The Powers of Xi Jinping: The 2021 Lord Caradon Lecture at the University of Plymouth, October 2021

It is an honour to be asked to deliver this year’s annual Lord Caradon lecture.  When I put up on social media news of this, an academic friend in America whose family originally hailed from Jamaica sent a message saying how his father and mother has strong memories of Hugh Foot, as he then was, and his time as Governor in Chief on the island. As Minister of State for the Foreign Office, no doubt Lord Caradon in the 1960s would have spent time thinking about the role of the People’s Republic of China. But at that time, the UK still had yet to start ambassadorial level diplomatic relations. The Cultural Revolution in China was raging. The mission that existed in what was then called, by the UK, Peking, was sacked, with British diplomats there beaten up. And effigies of Harold Wilson, the Prime Minister, were burnt in the centre of the city, despite Wilson’s refusal to allow British troops to fight in Vietnam.

When we hear about the fractious and challenging role of China today, it is good sometimes to give a sense of perspective and remember what it was like in the depths of the Cold War. I asked a colleague who had been active at this time in issues relating to China what it was like back then. They laughed and said that even mentioning one was interested in the country risked causing criticisms, so many just kept silent. These days, things at least haven’t got to that level. Yet!

We should be interested in China.  And we should certainly be as interested and engaged with its politics in ways that most people are about US or European issues. Sometimes I am envious of my academic colleagues who deal with these areas. They don’t need to explain the importance of what they are talking about. Why does the US or Europe matter are questions where the answer is self-evident. But until quite recently, the same kind of question about China was often levelled at me, without it sounding slightly odd or redundant. One of the side effects of the pandemic that has afflicted the whole world in the last 18 months, and is largely regarded as having originated in China, is that that question has now definitely been answered. It was always true, but now we are all crystal clear – what happens in a country that accounts for a fifth of humanity and a fifth of global GDP matters to everyone. Good or bad, we all live in a world now where China is part of our environment. The idea of being able to delink from that is simply impossible.

In that context, this is why Xi Jinping should be someone who figures in our thinking and our minds as much as Joe Biden or, until she finally retires, Angela Merkel or Vladimir Putin. Most of the time, in Western media, when Xi appears, it is usually with an air of mystery or some implication that he reigns over China’s 1.4 billion people like some Medieval despot. Not a word gets spoken in China, not a whisper uttered, without Xi being able to hear. He fits into the archetypal `Big Brother’ figure in Orwell’s dystopian classic, `1984’ – that benign, smiling face looking down from every wall and screen and newspaper, gazing into our eyes, ubiquitous, overwhelming, and very very terrifying.

Xi Jinping is now imputed with levels of power that equate him with his predecessor some decades ago as Communist Party leader Mao Zedong. This is quite some claim. Mao Zedong was instrumental in the Party from its foundation in 1921, a hundred years ago, when it had only a few dozen members. He rose to power over two decades, winning fights against other figures in the Party, against a group of Moscow backed activists, and then against the onslaught of the presiding government of China then, the Nationalists, and the Japanese, who launched a devastating war against the country in 1937. Mao Zedong was the proclaimer of the foundation of the People’s Republic in 1949. In his 27 years in control, not a single figure managed to successfully contest his power. From the aforementioned Cultural Revolution in 1966 onwards, the levels of devotion given to Mao came close to the religiously ecstatic. Mao was in people’s hearts, under their skin, in their morning and their night. To contest him was to sign ones own death warrant. Can we really say that Xi Jinping has power like this?

To complicate matters, however, we have to remember that however vast Mao’s powers, the China he ruled was not the same place as today. It was a marginalised, isolated country, which, through falling out with its main patron the USSR, had only one formal ambassador abroad by 1966. It was a country where 90 per cent of people lived in rural areas, where their standards of living were undeveloped, and their lifestyle almost pre-modern. The Communists did dramatically improve life expectancy, literacy, and other developmental measures. But to visit China of 1970, and to compare it to the place half a century later often seems to involve moving between two worlds. Xi might not in himself have the reach of Mao’s power – but he is in charge of a country with the world’s largest navy, in vessel terms, which stands on the cusp of being the world’s largest economy, which is the largest trading partner of 120 plus other countries, which has produced world leaders in telecoms and hi tech, and is now sending space shuttles to land on Mars. Say what one likes about Xi’s power, but of China’s power there is no dispute.

