Oct 27th 2008

Modern China Emerged Before Its Encounter with the West

Wang Hui, China’s leading “new left” intellectual and the former editor of the prestigious journal, Dushu, is author of The Rise of Modern Chinese Thought, the seminal historical work on the subject. He was interviewed in at his office at Tsinghua University in August by NPQ’s Beijing correspondent Aventurina King. Excerpts follow:

Beijing—Typical Western narratives of China’s modernization argue that the rise of modern China was the result of its encounter with the West—the Opium War in 1840, the May 4th Movement in 1919, industrialization and Western-style attempts at reform. The Kyoto School narrative in the first half of 20th century, on the other hand, which saw an internal tendency to modernize across the region, dates the rise of modern China much earlier—from the 10th century Song Dynasty. The argument is that after the collapse of the aristocratic system of the Tang Dynasty, a civilian state emerged in the 10th century with bureaucracy and high-ranking officials selected through a formalized national examination system rather than through family ties. Their neo-Confucianism was seen as a kind of proto-nationalism.

The collapse of the aristocracy and the emergence of a political system in which the emperor became the leader of national administration together with a prime minister and the bureaucracy made China the most advanced government of its time in the entire world. China engaged in that period in long-distance trade with Africa, Europe and the rest of Asia. At one of the opening ceremonies of the Olympics, one performance displayed the replica of a distinctive boat from the Song Dynasty, which had been discovered with a load of porcelain bound for European consumers when it sank along the “maritime silk route.” There was a great deal of trade among states within the Chinese region, using copper coins as domestic money and silver as hard currency.

So, early on in China, there were these emergent traces of a modern nation. This is the view of the Japanese Imperial School, which tried to establish a narrative of East Asian history for its competition with the Western narrative of world history.

However, I depart from the Kyoto School view that the Song Dynasty possessed a tendency toward “nationalism” with Confucianism as an ideology. Confucianism can’t simply be defined as a national idea. 

Rather, in my view, Confucianism became dominant in the Song Dynasty as a conservative reaction to the centralized Junxian system with its imperial examinations and widespread taxation. These were seen by the Song Confucian scholars as a threat to family and feudal values and the spirit of sage kings. Under the feudal order, there had been a division of powers. As the early modern nation—if it can be described as such—emerged with centralization of authority in the emperor, Confucianism was promoted as a critique of that centralized power. Confucianism also offered a critique of the meritocratic examination system, which was seen by conservatives as replacing virtuous education.

Indeed, Confucianism in the Song Dynasty had a double face: It served both to legitimate the new dynasty and to critique the erosion of traditional values.

             In any case, the point is that the new tendency—formalization of a political system, national identity, divison of labor, long-distance trade—was present in China long before the 19th century though there are different views on the periodization of the early modernity in Chinese history.

Of course, history is full of continuities and discontinuities. In the 13th century, when the Mongolian reign was established, it was obviously not a nation state but an expansionist empire. Then there was the Manchu Dynasty and after that the Qing Dynasty, the multi-ethnic state with all its integration and diversity which is the historical base for present-day China.

In the Western narrative, again, the Qing Dynasty was seen as an empire rather than as a nation because its borders and sovereign space were said to be ill defined and filled with diverse peoples. But it had borders with Russia in 1689 and a well-established administrative system. Some scholars saw China as a civilization pretending to be a state, which is a view originating from the Western idea of nations. Just because a system is more flexible and diverse than unified and homogenous, does it make it less modern?

Wei Yuan, a famous Chinese literary figure, once remarked that it was difficult to compare China to a single European nation state because of its scale—greater than all of Europe—and its ethnic diversity. He thought America, though an immigrant country, was more comparable because of its ethnic diversity.

Tibet Should Not Be Seen As Ethnic Conflict | It is in this context of Chinese history that we must view Tibet. In the West, most people know very little about the long history of relations between China and Tibet. That is not to say there are no problems or not a crisis in Tibet. It is only to say that to misunderstand the issue and encourage ethnic conflict will lead to disaster for everyone. If we make the conflict one between Chinese nationalism and a resistant ethnic group, a clash of different cultures, then there is no way out.

