WANG GUNWU. China’s rise this time is different (East Asia Forum, 29 September 2019)

On 1 October China will be celebrating the 70 years of unification that followed Mao Zedong’s victory over the Nationalist regime in 1949. Many thought that had brought about the rise that the Chinese peoples had been waiting for since the beginning of the 20th century. But it was not to be. After the Great Leap Forward and Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution had nearly destroyed all that Mao had established, there were doubts that China would ever rise.

Then came Deng Xiaoping’s reforms after 1978 and the opening of China to the free market economy. By twenty years later, China astonished the world with the way it was rising again. By one account, this was the fourth time that it had risen after a great fall.

The first rise was more than 2200 years ago when the Qin and Han empires united the country after 500 years of fighting among warring states.

The second was the reunification under the Sui and Tang dynasties after another 400 years of division.

After the 8th century there followed another 400 years of continual fighting between Chinese and northern tribal peoples, this time led by the Khitan, Tangut, Jurchen and Mongol that ended with Kublai Khan’s conquest of China. China fell to its lowest point in history when the whole country came under foreign rule. Thus, when the founder of the Ming dynasty was able to lead the Chinese to drive the Mongols out: that was China’s third rise. The Manchu who took over in 1644 built on the Ming system and made the empire even stronger. The Qing had consolidated the third rise so this did not represent a new rise.

The key point is that, in each case, the rise came after long periods of division and chaos and confirmed that China could recover from its falls and become stronger when it rose again.

Its newest challenge in the 19th century came from the industrial revolution in Europe backed by long-distance naval power. By 1900, China’s imperial system had collapsed and given way to frantic attempts to learn from Western models, beginning with a nationalist republic with capitalist characteristics. At stake was an undivided China with a resilient culture that was the pride of most Chinese.

During the 20th century, the China dream was to restore the country by acquiring the wealth and power that had made the West so dominant. The United States and Japan had demonstrated how quickly such power could be achieved. Germany and Soviet Russia also showed that there were other ways to challenge Anglo-French pre-eminence.

In the end, the major Chinese political parties chose between West One (liberal capitalist) and West Two (revolutionary communist) and, to the surprise of many, in 1949, West Two won out.

Now that the reforms have enabled China to learn everything it wanted from both West One and West Two, it is clear that the fourth rise is in progress and probably unstoppable.

Is this just another rise like the first three? This rise is different.

The first was a rise after centuries of efforts to establish central power from within. That rise was unchallenged for three centuries, but the original Han China was eventually destroyed by a series of tribal invasions from the north, northeast and northwest. In the end, the shock of external aggressions was absorbed and what was internalised laid the foundations for China’s second rise. By that time, the culture of the Han peoples was greatly enriched by the Buddhist ideas accepted from the Western Heaven (xitian) of India and Central Asia.

New continental enemies then became even more powerful and the Mongol conquest that reunified China gave the Chinese a new global outlook. Under the Ming, China’s synthesised Neo-Confucianism had become a defensive orthodoxy that inhibited learning from the ascendant West that emerged after the 16th century. For that, both Ming and Qing China paid a hefty price. When defeated in the 20th century, the country’s loss of orthodox legitimacy forced new generations of Chinese to confront the fact that their distinct civilisation was about to be destroyed — something they had not thought possible.

The determination to survive remained strong. That led them to learn everything they could from the modern world. But this readiness to learn was hampered by decades of political strife within and threats of invasion without.

After 40 years of consolidated central authority since 1949, there is renewed confidence. This stems from the people’s belief in progress and their ability to combine the new with what was best in their past traditions. By being willing to learn so much from the modern West, China today is undergoing a totally different experience of rising again after a great fall.

Wang Gungwu is University Professor at the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Chairman of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. He is also Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University.


Wang Gungwu AO CBE is University Professor at the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University.

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