And that is to me a crucial issue. Where does the boundary between Xi as a political, public figure, and the country he serves and represents end? Xi’s China is often presented as a place that is slightly different from China in itself. But what is this place, where he casts such a long shadow? IN the Mao era one went to a China where the Chairman’s image was almost everywhere, where reference to him saturated daily language, where he was a living part of everyone’s daily lives. In Xi’s China, I can attest, through constant, frequent visits till the pandemic ended these, at least for now, there is nothing like this blanket coverage.  Xi ‘s image is present, but only in government buildings and in state media. People’s daily lives are preoccupied by the same challenges of late modernity as anywhere else – saving money to buy expensive accommodation, commuting long hours each day to work in offices that look like those in London or New York – in fact, that look newer than these!  For Mao’s China, people were not so much a captive audience, but one addicted to their love of the Chairman. For Xi, the Party has a wholly different challenge – to at least engage and fight for air time with the million and one other things that distract people online or in the ever shifting spectacle of their daily lives.

As an attempt to remedy this, a great deal of the Xi message has been to gain power through telling stories.  There is the story of Xi himself, deployed in state media – of the man who came from an elite background in Beijing, whose father had been an ally of Mao in the pre-PRC period,  but then felled in a political campaign in the 1960s and put under house arrest. In the Cultural Revolution Xi was sent from school to the rural area in central China where the Communist Party had taken refuge in the 1930s and 1940s, Ya’nan. This is Xi the peasant emperor tale, the one about the man who despite these setbacks then rose from the lowest level of government at the village level to become a provincial, then a national leader, and now sits at the heart of the whole system. IN this story, Xi is someone who had earned what he now enjoys. He also shows that for Chinese, they can aspire, they can enjoy the Chinese dream, rather than carry on being addicted by the American one!

But behind this is the larger story, the one that is promoted to the great, emerging middle class, the builders of the new China. In Mao’s era, it was the farmers, the rural dwellers, who formed his base. These people embraced the liberation ideology of the Party. The outside world heard, and still knows a lot about, how intellectual and other elites in Mao’s time suffered. It is true. They suffered, sometimes terribly.  But there is a strong argument that for the vast vast majority of the people, Mao’s government lifted them from poverty, and made their lives measurably better. In Xi’s China too, while there are credible reports of the dismay of specific members of the government and intellectual elite being appalled at Xi’s consolidation of powers, the middle class are the new base. For this group, while an appeal based on Marxism Leninism or socialism with Chinese characteristics would be highly limited. But as Xi and the circle around him have shown, when one starts to talk of the rise of the great Chinese nation, of its now being  on the cusp of an historic renaissance, where, with the Communist Party’s guidance and support, it is about to reclaim its pre modern status as one of the great countries of the world – perhaps the greatest – then one is occupying far more solid ground. For Xi, if there is power, it resides in this story in particular – a story of nationalism, where Chinese people themselves can witness the reality of their country’s new found confidence and power by simply looking around them. The monuments to this are not revolutionary struggle, or Maoist devotion, but the 36 thousand kilometres of high speed rail lines built in the last decade, more than the rest of the world put together, or the construction of the world’s fastest computer, or the amazing ultra modernist architecture of the great urban landscapes of Shanghai, or Shenzhen, with skyscrapers that now rank in the world’s top ten.

When we think about power in contemporary China, we have to step back and look at some of the long, and often stubbornly, held assumptions we might have, things that have nothing to do with China itself. Those notions about oriental despotism, fortified from the 17th century onwards by figures like Montesquieu and others who often portrayed Chinese emperors as almost mythical in their remoteness and the size of their powers. Even people who had direct experience from Europe of the nature of these powers at this time however started to see a more complex reality. The Dutch embassy to China in 1795 – only a year or so after the far better known British one under Lord Macartney, had to endure in their overland journey from southern China to the emperors seat in Beijing often harsh and primitive conditions. This was not because their visit was unsupported by the ruler. On the contrary, they came with Qianlong’s full support. The issue was the ways that local officials obediently followed instructions, while siphoning off as much of the central budget for the hosting of the tour for their own needs as they could. Surface respect for the powers of the emperor was fine. Underneath that, it was anyone’s game!   That captures something about power in China to this day – something that at the same time is immense and frightening, but also strangely dissipated and inefficient because of the ways it is held in the hands of only one limited figure with all the of the issues of overstretch and overburden.  

Before we get too excited by the discovery of a new oriental despot, a figure of vast and all penetrating abilities, we might set aside this historic template, and start to locate Xi in a more contemporary context. First of all, we have to remember from what his powers flows – the body that he leads. With its 92 million members, the Communist Party of China, fresh from celebrating its hundredth anniversary in existence, is a very different body to that of the Mao era. It is a well trained, highly hierarchical, well funded and well entrenched entity. In the new history of the Party’s hundred years, issued only this April, the lines put it well: the party is east, west, south, north, and at the centre. It is something created by all of Xi’s predecessors, with ability to control the military, the economy through state enterprises, and the whole of society through various different bodies and governance mechanisms. This is one of the world’s most formidable collective enterprises. Any one who heads such a body would be powerful per se. Xi is the person heading it now. By definition, he is powerful, but through the Party.