The Tibet issue must be placed in the context of social equality amid the great opening up and transformation of China.

First of all, there is inequality between regions in China, between the rapidly prospering coastal regions and the Western regions where many of the ethnic minorities—together with majority people—live, as well as between urban and rural. In many areas, even in small villages, peoples from different backgrounds—including ethnic background—live together peacefully.

This social differentiation has been exacerbated by the process of the marketization of Chinese society. Because of differences in education and language the opportunity of different groups—groups from urban and rural, coast and inland, as well as ethnicities—to access the market is unequal. This can easily lead to social conflicts. 

In the United States, you hear the argument all the time in the Southwest that Mexican immigrants must learn English to access the mainstream. The same is true for Tibetans or other minorities with respect to learning Chinese Mandarin. It is the language of the market just as English is in the US.

Of course, just as in the US, this reduces cultural diversity at the linguistic level. So, on the one hand you want minorities to study their own language and preserve their distinctiveness, but you don’t want that difference to result in even greater social inequality. We must protect minority cultures, but also make sure they have access to the means of upward mobility.

With respect to Tibet, another issue comes into play—free an open migration within the vast space of China. At the beginning of our reforms in the 1980s we still had the registered permanent residence system where labor stayed put. In the socialist period, diversity of national autonomous regions was dealt with by budget allocations from the central government. The Chinese national government invested in the poorer regions to bring them up. More than 90 percent of Tibet’s investment came from Beijing. But there was very little communication and very few transportation links between regions.

Today, China is a country of mass internal migration, stimulated not by the state, but by private business. Now, those in the labor market are free to move anywhere they can find work, including Han Chinese to Tibet, though compared to the scale of migration from the western China region to coastal areas, or from rural area to urban area, the migration to Tibet is much smaller. No doubt, because of their links through language and other connections to broader China, the Han immigrants to Tibet can often have commercial advantages over the natives. So, we have to find a way to balance minority protection and the protection of the right of migration in this new context. Market mobility also raises the issue of protection of the rights of migrants who have moved from one region of China to another.

Though religion is an issue in much of the world, Tibet is different. Its experience is unlike that envisioned by Max Weber, where the advance of the market and secularism erodes societies based on faith. Tibet has remained a religious society. Following the expansion of the market society, there has been an expansion of religious society, with thousands of temples established since the 1980s. So, there is a double process of religionization and secularization. Like many others, I dislike the logic of a “clash of civilizations” and I don’t think that the issue here is one of religious conflicts.

The marketization of China and its integration into the global economy have been celebrated by the West, especially its media. Yet, these kind of upheavals and transitions are part and parcel of that process. They present problems China must deal with, but they are problems every diverse society faces as the market economy can discriminate against some as well as uplift and embrace others. What we need to do is to find a way to build an equal society that, at the same time, remains diversified. This is a big challenge for everyone, not just China, in the era of globalization, marketization and high fluidity among cultures.

The Environment and Democracy | There is much to criticize in China with respect to environmental destruction. I have personally been active in opposing dam construction in some Western regions of China. But this, too, must be put in context.

China is following the logic of market industrialization laid out by Europe and America in the 19th century. We know now that that kind of development model has been disastrous for the whole globe from an ecological perspective. We need to get beyond that logic not only in China, but elsewhere.

But China can’t change this alone. With globalization, China has become the factory of the world. China is consuming a lot of the world’s energy as a result of the global division of labor in which highly environmentally destructive transnational companies have moved their operations here from the West. This is not an excuse to defend China. China is a big country, and it has to try to break from the developmental logic inherited from the West and practiced through its factories in China.

But this can’t be done overnight just as democracy is not going to arrive overnight. Democracy was a long time coming in the long history of Europe. Spain only became democratic in the 1970s, after all. This also is not an excuse. It is simply to say that we are all really in one process. Some arrived sooner, some later. But we are all now linked. When looking at China, the Western media really need to keep this perspective in mind.

