BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
Absorbing account of rise of new superpower
, March 1, 2014
THE PENGUIN HISTORY OF MODERN CHINA:
The Fall and Rise of a Great Power, 1850 to the Present
by Jonathan Fenby
(London: Penguin UK, 2nd edition, 2013)
Paperback: 840 pages
Reviewed by Warren Reed
The art of foretelling the future is notoriously risky, especially if you stand still in the present and simply peer up ahead. Look back to the past, though, and build up a substantial overview of what has happened and why, and reasonable projections can often be made.
In The Penguin History of Modern China: The Fall and Rise of a Great Power, 1850 to the Present, Jonathan Fenby provides us with an exquisite mosaic within which a vibrant and realistic picture emerges.
This is no easy thing to achieve. Merely being a journalist and long-time observer hardly guarantees that readers will be taken on a meaningful journey. Many such tomes dish up a blizzard of facts and statistics that serve only to disguise a lack of core understanding. The end result is chronic fatigue and confusion.
But with Fenby’s work, less is more — and with depth. In contrast to the standard commentator, he reminds one of the rich tradition of Britain’s scholar-ambassadors of a century ago.
In the opening pages of Modern China is a perspective on why we’re attracted to the book in the first place. In the second half of the 19th century, China appeared as the sick man of Asia, rocked by recurrent revolts and huge natural disasters, ruled by an anachronistic imperial system and humiliated by foreign invasions as it declined from the heights it had reached less than a hundred years earlier.
Today, growth has brought with it major fault lines and imbalances, leading some observers to consider that the process is unsustainable.
The speed and scope of China’s transformation since the country’s dynamic forces were unleashed at the end of the 1970s have been blinding and unprecedented, with worldwide impact because it has taken place in the context of globalisation.
That makes it easy to forget what went before, in particular the repeated ordeals that the world’s most populous nation suffered from the 1850s to the 1970s, during which time more than 100 million of its people died at the hands of their compatriots and leaders.
The grand pageant of China’s history at the opening of the Olympic Games in 2008 understandably made no mention of the period. Yet this experience forms the essential backdrop to understanding the country’s more recent evolution, leaving a heritage that continues to shape China in a new century.
Some of China’s internal successes today are highlighted by a glance at its geography and its past. The disparities of the nation were accentuated by variations of climate and topography, from the frozen winters of the north-east to the semi-tropical forests of the south-west, from mountain ranges to deserts.
Northern China has long been subject to both droughts and floods, and yet has almost always been short of water. Hence, the vagaries of the weather and demands of agriculture have made irrigation a vital skill.
Many provinces were cut off from one another by natural barriers, and poor transport routes. Official restrictions on the movement of grain, which were meant to ensure that each region kept enough to feed itself, militated against the growth of a national supply chain. With coal-mines located far from the main cities, there was none of the nearby energy supply for industry enjoyed by factories in Britain, the United States or northern Europe.
China’s economy in 2014, despite its high-profile achievements, still grapples with these disparities, so that distribution networks and infrastructure are high on its list of priorities.
The curse of water shortages, with which most Australian farmers can readily identify, looms large, and is a key reason why control over the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau — in which region many of Asia’s main rivers rise, and which makes China the world’s leading headwater power — is unlikely to be relinquished any time soon.
It is easy to assume that China today, territorially, is a legacy of its time as the Celestial Empire; but its reach and its borders have often been fluid. At a time when Tsarist Russia was expanding to the south and incorporating Muslim states that became the underbelly of the later Soviet Union, China was losing traditional territory while gaining new lands.
A “go West” policy in the 1870s reasserted Qing (1644-1911) dominion in the great expanses of Xinjiang — Chinese Turkestan — by defeating the rebels there under a colourful and ruthless character, Yakub Beg. Had China not done so, it was feared that Russia would spread its influence; it had already moved up on the frontier region on the Ili River.
This dimension in China’s foreign and security policy would flow through subsequent eras — the British, French and Germans were a constant irritant, but the Tsarist Empire and its communist successor represented a much greater territorial threat to China.
