China: back to the Asian future

Review cover The real question is whether the new superpower can ever fulfil the long-forgotten dream of a distinctly Asian modernity.

On the once-desolate mudflats of Pudong, the new towers of Shanghai shimmer and wink, mocking the outdated grandiloquence of the colonial European buildings on the Bund.

China's rise has provoked anxiety in the West over a shifting balance of global power. But the real question, Pankaj Mishra writes, is whether the new superpower can ever fulfil the long-forgotten dream of a distinctly Asian modernity. In October 2009, shortly after the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China, the Chinese premier Wen Jiabao travelled to North Korea for the first state visit in 16 years. In Pyongyang, Wen visited the memorial to the martyrs of the Chinese "volunteer army" that, together with Soviet and Korean communist forces, fought the United States to a stalemate in Korea in 1951. Nearly half a million Chinese died in the Korean War. For the fledgling People's Republic of China it was a bloody initiation into the Cold War. Laying a wreath at the tomb of Mao Anying - the favourite son of Mao Zedong who died in battle - Wen abruptly addressed the stone statue of the dead soldier, saying: "Comrade Anying, I have come to see you on behalf of the people of the motherland. Our country is strong now and its people enjoy good fortune. You may rest in peace." One month later a remarkably obsequious Barack Obama arrived in Beijing to put the final seal on China's new eminence. "Our country is strong now": this simple belief, diversely phrased, was very much in the air in Beijing during the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China. Seen from certain angles, the Great Helmsman himself seemed to exude satisfaction as he surveyed Tiananmen Square from his portrait hanging on the Gate of Heavenly Peace. Indeed, the famous speech Mao Zedong delivered to the newly victorious Chinese Communist Party in 1949 echoed frequently in my mind as the day of the anniversary approached, and the forthcoming celebrations of patriotism loomed large - on television, billboards, news-stands - as an unavoidable imperative. "The Chinese," Mao had said, "have always been a great, courageous and industrious nation; it is only in modern times that they have fallen behind. And that was due entirely to oppression and exploitation by foreign imperialism and domestic reactionary governments." Mao went on to declare that "the Chinese people, comprising one quarter of humanity, have now stood up". And, after many a stumble, they had arrived on the stage of world history - or so was the general impression to be gleaned from my conversations with middle-class urban Chinese last autumn: that the country, "peacefully rising" over several years, had finally emerged at the summit of international eminence, standing tall as the West picks up the pieces of its ruinous war on terror and financial "innovations". The same image of a fully awakened giant in the East has figured prominently in the western media, but there it is accompanied by unease and foreboding, if not downright paranoia. Previously seen as a military threat, China was now an economic hegemon, in addition to appearing to be an insalubrious example of efficient and durable authoritarianism. My own feelings about this new self-assured China were mixed. Since the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911 the West has been gripped by alternating outbreaks of Sinophobia and Sinophilia. The former, animated by anxieties about the decline of western power, meant little to me as an Indian; the latter, marked by triumphalist claims that China would dominate the world and impose its own political and economic systems, just as the West had, impressed me even less. For people like myself, born and brought up in a part of the world that has long suffered from the ignorance and prejudice of its foreign overlords and interpreters, both fear and glee at the prospect of China's preeminence seemed to exaggerate the country's achievements and possibilities. Taking the modern West as a measure, they not only ignored the uniqueness of modern Chinese history. They were also blind to the inspirations and particular ideals of the Chinese leaders and thinkers who preceded Mao and the communists - the search for freedom and justice that was part of a larger quest for a new spiritual being as well as a social and economic order. Of course China had arrived late into modernity, and neither excessive awe or gloom over China today acknowledged that unlike almost all the major Western industrial powers as well as the Soviet empire, the country has modernised itself without conquering far-flung territories and markets with brute force, or without committing genocide against native peoples. The Chinese people themselves had paid the intolerably high human costs of progress; like