Chinese Nationalism: Defensive, Not Aggressive | It is easy to see nationalism on Chinese Web sites. Strong nationalism is destructive for any society. But I would argue that the kind of nationalism seen in China today is usually a defensive action, not an aggressive nationalism. It is a response to something that has happened on the outside. It would be wrong to interpret the acts of Chinese students protecting the Olympic Torch from disruptive protesters on its course around the world as rising nationalism. It was not a Chinese torch, after all, but the Olympic Torch. These students were proud that the world was coming to China and recognizing its success. The Olympics were seen as a chance for the world to understand China. The torch wasn’t an icon of China somehow aggressively asserting itself in the world.

It would be even more wrong to think that these students’ action is the simple result of manipulation by the Chinese government. I don’t know the exact role of the Chinese government in these movements. But, obviously, those Chinese students defending the torch relay felt the government was too soft in defending China’s dignity. There is censorship in China, but there is public opinion in China, too. The term “authoritarianism” is too simple to explain everything.

Ordinary Chinese are warm to foreigners, trying to show them the best side of their society when they visit. The Olympics were a chance to do this on a big scale. I think it hurt the feelings of Chinese students abroad that the Western media were so hostile. Hurt feelings are not aggressive nationalism.

The Western Media and Chinese Openness | One reason the Chinese people, in particular students, felt indirectly threatened is that the Western media’s knowledge of China is very limited. Yet, all of a sudden, China has become a big player on the global scene. It seems that nobody, including the Chinese people themselves, were prepared for this. The Western media must write and report more broadly and fairly, with more perspective, on what is going on in China. The Chinese side is also at fault. We need to be more open and transparent and encourage people to communicate and express themselves.

It is critical that China find its own path in the world, its own way of development that needn’t conflict with others. To find our way we need to encourage different voices being heard in our public space.

Copyright: New Perspectives Quarterly, NPQ

If you wish to comment on this article, you can do so on-line.

Should you wish to publish your own article on the Facts & Arts website, please contact us at info@factsandarts.com. Please note that Facts & Arts shares its advertising revenue with those who have contributed material and have signed an agreement with us.