Beyond this, we have to remember the new suite of technologies that the Party and Xi’s China now enjoy. These give state capacity a reach that is unprecedented. If Xi’s style of power is autocratic and centralising, that is in large part because artificial intelligence, big data harvesting, and a host of other new capabilities have made this so. The lamentable and disturbing situation in Xinjiang, in the north west of the country, is a case in point – mass incarceration and indoctrination of people of largely Uyghur ethnicity over the last three years which have attracted international attention, and condemnation. We have to remember though that repression in this area, and others in the country, is hardly a new thing. What is new is the ability by the state through face recognition and online tracking to keep tabs on the population in ways that the Mao era could only have dreamed of. Xi’s China may be one of repression and the quashing of specific communities. But there is an important discussion about whether the real agent here is not so much Xi and the politicians around him, but the cyber world itself, the same kind of villain that the West also struggles with in their constant veering between addiction and revulsion at the world social media has created, and how it impacts on the real material and social world!

Finally there is the question of just how solitary Xi is sitting at the heart of this techno-nationalistic Party edifice steering the country towards its moment of rejuvenation fuelled by the huge swathes of the middle class. Xi has to be accorded, even by those who are most severely critical of him, at least some solid political skill. If we see the context of his power more clearly, then we can understand better how it works. He has clarified the key audience – that middle class – the base that he needs to craft messages for and whose aspirations he needs to address. He has created the key means of doing this – the story of nationalism, of the resurrection of the great Chinese nation with its own successful form of modernity. On top of this, he has articulated a much more domestic set of policies, ones around common prosperity which are aimed at showing the Communist Party is on the side of the everyday people, helping them buy their houses, have better health care, enjoy a better physical environment,  and have a social security net to fall back on when times get hard.  Is this such a hard group to understand, or a hard message to relate to, for outsiders, when one thinks of the sorts of issues post Brexit and Post Trump that politicians in Europe or America are also trying to face. Xi is in the business too of levelling up – and of doing something about the massive inequalities and inequities that afflict Chinese society just as much as they do western ones. He has defined the core people within the Communist Party itself that can support his political project, rather than him as a person – the sort of people the outside world might not know much about, but who form part of the deep establishment, a network of military, party, business and others who will define their interests in ways that are compatible with the Xi political mission.

And finally, he has also defined the mission – the march towards a China which is strong, unified, developed, wealthy, and able to stand up against the rest of the world. None of the Xi goals and methods of behaving are particularly new – the Party has always been keen to use new technology, it has always been dependent on nationalist messages, the middle class has been emerging for decades now as the country has urbanised and its economy developed.  But what is new is the ways these have all come together at one particular moment. Looking at the individual figure of Xi as though all this were simply about him, his hubris, his ambitions, his ego, would be a massive misperception. It would also make the challenge of what we are looking at in China now from the outside far simpler than it actually is.  It is Xi’s symbolic value – the ways in which his sort of Leadership with a capital L has been crafted, by him and many many others, to promote a corporate plan, and to be a central, strategic role in this, – that most matters. The highly deliberate and collectively constructed nature of this is the key thing – the ways in which it has been collaborative and jointly constructed.  Looking at the key role for instance of the main current Party ideologue Wang Huning, and his work on stressing the importance of party culture and the sustainability of that as the key basis of its power is helpful here. In that context, the story and the strategy came first – then the kind of architecture that was needed to carry this forward followed afterwards. The Xi Leadership is part of this – but only part of it.

So next time you see, on TV or in the news, on the internet, or even on film, that figure of Xi with his big brother like gaze and the massive power imputed to him, remember too that even in Orwell’s vision, Big Brother was merely a front for a vast network of complex and more hidden issues, and a story and aim that was designed to transcend the bounds of any one person. Think beyond the face of Xi, to the story that Xi is the mouthpiece of, and the vast Party and its culture that his leadership is a major tool to promote, along with the very specific ways that this has been created for the audience – the great middle class, with all their complexity, the urgency of their aspirations, and the critical challenges that the Xi Leadership and the Party have in trying to address and appeal to this group. Scratch your head perhaps. Look bewildered. You should do. In this whole context, who leads, who is lead, and where the threads of power go are never, ever easy to follow. One thing I have to make clear after years of trying to work this one out. Whatever you conclude, whatever you think, beware of the simple story and the easy conclusion. And look at the image of one man controlling all of this at your peril. The power is almost certainly somewhere else.

