The rise of China in the wake of the slow relative decline of the United States has been the overarching narrative of global studies since the beginning of this century. Is this narrative correct? China’s growth is slowing as it reaches middle income status and the United States is still overwhelmingly more wealthy and powerful than China. If China will someday “overtake” the United States, it will not happen for decades or centuries, depending what is meant by overtaking. But even this more guarded account of US decline is colored by an outdated, state-centric view of human society. The twenty-first century world-system is centered on the United States but not contained within it; individuals all over the world participate in hierarchies of distinction that are fundamentally American in ideology and orientation. Whether or not they agree with US policy, support the US president, or are even able to enter the United States, success-oriented individuals choose to live in an American world—or accept global social exclusion. This is just as true in China as anywhere else, and perhaps even more true for Chinese individuals than for anyone else.
“Finance is the lifeblood of the modern economy” has become something of a stock phrase for Chinese policymakers over recent years, uttered most recently by Xi Jinping as part of his speech to the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing in mid May. Although this sounds like a capitalist mantra, what precisely might be meant by this phrase requires more in-depth understanding of China’s economy and its financial system. At the heart of that system still lie China’s banks, in spite of the rapid emergence of other financial institutions and instruments over the last decade.
The fugitive ran north beside the railway tracks, the bleak wastes of the Gobi blanketed in darkness, towards the streetlamps of Zamyn-Üüd glowing faintly in the distance. By luck passing too close to a sentry tower to be visible on radar, Xu Hongci soon realized that the lights of the Mongolian border town were now closer than those of Chinese Erenhot, and that his month-long flight from the mountain prisons of remote Yunnan was at a triumphant end:
I squatted on the ground a few minutes, bidding my weather-beaten, grief-plagued motherland farewell. I didn’t shed tears. I was just sad and angry, confident that sooner or later the Chinese people would rise up to cast off the yoke of Mao’s tyranny and establish a democratic nation. I told myself, ‘On that day, I shall return.’
“It is a common rule of propriety that culturally inferior foreign peoples should respect the Central Kingdom.” So begins a 1374 letter from Ming China’s founding Hongwu Emperor to a regional ruler in Japan. It continues: “One principle in both ancient and modern times has been for the small to serve the great.”
It is important for statesmen and policymakers to study and understand history, but the use of historical analogies to inform policy is fraught with dangers. The United States and its allies discovered that the “lessons of Munich” of 1930s Europe, for example, were not easily translatable to wars on the Korean peninsula and later in Southeast Asia in the 1950s and 60s.
History does not repeat itself. Every historical event occurs in its own time and circumstances. That is not to say that policymakers cannot learn important lessons from history, but their precise application to current or future events is at best problematic and at worst a recipe for disaster.
The recurring themes of Manchuria’s history—and Empire and Environment in the Making of Manchuria, edited by Norman Smith—are colonization and the environment.
Over centuries, Manchuria—the region covering the remote northeast of modern-day China—has been fought over by competing imperial powers. Its geographic location at the intersection of three of the 20th century’s most powerful empires—Russia, China and Japan—has seen Manchuria play host to a series of conflicts (both hot and cold) from the 1600s until the end of the Chinese civil war in the mid-20th century.
While the brightness of China’s economic and geopolitical future is a subject of recurring debate, the prospects for the “China book” industry seem undiminished. Toh Han Shih’s recent Is China an Empire? is, the title notwithstanding, one of the more straightforward and restrained entrants.