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Sep 21st 2019
EXTRACT: "As Lobaczewski pointed out, pathological leaders tend to attract other people with psychological disorders. At the same time, empathetic and fair-minded people gradually fall away. They are either ostracised or step aside voluntarily, appalled by the growing pathology around them.......As a result, over time pathocracies become more entrenched and extreme. You can see this process in the Nazi takeover of the German government in the 1930s, when Germany moved from democracy to pathocracy in less than two years.......In the US, there has clearly been a movement towards pathocracy under Trump. As Lobaczewski’s theory predicts, the old guard of more moderate White House officials – the “adults in the room” – has fallen away. The president is now surrounded by individuals who share his authoritarian tendencies and lack of empathy and morality. Fortunately, to some extent, the democratic institutions of the US have managed to provide some push back."
Sep 16th 2019
EXTRACT: "If the Supreme Court does agree with the Divisional Court that the question is political rather than legal, it will take the UK constitution into quite peculiar territory. Prime ministers will be the new kings and queens. They will be free to suspend parliament at will, and for as long as they wish, without any judicial interference. Parliament will meet not out of constitutional necessity but in the service of the government’s interests – namely, to pass its legislation and to maintain appearances, rather than to hold it to account."
Sep 12th 2019
Extract: "The Republican Party has lashed its fate to an increasingly unhinged leader. Though three other presidential hopefuls for 2020 now stand in Trump’s way, none can defeat him. But they can damage his reelection effort, which is why the Republican Party has been scrapping some primaries and caucuses. How well Trump does in November next year may well depend on how his fragile ego withstands the coming months."
Sep 2nd 2019
EXTRACTS: "Most people think of revolutions as sudden earthquakes or volcanic eruptions that come without warning and sweep away an entire political system. But historians, political scientists, and even the odd politician know that the reality is very different: revolutions happen when systems hollow themselves out, or simply rot from within. Revolutionaries can then brush aside established norms of behavior, or even of truth, as trivialities that should not impede the popular will............ Only time will tell whether we are currently witnessing the hollowing out of British democracy. But Prime Minister Boris Johnson may well have crossed some invisible Rubicon by.......... Whatever happens now, British parliamentary democracy may never be the same again. It will certainly never again be the model that so many people around the world once admired."
Aug 29th 2019
EXTRACT: "Events such as prorogations and dissolutions happen when countries face difficult times. Therefore, because of the disastrous effects of Brexit: sterling in freefall; a recession looming on the horizon and Britain’s international standing at its lowest ebb since Suez, it is no surprise that the country is in this position now. The worrying thing is that using the monarchical power of prorogation does not solve problems – it has a history of turning them into frightening and often violent crises. There is a worrying relationship between the use of such powers and a complete breakdown in government."
Aug 28th 2019
EXTRACT: "Reminiscent of Don Quixote, Trump is tilting at windmills. His administration is flailing at antiquated perceptions of the Old China that only compound the problems it claims to be addressing. Financial markets are starting to get a sense that something is awry. So, too, is the Federal Reserve. Meanwhile, the global economy is fraying at the edges. The US has never been an oasis in such treacherous periods. I doubt if this time is any different. 
Aug 24th 2019
EXTRACT: "In fact, with firms in the US, Europe, China, and other parts of Asia having reined in capital expenditures, the global tech, manufacturing, and industrial sector is already in a recession. The only reason why that hasn’t yet translated into a global slump is that private consumption has remained strong. Should the price of imported goods rise further as a result of any of these negative supply shocks, real (inflation-adjusted) disposable household income growth would take a hit, as would consumer confidence, likely tipping the global economy into a recession."
Aug 21st 2019
EXTRACT: "Climate change is real, and it is a problem. According to the IPCC, the overall impact of global warming by the 2070s will be equivalent to a 0.2-2% loss in average income. That’s not the end of the world, but the same as a single economic recession, in a world that is much better off than today.  The risk is that outsized fear will take us down the wrong path in tackling global warming. Concerned activists want the world to abandon fossil fuels as quickly as possible. But it will mean slowing the growth that has lifted billions out of poverty and transformed the planet. That has a very real cost. "
Aug 20th 2019
EXTRACTS: "It is no exaggeration to say that Johnson has lied his way to the top, first in journalism and then in politics. His ascent owes everything to the growing xenophobia and English nationalism that many Conservatives now espouse................Johnson has chosen a government of like-minded anti-European nationalists. His principal adviser, Dominic Cummings, was described by David Cameron, Britain’s prime minister from 2010 to 2016, as a “career psychopath.” Cummings is, alongside Johnson, the most powerful figure in the new government; he is an unelected wrecker who earlier this year was ruled to be in contempt of parliament. Fittingly, if depressingly, he now is masterminding our departure from the EU with or without parliamentary approval."
Aug 19th 2019
EXTRACTS: "Back in May, a jury found Patrick Syring, a former State Department official, guilty of 14 counts of making threats against my life and my staff at the Arab American Institute. This week, a federal judge sentenced Syring to five years in prison to be followed by three years of court-ordered probation.................It gives me no pleasure to see this man going to jail for a long period, but it does provide us all with a sense of enormous relief. I've been threatened before. My wife, my children, and I have received death threats for the past 50 years – owing to my advocacy for Palestinian rights and the rights of the Arab American community. My office was fire-bombed and an Arab American colleague, whom I hired, was murdered. Two individuals who, in the past, made death threats against me and my children were convicted and sentenced to prison terms. But this case was different."