In 1875, the Chinese military commander appointed to head the campaign into Xinjiang raised loans from the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Company, with customs revenue from Canton, Shanghai, Hankou and Fuzhou as surety.
Yakub Beg sent emissaries to London to try to get Britain to act as a mediator, but eventually succumbed to a 60,000-strong Chinese army that swept into his capital, Kashgar.
Russia agreed to withdraw from the Ili border region in return for a large indemnity. For the Qing, the reconquest of the west meant the recovery of the fourth pillar of their empire — to go alongside Manchuria, Mongolia and China proper.
In 1894, one of the great international conflict lines of modern times opened up between China and Japan. Their struggle for mastery in East Asia was detonated by Tokyo’s ambitions as it adopted Western methods at the end of the 19th century under the modernising politicians and industrialists of the Meiji Restoration; but it would cost tens of millions of lives and fuel deep antagonisms, sharpened by the weight of history.
Despite Japan’s root-and-branch reform, the Chinese — with some notable exceptions — largely saw their island neighbour as an inferior country. The hollowness of that view should have been apparent in the 1870s, when Japan invaded Taiwan, and Beijing had to pay to get it to withdraw.
The first outbreak of Japan’s expansionist drive came in Korea, where Tokyo and Beijing jockeyed for influence.
The peninsula had long been under China’s suzerainty; but Tokyo began to try to move across the Korean Strait in the early 1880s, backing a rebel faction at the court in Seoul. China and Japan sent in troops.
A settlement was negotiated, but in 1894 a new crisis erupted as the Korean monarch faced a peasant rebellion and asked for Beijing’s military help.
When the imperial court agreed to this, Japan sent in a far larger detachment, which took Seoul, stormed the palace, disarmed garrisons in the city and captured the ruler. A prince they appointed in his place denounced Korea’s treaties with Beijing.
Deploying a line of propaganda it would use over the next 50 years, Tokyo claimed a duty to “lead the little Kingdom along the path of civilisation” and to make sure this was not impeded by China.
The spark of the revolution that overthrew China’s Qing Dynasty occurred down the Yangzi River in the triple cities of Wuhan in October 1911. It came by accident, but set off a movement waiting to happen across the country, which would lead to the extinction of the 2,100-year-old empire of the Middle Kingdom.
That it unseated the system which had survived so many challenges over the millennia was a reflection of the fragility of the central power, the strength of regional interests and the depth of the feeling that China had to change its ways.
Today, a century later, the Chinese people still have a wish-list of unfulfilled hopes and ambitions. But, as Fenby writes, the Communist Party government can claim three principal reasons for its rule six decades on from the revolution of 1949.
The first is the material improvement over which it has presided, unequally distributed for sure, but unquestionable in its effects since 1978. But the economy is still only one-third of America’s in value, and much of China remains poor.
Officials like to quote Deng Xiao-ping’s observation that the People’s Republic is both strong and weak, rich and poor. However, the transformation of cities and of everyday life for hundreds of millions has moved China towards the material, social revolution it missed in 1911-12.
The other two claims are national stability and China’s gaining its proper place in the world.
According to Fenby, given the enormous dynamism that the economic reform process has released, and the sheer exercise of hard work by hundreds of millions of people, the first three decades since the late 1970s may have been the easy part. Transforming this into a long-term, viable social and political system is likely to prove much tougher. For China, that is its ultimate challenge.
A great strength of Fenby’s book is that he interlaces this pattern of events, through to the present, with the human fabric of the times and the strengths, weaknesses and character of the key figures involved. The strategic tides that sweep these people along are vibrant, energetic and utterly credible in their portrayal, which is why one of the endorsements for the book claims that it reads like a novel.
It has been said that if you re-read the recommendations that customarily adorn a work of this nature, before you finally put it down, they will provide you with the vocabulary needed to describe what it has given you and why others should read it.
Thoroughness, truthfulness and readability quickly come to mind. As The Times of London says, “Fenby excels at weaving the strands of his complex narrative into heroic and more often harrowing tales.”
Warren Reed spent 10 years as an intelligence officer with the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS), serving in Asia and the Middle East, following which he was chief operating officer of the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA).