Globalist Paper

China in My Life — A Personal Journey: The 1960s

What happened when China was eclipsed by the rise of neighboring Japan?

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Takeaways


  • In the first half of the 20th century, China was what in contemporary parlance would be called a "failed state." Its archaic, incompetent and thoroughly corrupt ancient regime finally collapsed in 1911.
  • The academic conundrum of modern Asian history at the time was: Why had Japan "succeeded," while China had "failed"?
  • In the course of the 1970s, openness toward the "Maoist model" grew after the Paris events of May 1968.
  • By the late 1960s, the question was posed as to whether Japan had been a success at all. Perhaps China was the real success story.

In 1967, I went from Southeast Asia to Oxford for my doctorate. Japan was by then, in the full surge of its “economic miracle.” The time I had spent there the previous year had awakened a considerable personal curiosity in Japanese history.

I did my thesis on the transformation of Japan during the late Edo and early Meiji periods (1850-1885). Throughout the 1970s I taught Asian history at Stirling University in Scotland. I continued going regularly — and for extended periods of sabbatical leave — to Asia, especially Japan, for research.

The academic conundrum of modern Asian history at the time was: Why had Japan “succeeded,” while China had “failed”?
What had occurred in Japan with the transformations undertaken during the Meiji period (1868-1912) was truly remarkable. In the space of a very short few decades, Japan moved from feudal isolation to world power.

In 1902, it became Britain’s only ally. In 1905, it defeated Russia in war. At the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, Japan was invited to participate as one of the “Big Five” — along with France, Britain, Italy and the United States.

China, by contrast, went during the same period from humiliation to humiliation — and on into rapid decline. China’s share of global GDP declined from 33% in 1820 to 5% in 1950.

It was, as it was termed at the time, “the sick man of Asia” — and hence the target of Western and Japanese imperialism. It resulted in becoming what the Chinese revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen called a “poly-colony.”

In the first half of the 20th century, China was what in contemporary parlance would be called a “failed state.” Its archaic, incompetent and thoroughly corrupt ancient regime finally collapsed in 1911.

That turn of events ushered in a protracted period of warlordism, civil war, hyper-inflation, anarchy, millions and millions of refugees and displaced persons, and great hardship and suffering for the people.

There were multiple answers provided for the question of Chinese “failure” versus Japanese “success.”

These ranged from the anthropological — had Japan succeeded because it successfully “Westernized” — to arguing that it had retained its identity and hence underwent “Japanist” modernization?

More political was the question of whether the Meiji “success” story had sown the ingredients for the militarist and imperialist fascism that Japan espoused in the 1930s. The alternative view was to argue that the Meiji period really was a liberal revolution that had been aborted in the 1930s by militarist fascists able to exploit the dramas of the great depression — which hit Japan especially hard.

By the late 1960s, with the rise of what at the time was termed the “new left,” the question was posed as to whether Japan had been a success at all. Perhaps China was the real success story. In this view, its earlier turmoil had paved the way for the perception of an emerging Utopian Maoist society.

As regards to China, the prevalent historiographical perspective was that, in the face of the Western industrial and imperialist challenge, Chinese leadership, institutions and Chinese “culture” had failed to modernize — and hence decomposed into anarchic obsolescence.

The cultural failure of China, it should be stressed, was seen as including Confucianism — portrayed at the time as a major obstacle to growth and development.

The beginnings of China’s modern awakening were welcomed in intellectual movements, such as the May 4, 1919 movement that rejected Confucianism and adapted “modern” (aka “Western”) idealist goals — such as science and democracy.

But in the course of the 1970s, openness toward the “Maoist model” grew after the Paris events of May 1968 and the anti-PRC McCarthyist paranoia disappeared in the United States.

With the rise of a new left that was as anti-Stalinist as it was anti-capitalist, Maoist China appeared as the “perfect” model.

Although by the late 1960s and early 1970s, China was in the throes of the cultural revolution — which we now know was a period of ideological barbarity. That era caused great suffering to millions and millions of Chinese. And yet, the idealized view of the cultural revolution came to dominate an increasingly wide circle of Western opinion leaders.

For example, the very eminent Cambridge economist Joan Robinson wrote a highly pro-Maoist account, entitled simply The Chinese Cultural Revolution. She took the view not only that the cultural revolution was emphatically a good thing for China, but that it could and should be imported, at least in parts, into the West.

And in 1963, Jan Myrdal wrote what in Western Maoist lore could be termed a path-breaking book, entitled “Report from a Chinese Village”. Highly sympathetic account of the rural collectivization taking place. It was followed by other pro-Maoist works in the latter part of the sixties and seventies.

Editor’s Note: Read Part I here and part III here.

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About Jean-Pierre Lehmann

Jean-Pierre Lehmann (1946-2017) was emeritus professor of international political economy at IMD in Lausanne, Switzerland, and a Contributing Editor at The Globalist. [Switzerland]

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