Aug 15th 2019
EXTRACT: "Gaslighting typically refers to intimate relationships. It’s a way of controlling someone by creating false narratives – for example, that they are irrational or crazy. If such lies are repeated constantly, victims may get confused and start believing there really is something wrong with them. Confusion, diversion, distraction and disinformation can similarly be used to gaslight an entire society. So how can you tell if you are being gaslighted, and how do you avoid it in the first place?"
Aug 14th 2019
EXTRACT: "Trump has once again painted himself into a corner. Since the latest massacres, he’s been at pains to present himself as a reasonable fellow who can get behind gun reform (and perhaps mollify suburban women, his most dangerous foes on this issue). But he’s also noticeably (and typically) anxious to maintain the loyalty of the rural voters who form an important part of his base. Trump has also taken the gamble of using racial politics and white supremacy as instruments for winning in 2020. When faced with the dilemma of trying to assuage suburban voters or keeping the base close, time after time his instinct has been to shore up the base. (That didn’t work very well in 2018.)"
Aug 5th 2019
Extracts: "it is impossible to model many of the most important risks. Global warming will produce major changes in hydrological cycles, with both more extreme rainfall and longer more severe droughts. This will have severe adverse effects on agriculture and livelihoods in specific locations, but climate models cannot tell us in advance precisely where regional effects will be most severe. Adverse initial effects in turn could produce self-reinforcing political instability and large-scale attempted migration........Achieving a zero-carbon economy will require a massive increase in global electricity use, from today’s 23,000 TW hours to as much as 90,000 TW hours by mid-century. Delivering this in a zero-carbon fashion will require enormous investments, but as the Energy Transitions Commission has shown, it is technically, physically, and economically feasible......Added up across all economic sectors, however, it’s clear that the total cost of decarbonizing the global economy cannot possibly exceed 1-2% of world GDP. In fact, the actual costs will almost certainly be far lower, because most such estimates cautiously ignore the possibility of fundamental technological breakthroughs, and maintain conservative estimates of how long and how fast cost reductions in key technologies will occur. In 2010, the International Energy Agency projected a 70% fall in solar photovoltaic equipment costs by 2030. It happened by 2017."
Jul 31st 2019
Extract: "I admire the US for its culture, entrepreneurialism, and universities, and I have many American friends. Furthermore, I know how grateful the rest of the world has to be for US leadership after World War II. Never before had a victorious power behaved so generously toward others, including the defeated. We owe so much to US policy in the second half of the twentieth century. But although I am no declinist regarding American economic, intellectual, and military power, the country’s soft power has certainly decreased, and its positive influence around the world has declined. The reason for this is simple: US President Donald Trump is a bad man surrounded by a bad team of incompetent and dangerous ideologues."
Jul 30th 2019
Extract: "This pattern holds true in every extremist movement I have studied, whether from the past or the present, or the West or the East. This abuse of religion that provides security and certainty to those who are experiencing a loss of control is a universal phenomenon. If merely left there, it would not be a danger. But when it masks a political agenda or when it justifies violence either by groups or state actors, it becomes a danger."
Jul 30th 2019
Extract: "......the day before Mueller testified, the current FBI director, Christopher Wray, told the Senate Judiciary Committee, “The Russians are absolutely intent on trying to interfere with our elections.” And the day after Mueller testified, the Senate Intelligence Committee issued a report stating that Russia would be involved in the next presidential election, and that countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, and China have the capacity to interfere in US elections as well. Despite these warnings, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blocked Senate consideration of two bills aimed at strengthening US election security,....."
Jul 15th 2019
".....one of the most accurate recession indicators, known as the yield curve, has recently been flashing warning signs. Every postwar recession in the US was preceded by an inversion of the yield curve, meaning that long-term interest rates had fallen below short-term interest rates, some 12 to 18 months before the outset of the economic downturn."
Jul 6th 2019
Extract: ".........growing poverty even when working, the collapse of stable and safe social identities linked to work, the increasing instability of employment security, and the rapid change of local communities due to emigration, migration, collapsing housing affordability, and redevelopment initiatives that displace communities. These provide precise and urgent electoral rallying points. They are particularly effective given that so many mainstream politicians ignore these basic grievances. In recent years, the lineup of politicians opposing the New Right – Hillary Clinton, the Remain campaign, Emmanuel Macron and Matteo Renzi – have been unwilling to even recognise these structural problems. This provided the New Right the opportunity to appear credible, simply by acknowledging them."
Jul 6th 2019
".........an openly Russophilic administration in the US may be one reason why Putin’s domestic support has been declining so sharply."
Jul 3rd 2019
"Extract: .........in a world of rapidly expanding automation potential, demographic shrinkage is largely a boon, not a threat. Our expanding ability to automate human work across all sectors – agriculture, industry, and services – makes an ever-growing workforce increasingly irrelevant to improvements in human welfare. Conversely, automation makes it impossible to achieve full employment in countries still facing rapid population growth........The greatest demographic challenges therefore lie not in countries facing population stabilization and then gradual decline, but in Africa, which still faces rapid population growth."