in the last 25 years, and much of the best work on social history, wartime history and the history of China's localities has been done in institutes in China itself, and it is really impossible for Western scholars to write good Chinese history unless they go to China, use the resources there, and work with Chinese colleagues. China is now very much a part of the academic forum internationally in a way that it wasn't in an internationals sense 25 or even 20 years ago.
On the history issue, one particularly controversial area has been on Sino-Japanese relations, with both sides playing up or playing down certain elements of the history between the two to suit their own needs. How optimistic are you some sort of resolution can be found to these differences?
I'm very optimistic actually that the atmosphere between China and Japan has been getting warmer over the last couple of years, and will continue to become so.
Basically neither China nor Japan have an interest in provoking a conflict with each other in the near future. China's major desire at the moment is to surround itself both in Central Asia and in East Asia with friendly neighbor states that pose it no threat. One example as a reason for optimism is that there is a historical commission in which Chinese and Japanese scholars have been sent in essentially by each government to try and come to some sort of discussion about what actually happened in China during the period of wartime. It should be very interesting to see that report.
Having said that, as a historian, there is an element of this that is unresolvable. History is not a puzzle in the sense that it is a jigsaw puzzle in which all the pieces will fit together neatly. There are always going to be differing interpretations of what happened. Various facts can certainly be established, for instance including the very savage record of the Japanese in World War II in which very nasty atrocities were committed. And the fact that figures and statistics are now being brought up has provided an evidential basis for what people have known for a long time, and this is important. But at the same time, things such as the real reasons for Japan's invasion of China - was it more to with the militarist culture, was it to do with the world economy, was it to do with the growing fear of communism - all of these are potential interpretations, but no one is going to be definitive. And to that extent I think certain historical questions are not going to be resolved because they can't be resolved.
This year there's been a lot of coverage of Chinese reactions to protests over Chinese policies. Do you think the nationalism on display is typical or are just isolated events played up by Western media? Is the anger on display stoked by China's leaders?
I think a very large part of the angry Chinese reaction to the way it has been portrayed in the Western media is a genuine public popular sentiment. Public opinion in China is now an issue in China in a way it wasn't just a few years ago. Chinese can't vote, but they have blogs, they are able to gather together, recruit and express their views by a variety of means, including of course overseas - there are a huge number of Chinese students overseas.
So I think seeing this as something that the leadership has cooked up would not be good enough. Yes, the leadership does have a role in trying to decide what gets discussed, but it is by no means in complete control. I think the important issue is that Chinese nationalism is actually a rediscovery of positive aspects of Chinese past - its long history, its links between its Confucian past and modern present and future, a rediscovery of its literature and art. The fact that Chinese artists are amongst the bestselling in the world is at least in part because they draw on a hybrid of their own Chinese traditions and on modern Western influences. If you think about questions of popular culture like film, Chinese films are beginning to make an impact around the world.
People feel that these aspects of China - the positive and cooperative aspects - aren't getting enough attention, and that it is these isolated incidents that are getting noticed. And so I think a more contextualized view of China, in which the whole picture, including the problems, but also the more positive side, will probably lead to a less frantic dialogue with China as a whole.
What do you make of current level of debate on China in the West? Is it healthy?
I think it's really important that we are discussing China in a away that didn't happen a few years ago. China was a little bit sidelined, but since the beginning of this century it has really placed itself absolutely centrally and can't be ignored. That's a very good thing. I think sometimes in the West, and the Chinese can take some blame for this because they play the game themselves, is that China is portrayed with these apocalyptic stories - China is going to take over the world or China is about to collapse and it's going to be a huge global disaster - and there's nothing in between.
I think we need a more moderate discussion that acknowledges that China is immensely important, as are several other nations like the United States, like India, like the European union and so forth, but that it is very unlikely the Chinese are going to take over the world, not least because they don't particularly want to.
Nor do I think it is particularly likely China is going to collapse any time soon. I think China has a strong domestic economy, a high savings rate - there are definitely problems, including social problems, but I think they will weather a recession. And therefore I think the story has to be more about how China shapes the international community, whilst trying to take a place in a community of equals, rather than trying to overcome them or slip underneath.
Dr. Rana Mitter is a lecturer in modern Chinese history and politics at Oxford University and author of "A Bitter Revolution: China's Struggle with the Modern World" and "The Manchurian Myth: Nationalism, Resistance, and Collaboration in Modern China."
|Comments in Chronological order (3 total comments)
| Mitter, You seems forget something which lead to China 's in unstable situation. British government wage 2 round of wars against China first in 1840 then in 1860 (historically called "opium War" ).before that British government apply two measures to weaken Qing Government . First smuggle opium to China, toxicate Chinese and squeeze their wealth, Another measure is smuggling Chinese to north America as slaves like they did to African black.
In 1911 the first chance China can united together to strive for a wealthy and respectful state . That hope was smashed by Western powers (like Briton, Russia, Japen,France...), They sponsor different proxy to make china stay in civil war. That's why Chinese people supsect Briton's every gestures .
| West are so hypocritical, they have very disrespectful history in Africa in the name of human rights guardian. They play HR cards to get involve in African states own affairs. They foster their own proxy in the name of human rights.
If West are really clement to its colonial African states. Why not give back their loot(s) which displayed in great British museum and Louvre palace, Why British government make compensations for its dirty opium trade ,slave trade and colonization.West should first earn other's confidence instead of playing HW cards
| What recession? what collapse?
The West live in fantasy on China and live in real recession now. They don't like to know what achievements made in China. on the contrary ,they indulge in the fantasy of China collapse. With the time lapse, China develop in its unique and stunning rate. well ,Gorden Brown and Obama are trying to convince others that the collapse of West's financial system is not their faults.
China eventually will be wealthy and democratic, unfortunately I don't think Britain will live a better life from now on. because Britain can not get worthy on colonization and unfair trade and financial system.