(Lecture available at

Mission Almost Impossible: The 1795 Dutch Mission to China

The mission by Lord George Macartney to Qing China from 1793 to 1794 has become a legendary one. This is both because Macartney himself kept a journal of the events that happened, as did his secretary John Barrow. Both testified to an encounter with a culture which was infuriatingly opaque to them, resistant to their overtures to open up trading links, and seemingly highly insular and archaic. The torturous negotiations on the Chinese side for the visiting foreigners to kowtow before the reigning Qianlong emperor, along with the somewhat messy compromise reached at the end of this (Macartney merely bowed his head, dignity, in his view, retained) remain symbols of a history of miscommunication, misalignment, and, ultimately, mistrust and dislike. Half a century later, it was the superior war ships of the British navy during the Opium War that were forging a new, and, in China’s eyes, far more tragic and harmful diplomacy.

American sinologist Tonio Andrade in `The Last Embassy’ puts the record straight in showing that the Macartney experience was neither typical, nor in any sense final in terms of Sino-European encounters at this time. Isaac Titsingh, a Dutch with long experience of living in Japan in the late 18th century, and his compatriot Andreas Van Braam, were mandated by the Dutch government in the form of the Prince Regent, William of Orange, to visit the emperor of the great Qing empire in his palace in Beijing. The overture to the Qing court was embraced, the curiosity of Qianlong piqued, and the Dutch embassy hastily enjoined to come as soon as they could to enjoy an audience at the court.

Unlike Macartney, who with his entourage largely made his way in the comfort of his own boat, travelling only the most final stage by land, the Dutch did the vast majority of their travel to Beijing by palanquins, horses and on foot. Using a variety of sources, Andrade gives their experiences immediacy by writing in the present tense, and adopting a clear narrative structure. At each stage of the journey, the visiting ambassadors are confronted with physical hardship, and venal local officials who seem to interpret their instructions from the imperial hand in Beijing with great latitude. It takes the visitors a while to work out that they are regarded largely as a source of potential profit and personal gain by those looking after them. The budget for their accommodation for instance is clearly being skimmed off by allocating them often dismal and uncomfortable dwellings along the way, while the shortfall between actual and real costs goes into the pockets of others. At times, the roughness of the terrain, the fickleness of the porters who often get employed and then abscond with a short time once their pay has been paid, and the harsh climate almost finish the Dutch off. Nor are they aware that the sponsors of their visit back home are forced from power by French invasion halfway through their mission.

Despite all this, they make it to their destination, and are able to gain access to the octogenarian emperor, not once by several times. Here Andrade’s account starts having eerie echoes with the experience of anyone today dealing with high level political figures in China. Despite the drama and theatrical splendour while they are immediately before the emperor himself, in terms of their own lodging in the imperial palace or its environs, things are often shockingly primitive. (I allowed myself a short sigh at this point of the book, remembering a moment when I had to take a toilet break while in a meeting in one of the splendid ceremonial meeting halls in the great Zhongnanhai leadership compound in central Beijing a few years ago, and found myself in a lavatory which made a run down three star hotel in provincial China look like a palace!).  The attitude and behaviour of people around the emperor too seems anything but reverential. They are often scurrying around, seeming to be heedless of the great figure in their midst, sometimes arguing, creating loud noise, and at other times simply cramming themselves into different rooms and spaces. A whole book could be written about the mysterious behaviour of Chinese crowds. They have, after all, been one of the great actors of Chinese imperial and modern history – perhaps the only single constant one.  Even the quality of the food leaves the visitors baffled – often simply inedible, apart from some small delicacies delivered as a sign of Qianlong’s favour, which then end up partly on the plates of other officials eager to get at least a bit of these rarities.

Andrade makes the sound point that while history has been harsh to the way in which the Dutch, unlike the British, did kowtow, in the end their mission was a more successful one because at least it showed there were ways in which one might be able to operate and engage with Chinese officials in ways that didn’t lead to the sort of disconnect the British experienced. The author is probably right that a lot of diplomacy, both then and now, not just in China but elsewhere, is purely trading in symbols, and that China has clearly always been in the business of rewarding recognition of its status with good favours in return. Even so, it’s clear to see why in the more transactional environment the world was moving into from the time of the 1795 mission, the priority China placed on this, and the often huge disconnect between lower level officials seeming to only want to pursue their own gains, and the top levels of the Qing system, with its yearning for validation and respect, were going to be problematic. Andrade’s conclusion was that the Dutch in 1795 were a success, and though he doesn’t state it so explicitly and crudely, this was because they had no real business to transact. They did not wish to open markets, do any treaties, establish any real business links. Had they tried to do so, one wonders if the outcome would have been any different to that of the Macartney effort.