many predominantly agrarian societies obliged to catch up with the industrialised West, China mostly exploited its own resources, damaged its own cultures, and polluted its own rivers and lakes. This race to modernise an overwhelmingly peasant society - which properly began in 1912, almost four decades before the Chinese Revolution - seemed to me the most audacious undertaking of its kind; and given that it occurred against an overdetermined historical context, it had rather more lessons and consequences for other "underdeveloped" societies in Asia and the rest of the world than the American Revolution - a curiously parochial affair by comparison - or the Russian one, which had long since run its course. ******************************** "The Chinese people have now stood up": Mao's words had acquired a prophetic resonance on my very first trip to China in 2004, when the country's new power and wealth already seemed an undeniable reality. On the once-desolate mudflats of Pudong, the new towers of Shanghai shimmered and winked, mocking the outdated grandiloquence of the colonial European buildings on the Bund. Natives swarmed the cathedrals of consumerism on the streets of Shanghai's International settlement, which an axis of gangsters, politicians and foreign businessmen had effectively ruled until the communist takeover in 1949. Much of modernising China, its public architecture, its acquisitive culture, is vulgarly imitative, unredeemed by the high quality of its films and art. But it is always a shock to remember the immense and prolonged suffering China has known in the previous century, first through warlordism, the Japanese invasion, and civil war, and then through the self-inflicted wounds of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution; it seemed petty to me to begrudge the Chinese their dream of modernity, or to deny its poignancy. The general consensus in the West is that Mao was a monster, and China his weirdly deluded and passive victim. But the queues of peasants were very long at Mao's mausoleum in Tiananmen Square. Here among the great patient crowds, impressive even to an Indian, lay one side of the complex evidence of the Chinese revolution's persisting mass base, and its difference from the Soviet version. Partly out of vanity and malice, and partly out of impatient patriotism and ineptitude, Mao had unleashed one disaster after another on his people. But his heirs still ruled the country, and millions had continued to invest their faith, despite successive tragedies and disasters, in what they saw as the good intentions and wisdom of their remote rulers in Beijing. For an Indian, Mao's inaugural rhetoric was much less rousing than Jawaharlal Nehru's "tryst-with destiny" speech declaring the end of British colonial rule in 1947. But the speech, and Mao's other major writings, circulated briskly among communist student circles in small town India, where I first came across it. It may seem strange that this Mao-driven Sinophilia, which in the 1960s and 1970s had enthralled a generation of campus radicals in the West, was still flickering in our obscure corner of the world as late as the mid-1980s, when China was well advanced on its post-Mao economic consolidation under Deng Xiaoping. But that it persisted - alongside a fascination for distant anti-colonial leaders like Gamal Abdel Nasser, Sukarno and Leopold Senghor - suggests that in the large part of the world that the West had only recently ceased to rule there was still a longing for an alternative modernity: one that acknowledged the particular pasts and distinctive presents and did not simply mimic the West. At the time of Mao and Nehru, India and China - seen today as economic rivals to each other and the capitalist West - had suggested the contours of a very different kind of world order. The authority and charisma of their leaders had been won through decades of bitter political struggle against imperialism; both countries achieved sovereignty within a two-year span in the late 1940s, and committed themselves to socialism; both quickly identified new friends and allies in the developing world. But the celebrated conference of African and Asian states that took place at Bandung, Indonesia, in 1955 - where newly liberated nations proclaimed their undying solidarity - turned out to be the last gasp of anti-imperialist bonhomie, which was quickly subdued by the exigencies of nationalism and economic self-sufficiency and the rise of the Cold War. India was humiliated in its border war with China in 1962, securing Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai a permanent place in popular Indian demonology. Since then, China has befriended Pakistan and Burma, isolating India within South Asia. Globalising its economy well before India, it has also emerged as a more serious candidate than India for superpower status. Certainly, a new militarism - instantly familiar from my experience of the Indian equivalent - accompanies China's new self-assurance: in the days leading up to the 60th anniversary parade, the area near Tiananmen Square was under a complete lockdown, leaving empty shopping malls as the sole spectators of the awesome display of China's military capacity, which now extends to outer space. "We will have not only a powerful army but also a powerful air force and a powerful navy," Mao Zedong had promised in 1949. "Ours will no longer be a nation subject to insult and humiliation." In less than six decades, history seems to have proved Mao right. China is the world's biggest exporter and the largest holder of foreign reserves; its consumers and manufacturers increasingly drive the world economy, vitalising countries across the world with its hunger for resources and markets. Western Europe and America have no option but to pay court to it; the small commodity-producing countries of Africa and Latin America form the new periphery to China's metropole; its formerly hostile neighbours - Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Mongolia - now cower in its shadow, seeking favourable trade deals. Last month China reversed a long-standing international hierarchy by threatening the United States with economic sanctions, marking a watershed in the history of the post-Cold War era. So a strong, prosperous and assertive China may well seem the fulfilment of the Chinese Revolution. This at least is what Wen Jiabao seemed to say to the ghost of Mao Anying, drawing upon China's vigorous new nationalism. Autarkic and politically introverted for decades, China certainly appears to have been striving all along toward this moment of triumph. But there still exists a great and restless Chinese mass in the countryside, cruelly shut out from the new urban prosperity their labour and taxes have helped to create. Social unrest, environmental decay, corruption and other ills feed on China's new affluence. The unfinished business of the 1949 Revolution - which lifted some far from poverty but has left hundreds of millions behind (and consumed the lives of innumerable others) - may serve as a reminder today that the dream of that revolution, a dream that began at the turn of the 20th century, and preoccupied the country's leaders intellectuals and artists, was originally inseparable from a much grander dream: one with aspirations for all of Asia, for a modernity sensitive to injustice and suffering, and a postcolonial order that rejected the West's calamity-strewn path to its highest state of "development". *********************** The generation of Chinese intellectuals that emerged at the fag end of the Qing Empire was keen to shake off the stranglehold of tradition. Modernity - new ideas of the self-aware individual and organised urban society, of rule of law and the nation-state - promised liberation. Yet arriving in China under the auspices of imperialism - both Western and Japanese - modernity was also felt as oppression. Not surprisingly, China's most influential thinkers were anti-modern modernists: Liang Qichao, Mao's earliest inspiration, recoiling from crony capitalism and extreme inequality in America in 1903; Lu Xun, the greatest of China's modern writers, deploring how "mind and spirit progressively deteriorated" and "aims and taste degenerated into vulgarity" in the materially successful West; Sun Yat-sen, father of the Chinese Republic, upholding the moral Confucian policies of the East above the West's unethical Machiavellianism; or Mao's vernacularised Marxism, which took into account the great contradictions inherent in modernising a peasant third-world country. All these visions were prompted by the colonial encounter with European modernity, which appeared, in subjugated Asia, as a crude negation of local values and practices. So for those of us who belong - perhaps without realising it - to an internationalist political culture, one born from the shared experience of Western domination, the questions and dilemmas provoked by China's emergence are deeper and different from the anxieties of the Sinophiles and Sinophobes. The old solidarities of the postcolonial era - and the desire for an alternative modernity they embodied - may seem quaint today as globalisation creates an intellectually and culturally uniform superclass around the world. But they have had a long past, and, though forced into a subterranean existence for decades, they may yet have a future. From this perspective, the "question of China" has nothing to do with whether or not it will rule the world and everything to do with the role that China might play in giving shape to the idea of Asia. This was the idea that provoked so much fraternity among Asian thinkers and leaders at the beginning of the 20th century: almost everyone from Sun Yat-sen to Jawaharlal Nehru claimed to have been stirred by the notion that, as they modernised, Asian countries with their old interconnected histories could represent a spiritual as well as political and economic alternative to the colonialist West. It is barely remembered now but the Chinese elite's earliest sense of nationality grew out of a sense of identification with emergent and flourishing anti-colonial movements in Asia. The defeat of the Qing armies by Meiji Japan in 1895 shocked many educated but traditionally insular Chinese, forcing them to urgently acknowledge their country's vulnerability in a fast-changing geopolitical situation. Three years later, after a failed attempt at dynastic reform at the imperial court in Beijing, exiled intellectuals like Liang Qichao began to look more closely at the continent's other "lost" countries - among them India and Vietnam, with the former in particular representing a cautionary tale of how internal weakness leads to foreign subordination. The humiliation of China by Western powers during the Boxer Rebellion further focused Chinese attention on the Boer struggle against Britain, the rebellion in the Philippines, and even the reformist movements of Egypt and Turkey. In 1902, Liang Qichao broke an old habit of regarding China as splendidly sui generis by declaring it to be part of Asia - an Asia that defined itself by its opposition to "Westerners". Sun Yat-sen, the father of the republic, supported the revolutions in Philippines and Indonesia, and he in turn inspired freedom fighters across South East Asia. But it was the Russo-Japanese war in 1905 that helped crystallise a political vision of Asia. Japan's defeat of a white European country seemed to invalidate western claims to superior strength and virtue; it was a seismic event among other budding Asian nationalists as well. Scanning the newspapers every morning at his English public school, Harrow, the teenaged Jawaharlal Nehru glowed with pride in Japanese victories. "Nationalistic ideas filled my mind," he later wrote, "I mused of Indian freedom and Asiatic freedom from the thraldom of Europe." Passing through the Suez Canal, Sun Yat-sen found himself fielding congratulatory messages from Arabs who took the future first president of Republican China to be Japanese. Japan, the first success story of Asian modernisation, became the intellectual centre for political reformers and intellectual exiles from all across Asia. Zhang Taiyan, one of China's most prominent intellectuals - who formed the Asian Solidarity group in Tokyo together with Japanese socialists, Indians, Filipinos, and Vietnamese - summed up the prevailing sentiments of cultural pride, political resentment and self-pity among these refugees when he wrote: "Asian countries... rarely invaded one another and treated each other respectfully with the Confucian virtue of benevolence. About 100 years ago, the Europeans moved east and Asia's power diminished day by day. Not only was their political and military power totally lacking, but people also felt inferior. Their scholarship deteriorated and people only strove after material interests." Many important Japanese nationalists had begun to dabble in Pan-Asianism, though at least partly because Japan appeared the natural leader of an Asia that was to emerge as a humane alternative to the industrial West. Kazuo Okakura, one of Japan's leading nationalist intellectuals, began his 1903 book "Ideals of the East" with the resonant declaration that "Asia is one." Okakura had spent a year with the family of the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore in Calcutta, and together both writers sought to establish a culturalist basis for Asia, stressing old maritime links, arts, and such shared legacies as Buddhism in India, China and Japan. They also agreed that a Japan-led Asia could provide a spiritual therapeutic to the alienation and anomie of a materialistic Western civilisation. The unceasing and seemingly mindless slaughter of the First World War further confirmed to many Asian intellectuals the moral and intellectual deficiencies of their European masters. But the victorious western powers favoured Japan at the expense of China at the post-war settlement in Paris in 1919; and the contradictions within Japanese-style Pan-Asianism became apparent as the May Fourth Movement, fired by anger at Japan and the West, unleashed mass Chinese nationalism. To a great degree Japanese aspirations to lead Asia assumed a European colonialist hierarchy: one in which Asia, marked by political despotism and agrarian economies, was deemed to be at a lower stage in history than Europe. Indeed, the intellectuals of Meiji Japan who wished their country to transcend their "backward" Asian neighbourhood had drawn upon this central narrative of a European modernity defined by the nation-state and its legal system, an urban and commercial way of life, and economic and military competition - all of which Asia supposedly lacked. But Japan's idea of Asia - based on a simple opposition between the West and a Japanese-led East - was always likely to be appropriated by its aspiring nationalist-imperialists. Sun Yat-sen shrewdly criticised Japan's mimic imperialism well before the country's increasingly militaristic leaders unveiled, in the 1930s, their grand plan of a Greater East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere - which was revealed, during the Second World War, to be a pretext for the western-style conquest and occupation of resource-rich territories. Speaking in 1924, the same year that the United States's notoriously racist Immigration Act barred most Asian immigrants, Sun-Yat-sen urged Japan to follow the moral Confucian values of Asia and abandon the amoral realpolitik of the West. Deliberately counterposing his "Great Asianism" to Japan's homogenising "Greater East Asianism," Sun thought it necessary for Asians to not only transcend imperialism through self-determination, but also work toward a multi-nationalism that preserves the heterogeneity of ethnicity, culture, religion and belief. In Sun's vision Asia was to consist from Turkey in the West to Japan in the East of sovereign nation-states that could accommodate the continent's traditional cultural diversity. *********************** Very little of this grand Chinese vision of Asian cosmopolitanism survived the hard-won success of national liberation movements, and the subsequent freezing of interstate relations that accompanied the Cold War. The quest for economic self-sufficiency committed many Asian countries to long periods of isolation. The time for Asia as a regional formation may seem to have come as transnational capitalism weakens the old authority of the nation-state. But even today, in the age of globalisation and migration, relationships between Asian peoples today are governed by nation-states, and claims and counterclaims on territories - such as those between India and China - remain a hurdle to closer co-operation. Existing regional formulations like ASEAN and the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation are driven only by narrowly economic and security imperatives. There are, however, scattered signs of more enduring geopolitical alignments within Asia. Long subservient to the United States, Japan now wishes to strengthen its relationship with China. Despite their differences, India and China increasingly stand together at international forums, from meetings of the G20 to the climate-change summit in Copenhagen. But calls to revive the spirit of Bandung do not take into account how tightly even the most independent of Asian countries are bound into the global economy - claustrophobically defined by the imperatives of production and consumption. So what remains of the early Chinese quest for an alternative modernity, or Sun Yat-sen's related idea of Asia, which rejected Japanese-style nationalism and imperialism? The quest survives in China today, in the work of a group of writers, historians and economists who have been, somewhat inaccurately, labelled as the "New Left". In their creative excavations of the Asian past - most prominently in Wang Hui's four-volume history, "The Rise of Modern Chinese Thought" - they have assembled a systematic critique of neoliberal capitalism and challenged the assumption that freedom and prosperity follow naturally from economic liberalisation. For these thinkers, the history of Asia suggests that the future of China contains paths outside of the familiar dichotomy between the free market and statist authoritarianism. Indeed, the idea of Asia as something other than a borrowed European construct has received powerful support from academic historians such as Hamashita Takeshi, KN Chaudhuri and Sugata Bose, who have revealed the density of pre-colonial trade links across East, South, and Southeast Asia. Already in the 1940s, the Japanese historian Miyazaki Ishisada located the origins of an Asian modernity at the time of the Song Dynasty, demonstrating that between the 10th and 13th centuries Asia was already connected to Europe by land and sea through trade networks, and profoundly affected by events like the digging of China's grand canal, the quickening migration to cities, and the expansion of the Mongolian Empire. More recently, the pioneering work of Hamashita Takeshi has evoked the organic unity of Asia before it was shattered in the 19th and 20th centuries by European and Japanese imperialists seeking to establish autarkic regions as a basis for their power. Hamashita presents Chinese civilisation as having been central to an Asia organised by a trans-state tributary network, in which tributes of local products and imperial bestowals of favours and gifts governed relations between the centre and periphery, producing very different kinds of state and interstate relations than those seen in Europe. Developing Hamashita's idea, Wang Hui claims that the tributary system wasn't a "simple economic relation", but in fact encompassed "ritual and political relations among various social groups with differing cultures and beliefs." Such an alternative history of Asia is not a mere academic fad; nor is it simply meant to score a political point by blandly counterposing an Asia-centric world history to the dominant Eurocentric one. It also has a practical aspect: by revealing a rich diversity of political and economic relations in the past, a deeply-researched history of Asia makes possible the reconfiguring of ideas and institutions in the present. The earliest Asian modern intellectuals were often beholden to European ideas; working in a world shaped by European actions, or "blinded by the dust-storm of modern history," as Tagore put it, they naturally embraced the nation-state as the prerequisite for modernity. And though this "derivative" nationalism had its uses in a geopolitical situation fraught with perils for newly sovereign countries, its limitations and dangers are now more clearly visible. For one, the nation-state has poorly accommodated the minorities of multinational empires - Kashmiri Muslims as well as Tibetans and Uighurs. It is unable to deal on its own with such problems as climate change, environmental degradation, and water scarcity, which spill across national borders. China's plans to dam or divert some of the rivers that originate in the Tibetan plateau - to take just one example - threatens catastrophe in South and Southeast Asia. It is not only such potential disasters that make one look, however unrealistically, to China for new ideas of Asia and modernity. China's own leaders and thinkers were among the first to embrace this task during a pan-Asian rise in historical consciousness in the early twentieth century. Sun Yat-sen's idea of Asia, for instance, already contained a check against the excesses of a nationalism based on ethnic and racial identity. This wasn't due to an excess of idealism. China's quest for modernity began during the high noon of colonialism, and it could not be separated from a critique of capitalist modernity, which, however benign its presence in the West, presented a nakedly exploitative face to the East. China had to find its own way of becoming modern, and the conviction united such early pre-communist thinkers as Liang Qichao, Yan Fu, and Zhang Taiyan with Mao Zedong, who went on to reject not only western-style capitalism but also the bureaucrat-heavy Soviet model of socialist modernisation. Contrary to conventional wisdom, according to which American-style capitalism brought hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty, the Chinese regime charted its own path even after the long decades of self-imposed solitude, overseeing private enterprise with state control of the towering heights of the economy. The "Washington Consensus" now lies in tatters, and Beijing's communist regime mocks western claims of victory in the cold war and the inevitability of liberal democracy simply by persisting as long as it has. But the so-called "Beijing Consensus" has even less universal application than the Washington counterpart; it sounds suspiciously like a cynical economic argument for the lack of political freedom. *********************** Deng Xiaoping's utterance, "Development is the only way", can be found in billboards in the remotest parts of Tibet. Its pragmatic appeal was understandable in the 1980s when China began its climb out of chaos and poverty. But 60 years after China's revolution, it has become ever more clear that development, whether undertaken by colonial masters or sovereign nation-states, doesn't benefit people evenly within a single territory, not to mention across larger regions. Certainly China's new middle classes have done very well out of two decades of capitalism, and its ruling elite can strut across the world stage like never before. But if these accomplishments represent a partially successful culmination to the Chinese Revolution, the fate of hundreds of millions of other Chinese has been determined more by the effects of another revolution, whose outcome sealed the triumph of neoliberal globalisation - privatisation and truncating of public services, de-unionisation, the fragmenting and lumpenisation of urban working classes, and ruthless suppression of the rural poor. As instructed by the Chinese premier, Mao Anying may well rest in peace in North Korea since his father's great dream of national regeneration has been fulfilled. But there is no doubt that Mao and other leaders of the Chinese Revolution would have rejected this strange denouement to their grand venture, in which some Chinese people stand up while most others are forced to stand down. Pankaj Mishra, a frequent contributor to The Review, is the author of four books, most recently The Temptations of the West: How to be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet and Beyond.