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Eight Juxtapositions: Understanding China Through Comparison

Modern China is a complex place, but one that can be usefully approached through “imperfect analogies.” So Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a Chancellor’s Professor in History at the University of California, Irvine argues in his latest book, Eight Juxtapositions: China Through Imperfect Analogies. Below, The Diplomat talks with Wasserstrom about the unusual comparisons in the book, and how they can add complexity to our understanding of China.

The Diplomat: You note in Eight Juxtapositions that China is often thought of as unique and exotic, to the point that it can’t be compared to other places. This myth is politically useful for Chinese leaders, of course, but why do you think it’s so pervasive among foreign observers?

Jeffrey Wasserstrom: Many things have contributed in the past and contribute now to a sense in the West that China is not just a partly distinctive but a completely sui generis place—ineluctably different in ways that may be attractive, threatening, or a mix of both things. The enormous size of its population, the special characteristics of its language, and the limited amount of access Westerners have had to it in certain periods, most recently the Mao years (1949-1976), have all figured into this. There are unquestionably some special things about China, but the same is true of many places. This is why analogies between countries are bound to be “imperfect,” but to think of China as defying comparison hinders understanding—and helps undergird worrisome moves being made of late by Chinese leaders.

You point out some interesting parallels between China’s “modernization” efforts in Tibet and Xinjiang and colonialism — particularly the brand of colonialism espoused by Imperial Japan. Does this idea of what we might call a “Greater Chinese Co-prosperity Sphere” also have implications for regions outside China’s borders? 

I’m glad you found those parallels interesting. I want to note, though, in the interest of stressing the need to think of parallels not only between China and other East Asian countries, but still more geographically robust ones, that in that same chapter, I also mention similarities between Beijing’s situation vis-à-vis Tibet and America’s vis-à-vis Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein.  In these various cases, as different as the specific are, we see that marching in and promising to “modernize” a supposedly “benighted” populace can have complicated results that fly in the face of expectations by those who want to be seen as “liberators” and welcomed as such. Those at the receiving end of seemingly benevolent enterprises keep rejecting the premises of those claiming to bring a certain kind of salvation, since very few people want to have any particular version of “modernity” enforced on them. The expansionist moves Beijing has been making lately are not like the military invasions through which Japan tried to set up its Tokyo-centered “Greater East Co-Prosperity Sphere” in the 1930s, but there are homologies worth noting, including efforts to exert control via puppet-like figures, who are linked to a locale but not really working for the interests of the locals—Pu Yi in the short-lived state of Manchukuo, C.Y. Leung in the case of contemporary Hong Kong.

One of the themes of your book is that there are different forms and types of authoritarianism, and also different individual responses — particularly artistic responses — to an overbearing state. Is it actually useful to evaluate Chinese art, literature, and film as either supporting or subverting that state, as critics so often do when talking about figures like Mo Yan or Ai Weiwei? 

One thing that creative figures do in many places is create challenging works, but there is a tendency when dealing with authoritarian states and sometimes simply places outside of the West to try to squeeze figures into the box of either loyalist or dissident, stooge or bold voice of conscience. It’s more useful, in China’s case, to think of a spectrum, with figures falling at different points along it—and not always the same place during their careers. My favorite contemporary Chinese author, Yu Hua, and my favorite contemporary Chinese filmmaker, Jia Zhangke, are cases in point, as both have created works that have been censored, yet neither fits the profile of the dissident artist who ends up in prison or exile. In the book, I stress that there are similarly hard to categorize figures in other places, using Mark Twain, my favorite American author, as a case in point, as he was both a part of the American literary establishment and someone who sometimes had trouble with censors and was seen by some as dangerously subversive, due to such things as his trenchant criticisms of American imperialism. People never seemed to feel, though, the need to ask the sort of question of him that they asked of Mo Yan when he won the Nobel: “Is he a dissident?”

In the book, you point to — and disagree with — two extreme viewpoints regarding China. One, symbolized by Gordon Chang, sees the Chinese government as on the verge of collapse; the other, symbolized by Martin Jacques, sees Beijing as fated to rule the world. A third camp — which believes China will “muddle through,” neither collapsing nor overcoming its economic and social issues — doesn’t get nearly as much attention. What do you think of the “muddling through” hypothesis? 

It’s important, whether wrestling with the future of China’s economy or its political system, to make room for the possibility that “muddling through” rather than something more dramatic is an option, especially given how often more spectacular predictions have proved wrong. There’s an excellent recent London Review of Booksessay by Ken Pomeranz, my former UCI colleague who is now at the University of Chicago, which lays out the reason to think China might “muddle through” economically for some time yet, and I’ve been reading an advance copy of a forthcoming Oxford University Press book by Bruce Dickson, The Dictator’s Dilemma, which makes the case for a the CCP “muddling through” politically.

There’s another kind of false dichotomy out there associated with When China Rules the World by Martin Jacques, which is an all or nothing view of Chinese versus Western ways and globalization. Namely, there’s a notion that as China becomes a more and more central player in international affairs, which is indeed probably inevitable, it will either need to slot itself into the status quo, shifting to be more and more like the United States, or the global order will become more Sinicized. What gets lost in this way of framing the discussion is the possibility that China will partially accommodate itself to previous norms while the international systems shifts a bit. Once again, it’s harder to turn that scenario into a sensationalistic sound bite—what in one review I referred to as a book with a “thesis-thumping title”—but it is one we would be foolish to ignore.

By SHANNON TIEZZI Mar. 31, 2016 on The Diplomat

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