It is important though to understand this rich history of interaction between Chinas that existed in the past, and those that came to speak to them, and work with them, which is why this book, clearly and well written and so engaging, is valuable. One  of the many things one can learn from it is that successfully dealing with the theatre and symbolism of high level political in China is one thing; getting down to real practicalities is another. It is possible to use the first as a basis to move on to the second. Some countries and companies and individuals manage this. But it is a frustrating business – and one that many, who are not in the mindset of constantly operating in asymmetrical relationships find hard to do. One could argue that today, at least, one of the most fundamental issues between the US and China is that clearly neither side feels the other gives them the respect they deserve, or therefore doesn’t understand them. Whether the Macartney approach or the Titsingh/Van Braam one offers any alternatives is a sobering thought. Perhaps, despite the changes of the last two centuries or more, there really are just two approaches – to compromise, or to walk away. The problem today for those who want to adopt the latter, is where, exactly, do you walk to!

Roman Britain’s Fall

The Material Fall of Roman Britain, 300-525 CE

Robin Fleming, professor of history at Boston College, was the author a decade ago of `Britain After Rome’ , a tremendous account of the period from 400 to 1070 CE. One of the most haunting parts of the story she tells there  is the period immediately after formal Roman occupation ended, around 410, when the parts of the British islands controlled by Rome fell into a period of decline and economic collapse.  Uniquely, for an historian, Fleming used the archaeological records, rather then the sparse and often contradictory documentary evidence, to show a country where brick buildings slowly fell into disrepair, cities were abandoned, or inhabited by shadowy figures who seemed to occupy wooden structures alongside the great, fraying Roman buildings beside them, and metal money simply disappeared.

Her newest work, the monograph, `The Material Fall of Roman Britain – 300-525CE’ , deepens her previous account. It, like that work, marries archaeology with history. Her extensive reference list shows that she has quarried the vast, but often very hard to read, dig reports that have been produced over the last few decades. Bit by bit, these have supplied some answers to the question of what happened in the so-called `dark ages’ (a phrase she wisely does not deploy).  Her great achievement is to supply an integrated, explanatory narrative, drawing all of this together.

The Victorian period, with its renewed interest in British history, and how that related to British identity, was keen to stake out a distinctive Anglo-Saxon label – one on which the democratic and cultural norms of Great Britain over a millennium later could seek some legitimacy and foundations.  For that, the story was simply one of one group of interlopers, the Romans, clearing off, and then, over a few generations, the wholesale arrival of a new group. Bede, the great 8th century historian, but one Fleming only refers to twice in her new work,  wrote of the Jutes, Anglos and Saxons from continental Europe, and their gradual, but eventually complete, annexation first of the Kingdom of Kent, and then of further afield. For Bede, these were heathens who were eventually to see the light and convert to Christianity. Indigenous British were a silent part of this story – present, implicitly, but rarely referred to in any great detail. They were the people who were crushed under the Romans, whose plight under another guise continued in the new wave of migrants.

Fleming’s wonderfully stimulating narrative, woven through stories of pottery, metalwork, masonry, and the physical remains that have been so painstakingly refound in modern times by archaeologists, justifies the use in the title of the word `material’ she has chosen of her new work. The one thing one can say with any real certainty is that the withdrawal of Roman governance, military, and supply links around the second decade of the fifth century is marked by radical material change in Britain. Coins disappear. Goods imported from the continent become rarer. Buildings like villas, civic locations, army or farm structures, ceased operating. On the surface, all of this sure looks like some kind of collapse. But what sort was it? Invasion? (but then why the lack of widescale evidence of the sort of slaughter spoken of dramatically by Gildas in his `Ruin of Britain’ from a century or so later). Widescale migration, with incomers supplanting indigenous peoples? DNA and Isotope evidence, deployed brilliantly by Fleming, shows that there certainly was migration – but as much within the islands of Britain, and from west to east, as from the continent. And as she argues forcefully, whereas once lack of DNA technology meant easy assumptions could be made about the kinds of broaches or jewellery people were buried wearing and the ethnicity of their owners, this is no longer the case. As is true today, people from different backgrounds and places can adopt  similar fashions – sometimes it might carry clues to their ethnic identity. A lot of the time, it simply says something about them as people, people who wanted to express perhaps individuality that had nothing to do with their genes!

There are fascinating insights that Fleming draws from her hard labours in the archaeology archives. One point she makes, very germane to a more standard recent history of the Anglo-Saxon era, Marc Morris’s latest book is that while the documentary record is overwhelmingly a male centred one (as though to verify this, Morris’s key historic figures on which he bases each of his chapters are all men – something he admits but justifies because of the sheer amount of material about them), the archaeological record is overwhelmingly of women – women’s burials, for instance, and the clothing and ornamentation they wore.  There is also her analysis of the phenomenon of infant burials. The Opies, in their great historic work on nursery rhyme histories, ominously referred to the origins of `London Bridge is Falling Down’ in the custom of burying corpses of babies at the foundations of water crossings. The implication that these were sacrifices is countered by the far more sober discussion that Fleming presents of people over the 5th to 6th century adopting habits that were akin to those in Gaul or elsewhere in the remnants of the Roman empire, where the high number of babies stillborn, or dying in childhood through natural causes, were often buried, carefully and perhaps ritualistically, under the floors of habitations, or food storage places. The highly deliberate nature of this practice indicates a belief system, some attempt perhaps to honour the lives of the very young who had been taken so quickly, or to celebrate some way of them continuing to be part of the world of the living through their constant presence.

Whoever the people were who played a role in the society and economy of this period, they had belief systems like any other peoples. Some of this must have been directed towards the material residue of their most recent history, when Rome was a presence in Britain’s life through what Fleming calls the 15 per cent who were administrators, servants of the occupying authority, and whose life was dependent on food and material support from the other 85 per cent, through exacting taxes and tithes. Making sense of the deterioration of brick, tile and stone build structures is key here. Fleming shows, through pottery and other crafts, how deskilling certainly occurred, dramatically, over this era – with smelting and other abilities not making a reappearance for hundreds of years. In the 6th and 7th centuries, as Christianity took root again in Britain, and churches were built, stone buildings became more common once more. These often used material from the older, derelict structures. But perhaps the reason those earlier Roman era structures fell into disuse in the first place was because of their associations with a previous oppressive regime – one towards which the collective memory was in flight from.

There are many more reasons to read this tremendous new work. It has important, and subtle, things to say to the current debates about what Anglo-Saxon as a term means, and how much this period created the nation and the identity that went with it, over the ensuing centuries. Fleming herself uses the term early medieval to create some conceptual distance from the older way of seeing things. One impressive feature of Fleming’s work is how it shows that even in the era 300 to 525 CE, whatever British society existed was one characterised by mobility, acceptance of external influences and trade, and, at times, hybridity. It is a fond thought, and no doubt an unrealistic one, but if some of those loudly declaring accepted `facts’ about Britain’s development from this time as evidence for their current attitudes were to read, and reflect, on this work, they might well find new liberating vistas and insights. In Fleming’s book, they are there in abundance – on, in fact, almost every page.

The Path of Chinese Modernity – Institutions and Themes

The history of modern China (which is, for the purposes at least of this piece, from the mid-Qing around 1750 CE down to today) is a divided one. Here, by `divided’ I mean one that is usually carved up into four broad phases. Qing ruled ended in 1911-12, which also brought to an end what most historians describe as `Imperial China’. From 1911 to 1949, there was the Republican Era. Then from 1949, after the People’s Republic of China was founded under the Communists, there was the Maoist era up to 1978 (just lasting two years after Mao Zedong’s death) and finally the `reform and opening up’ era. We live in that period to today.

German sinologist Klaus Muhlhahn in `Making China Modern’, a recent account of the country’s history from what the book’s subtitle poetically describes as `The Great Qing to Xi Jinping’ gently contests this division. Firstly, he shows that there were continuities across these temporal divides. This contests the sort of value judgements one might be tempted to give to parts of this history in order to characterise them – ideas like the one that the Qing was an unmitigated disaster from the 1840s onwards after the First Opium War with the British, or that the Republican period was nothing but chaos and war. Muhlhahn’s corrective to this overneat narrative is to show that for former, there were plenty of successful reforms, and that these served as a basis for the changes that came after its demise, and for the latter it too saw periods of effectiveness and functionality, even though the Sino-Japanese War from 1937 brutally damaged and almost destroyed it.

More boldly, the book argues (right at the start, from the third of its 620 pages) that institutions are the key means to understand China’s modernity and rise. And the process by which these institutions were formed goes deep into the Qing era – this was not some innovation that the Communists in more recent times can take credit for.

On the surface, the argument about institutions mattering so much in this history seems a contentious one. A lot of the challenges that China in any of its modern guises has gone through have often been put down to precisely the opposite – lack of institutional structure. Administrations lacked fiscal and governance systems, because of the largely decentralised mode of rule under the remote imperial regime. At times in the 20th century, even under Mao, it seemed that China had no governance at all – in the Republican period’s early and later years, for instance, or the Cultural Revolution from 1966. But Muhlhahn makes a strong and persuasive case for how, if one looks hard, institutions were always there. They were there in the era of the imperial Qing examination system, which, in his view erroneously, was phased out as a so-called reform in the first decade of the twentieth century. They were also there in the creation of business networks, and trade protocols, when the Republicans were at their most competent. They were there during the time of militarisation under Mao (the military effectively ran the country in the late 1960s, though at Mao’s behest – he was, after all, a military leader before anything else). Most strikingly, they were there in the ever present bureaucracy, and the ethos supporting it, which managed to survive through the whole of this period, albeit taking various guises and sizes.

