By Simon Gilbert and Adrian Budd

China’s rulers have, for the past four decades, sought to increase the country’s global role, particularly via their Belt and Road Initiative. Simon Gilbert reviews three recently published books on the repercussions of these policies, while Adrian Budd considers a study of US/Chinese tensions.

These three books, in widely different ways, all share a common thread: the use of history to understand contemporary China, particularly its growing global role. Michael Schuman’s is the most wide ranging, drawing on thousands of years of China’s history. John E Hillman looks at the hugely ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) through the lens of Britain and America’s earlier imperial expansions, while Rana Mitter’s more particular focus is on the way that an interpretation of China’s wartime experience is enlisted to justify this more assertive global role.

In the West little thought is given to China’s experience of the Second World War. But as many as 14 million Chinese died following Japan’s 1937 invasion. The resistance of both the nationalist government forces and the Communist armies played an important role in slowing Japan’s advance through Asia. However, following the Communists’ victory in the ensuing civil war, the part played by nationalist forces was ignored.

It was only in the 1980s that new interpretations of the wartime experience started to emerge, first in academia and then in more popular forms. At this time the regime was starting to drop the socialist rhetoric of the Mao years and turning increasingly towards unadorned nationalism. The new approach chimed with the government’s encouragement of a broader patriotism.

China’s rulers’ appropriation of the Nationalist’s wartime legacy allows them to claim a greater role on the international stage too. At the end of the war, nationalist China was given a place on the UN security council in recognition of its efforts. But under Mao’s Communists the country was largely excluded from international bodies. Since Xi Jinping became president China has been using its new found economic might to play a more assertive global role.

For Schuman this is just a return to the superpower status that China enjoyed in the past. He sets out to understand the “Chinese history of the world” in order to explain where it is going now. But in reality his approach is the opposite. “Chinese historians”, Schuman complains, “have a tendency to color circumstances with an ideological brush”. However his own reading of China’s past has a very contemporary colour — it is history seen through the lens of globalisation and superpower rivalry. Sometimes this is just silly — he calls the trade routes opened up by incorporation into the Mongol empire the “internet of the 13th century”.

Despite criticising traditional histories, which see dynasties falling because of bad emperors and new ones founded by great men, his own approach is not so different — it’s all kings, emperors and wars.

A materialist understanding starts with the intensive agriculture that supported the magnificent edifice of Chinese civilisation and employed the large majority of the population. To the north and west there were natural limits beyond which this could not be practiced. When the empire did expand into these zones it was to provide a buffer between them and the nomadic societies beyond, rather than for any economic reason.

Schuman is not the only writer to have been seduced by the exoticism of the Silk Road. But these overland trading routes have little in common with modern China’s commercial expansion. This trade was absolutely peripheral to the empire and the state played no role in establishing it.

Today, on the contrary, the rapidly growing global position of Chinese business would be inconceivable without state backing. This is epitomised by the BRI, the subject of The Emperor’s New Road.

The Silk Road, Hillman argues, might be good marketing material, but the experience of European colonial expansion in the decades leading to the First World War is a better comparison with what he calls an “imperial project”. The “great powers” built infrastructure not only to facilitate trade but also to extend their influence and control, usually at the expense of both indigenous people and the environment. For China, infrastructure projects, from railways to fibre-optic cables, are a carrot to draw other countries in and a tremendous boon to Chinese business.

Western politicians have, without any sense of irony, denounced the BRI as a plan to reshape the world in China’s interest, without concern for “freedom, democracy and individual human rights”. A little over a hundred years ago, China was one of the victims when these politicians’ predecessors were carving the world into empires with no sign of any of these ‘virtues’.

In practice though, the BRI has had very mixed results. Despite the eye watering sums of money, many projects remain on the drawing board, while others have gone way over budget or seem unlikely to ever be completed. Only one of Xi Jinping’s mooted six “economic corridors” has so far actually come into existence (to Pakistan).

The Chinese bureaucracy is not as monolithic as many of its critics suppose. There are competing interests between different ministries, and the giant corporations can be difficult for leaders in Beijing to control. And corruption, Hillman argues, is built into the BRI — a “gravy train without a conductor” is his typically colourful description.

For Hillman, China is showing “classic rising power behaviours”, a more helpful explanation than Schuman’s “top-down autocracy” comparable to the Qin dynasty over 2,000 years ago. If Schuman is critical of Chinese politics he’s starry eyed about its economic boom. “Increasingly wealthy Chinese”, he writes, “wore Nike sneakers, sipped Starbucks lattes, and chatted over Apple phones”, seemingly unaware that they also died in some of the world’s most dangerous mines, worked some of its longest hours and were not infrequently cheated out of their meagre pay.

The workers who made China’s global expansion possible are not the central concern of any of these books. But The Emperor’s New Road at least exposes some of its seamier underside.

China’s Good War: How World War II is Shaping a New Nationalism by Rana Mitter is published by Harvard University Press, £25.
Superpower Interrupted: The Chinese History of the World by Michael Schuman is published by PublicAffairs, £14.
The Emperor’s New Road: China and the Project of the Century by Jonathan E. Hillman is published by Yale University Press, £20.


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