If you are reading this post then hopefully you have already watched our video about Chinese history: “China: The Fall before the Rise.” What a chaotic and tragic couple of centuries China endured! Drug trafficking, foreign intrusions, rebellions, the collapse of the government, the splintering of the country, foreign invasion, war, war, and more war, famine, and finally, the collapse of society itself. I don’t think there’s another country on earth whose recent history can match China’s for tragedy and suffering.
This post (and the accompanying video) builds on that one by explaining a few lessons that can be gleaned from China’s history, lessons that can help us better understand modern China.
China was a broken country
Let’s start with how beaten down and broken China was. Democracy had failed. For decades there wasn’t really much of a government. Communism had restructured society and then broke it apart via the Cultural Revolution. China was extremely poor and completely uneducated. China receives a lot of criticism, which is fine because China is far from perfect. But the criticism often ignores how much progress China has made and how difficult it is to make that progress. We forget that China has outperformed most other developing countries, like India and Russia. We forget that, in the United States, one hundred years after the end of the Civil War and the emancipation of slaves, segregation was thriving in the US. It’s only been 35 years since China started to rebuild itself. Considering how much China endured, including the breakdown of government and society, China’s progress is really quite impressive. If given more time, there is plenty of reason to think China will continue to improve.
Why China is our “Frenemy”
Secondly, China’s history helps us understand our “frenemy”—friend and enemy relationship—with China. On the one hand, we are deeply engaged with China economically and in other areas like education and tourism. On the other hand, on issues like the South China Sea and defense or national security and cyber espionage, we seem more like adversaries than allies. As our video showed, China has good reason to not exactly trust the rest of the world. The opium wars, the foreign concessions, the Japanese invasion—these events help shape China’s world view. So, while engaging the world economically, from a defense and national security point of view, China is not going to automatically buy into the current world order in which the US takes the lead. China will instead go its own way, at least for now. As China continues to develop and engage the world, its culture and the world outlook of its people and its government will change. . This point, plus the fact China is interdependence with the rest of the world will grow as it grows, will likely make foreign relations with China easier down the road. But it will take time.
The Myth of China Inc.
Next let’s consider the issue of “China, Inc.” Our history video shows how, when the Qing Dynasty fell, China splintered into regions governed by warlords. This is a small example of the fact that China is a diverse country with factions that often pull in many directions. From the outside, particularly because China has a one-party government, there is a tendency to think that China operates in a highly unified manner, that everyone is on the same page, so to speak, with everything directed by the government. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. Regardless of the type of government, every society has many factions, many voices, many centers of authority that sometimes try to go their own way. That is certainly true in China. Not that China is about to break apart again. That is unlikely. But China is not a monolithic society with everyone marching to the same drummer and China’s history reminds us of that.
Stability has been difficult to maintain in China
Lastly is the issue of stability. Countries like America tend to take stability for granted. Regardless of what happens in the world, American society, though not without problems, tends to remain fairly stable. China has not only seen tremendous instability via war, rebellions, and the break-up of the state, it has seen total societal chaos of the kind that the US has never seen. We might not always agree with the actions China takes in the name of stability, but in light of China’s history perhaps China’s concerns about stability are more concrete than we might otherwise think.
China’s importance in the world will continue to grow as it continues to grow. Understanding China is will likewise become increasingly important. China’s history is a good place to start. We could describe other lessons to be learned from Chinese history but this we’ll stop here for now. Please visit our website for more such material and be on the look-out for other videos that will help you climb the China Learning Curve.