This focus on institutions does supply something that is all too often lacking in histories of modern China – and there have been many of them – and that is a thread of tangible continuity. Institutions, after all, can take many guises. The main thing is that they are social, and collaborative. And Chinese society, with its supposed emphasis on the collective, should be a benign environment for such entities, rather than a hostile one. As thought to prove this, we can see the Communist Party of China, as it has grown from 51 members in 1921 to over 90 million today, as some kind of culmination of this – the institution to end all others, with its own spaces, language, ethos, culture, even, somewhat counterintuitively, its own ethos.  As though to prove this,  it is Party sovereignty, rather than state sovereignty, we see exercised in Hong Kong today, and, more distressingly, party ethics in practice in the calculus being made in Xinjiang.

Muhlhahn’s book is written authoritatively, and, because of this clear focus on institutions, lucidly. His choice of key events and the way in which he weaves these into an holistic interpretative framework is inspirational. Often, in these larger scale histories, the most difficult choice is what to leave out. This book addresses that by showing right from the start that for all the differences of the various phases of modern Chinese history, the underpinning search for national regeneration and a security to preserve that,  most recently acquired through economic development, gives a thematic coherence that runs all the way through. That means that you don’t need to have to start telling a wholly new story after each regime change – you just have to slot the new era into the grand lines that the former one is going along, and see how far you can decipher and describe any new developments. From this viewpoint, stripped of their more ideologically loaded and committed language, the Marxists Leninists around current leader Xi Jinping are simply using a different dialect to speak the same nationalist language in.

This is a wise and measured book – one that, on page 571, contains perhaps one of the pithiest and best judged assessments of the country’s current global role and posture I have read:

               `There is a mismatch between [China’s] appearance and its real footprint. China became part of many international institutions, but often it was only loosely integrated. China often stood alone and didn’t fully succeed in winning over close allies. Even its closest relations with Russia and North Korea remained beset with distrust and rivalry beneath the surface. Its diplomacy also seemed hesitant and narrowly self-interested. China often made known what it opposed, but rarely what it actively supported. Concepts such as “peaceful rise” and “harmonious world” were not very persuasive and Beijing was unable to credibly explain its global ambitions. China’s growing power and regional relationships were often marked by widespread uncertainties and insecurities about the future.’

This was written before the pandemic, but from the vantage point of what has happened over the last year, has a prophetic quality. One might argue that Xi Jinping and his style of confident assertion and bearing are being deployed as a corrective to some of these issues. But a confident, dominant China, if and when it does come to pass, will not eradicate the complex issues of its place in the world; it will just raise different, perhaps even harder to answer ones.  One could do far worse than looking to this book to give at least some well judged and well delivered context of why China is where it is, and starting from that point, prepare for where it is most likely to end up.

China in the World: The Study of World History under the Qing, the Republicans, and the Communists

World History and National Identity in China

Where did this idea come of the introspective, largely self-absorbed Chinese world that used to be one of the popular explanations of why, in the 19th century, the country succumbed so badly to European semi-colonisation and exploitation? Xin Fan’s study, `World History and National Identity in China’ (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2021) gives more than enough evidence that there were figures from the start of the 20th century, when the Qing empire still (just about) existed that were part of a network domestically, and linked to ones internationally, thinking about world history, and what China’s place in that might be. For this influential group, there was nothing self-absorbed or inward looking.

This book, drawing on a huge range of disparate reference materials, in English, Chinese and other languages, lays out the careers of some of these figures, and restores them, at least in the English language, to a more appropriate profile than they have enjoyed in recent times. Chen Hengzhe is one of the most striking – China’s first female professor, educated in the US, and deeply involved in the debates about the teaching, reception and understanding of `world history’ in China through the Republican era (1912-1949).  Her creed was simply expressed: `to seek mutual understanding among humanity, and draw on the cultures of different countries as one common legacy’ (51). He Bingsong was another who had been educated in the US in the 1920s, teaching world history in his native Zhejiang and then Peking University after his return. So too did Lei Haizong, son of a priest ordained by a British missionary, who went to the University of Chicago and then returned to work at Tsinghua around the same time.

These figures matter, as Xin Fan argues through this monograph, because their work, by its very nature, raised important questions about the boundaries between China, with its often asserted unique intellectual heritage and culture, and the wider world. Some of their importance was in being part of a great wave to introduce new ideas and new understanding about the outside world into the country at a time when that external world was all too often imposing itself and figuring in people’s lives in increasingly disruptive ways. But they also, in contrasting ways, and using different starting points, did focus on how generic issues like nationalism, development and the concept of humanity itself, could be thought about, articulated, contest and be embraced within an environment which was undergoing profound change. This did not just mean through the dismantling of the Confucian tradition and its hold over the political and cultural elite which accelerated towards the end of the Qing, but also by China seeing itself as figuring in a process of world development, rather than being some great outcrop, isolated and adrift from everything else. In this era, as Xin succinctly states, `Chen, Lei and He [were] forerunners of world historical studies [where] all attempted to situate China’s past, present and future within a world-historical context in their scholarly works. They realised the value of non-Chinese history; they cared about what was being taught and understood as well as the value of carrying out research in world history’ (84).

The period after 1949, as with almost every other aspect of social and political life in the country, saw seismic change. The People’s Republic of China founded that year under the Communists presented many anomalies. One was this tension between subscribing to a universalist, non-China originated ideology (Marxism-Leninism) but in a way which stressed how this had been adapted and crafted to local particularities and in that process made markedly different. Such a mindset presented many challenges to intellectuals, making them rethink and reposition themselves so that they avoided violating the main, and increasingly large, number of intellectual rules the new regime was setting. This was reinforced by the fact that, as Xin states, Mao Zedong had `a negative view of Chinese intellectuals.’  More practically, those working in World History needed to adapt to the new education system the Communists constructed. Unlike in the past, those embarking on college studies were allocated subjects rather than freely choosing their own (a system that survived to the 1990s). History generally had to be researched within a Marxist framework, with its stipulations about historical determinism. Xin states that `from 1950 to 1978, the Chinese government sent 12,755 students abroad (100).’  8414 of these were to the Soviet Union. That meant that those in what could be broadly described at the humanities, or political science, ended up adopting a largely Soviet view of human development. It also meant that the kinds of primary source material in Latin, Greek, or other European languages apart from Russian that US educated scholars like the three mentioned above had been exposed to in an earlier age were regarded as unimportant and redundant. For contesting this, in the Hundred Flowers Movement in 1957, Lei Haizong was criticised and eventually punished.

There were thornier arguments which continued across the Maoist period. One was about the status of slavery in ancient Chinese history – and the vastly contentious matter of how a concept like feudalism was meaningfully applied to China. This particular issue, along with that around the Asiatic Mode of Production and what it meant, addressed directly the ways in which it was permissible, within a Marxist framework, to allude to unique characteristics of Chinese development, but also exposed how easy it was, with the political winds changing, to find oneself adrift and vulnerable to attack. Throwing Maoism into the mix just thickened the plot, because that of course did create the paradoxical result of a bespoke version of a universal thought system. Xin records the fate of some of the better known World History specialists over this period, and how they survived, or, in some tragic instances, didn’t.

From 1978, the imprecation to `liberate thinking’ under the Deng leadership meant that a sort of renaissance occurred. In the unlikely place of Changchun, north east China, an Institute for the History of Ancient Civilisations was established. Its founder was Lin Zhichun, the doyen of World History studies in China. Over the rest of the decade and into the 1990s, this centre grew, hosting international visitors and creating a global network.  Alongside this, the World Academic Series in Chinese Translation started, in 1981. (By 2011, it had issued 500 translations).  Over a decade later, in the mid 1990s in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, where I was based for two years, I remember being impressed by the vast amount of Western material available in Chinese, of which this was a good example.  This was indeed, as Xin notes `an impressive achievement, especially if compared to Western scholars’ limited efforts to translate ancient Chinese classics’ (157).

All of this simply reinforces the idea that `opening up’ to the outside world, to use the language beloved of Chinese officials today,  far from having started in 1978 out of nowhere, was something created on the foundations of all the work of the many Chinese scholars detailed in this book from a much earlier period. China’s continuing commitment to `internationalisation’ even at a time, as today is, when its global role is so contested, should not therefore be a surprise. Going from this book, the anomaly would be a China that is an inward looking country. The default was always to be curious and engaged with the wider world, with the sole, but very significant change, that these days that engagement is practically so much easier.

The World Turned Upside Down; A Chinese View on the Cultural Revolution

Yang Jisheng’s decades working for Xinhua state news agency were followed by a second career as a newspaper editor, and then historian and writer. It is for the latter that he has become well known outside China. Some of this is due to the sterling work of his translators Stacy Mosher and Guo Jian who have, painstakingly and expertly, edited and then rendered into excellent English first his monumental `Tombstone’, and now `The World Turned Upside Down: A History of the Chinese Cultural Revolution’ (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2021).

`Tombstone’  (墓碑), published in Hong Kong from 2008 to 2010, was, in its original, almost 1200 pages long. A harrowing, data rich account of the great famines from the late 1950s into the early 1960s, it started off a passionate debate inside and outside China about just how many perished in this tragic period of modern Chinese history. Yang’s account was unflinching, almost overwhelming. The English translation brought out from this a more accessible narrative, but one no harder to fully digest in terms of the enormity of the human suffering it reported.

The Cultural Revolution (CR) poses different challenges. One is that in some ways the singular of the movement’s name needs to be made plural. As Yang himself acknowledges, the CR in 1967 and 1968 at its peak was a different kind of happening, and involved different actors, to that during the aftermath of the fall of Mao Zedong’s doomed chosen successor, Lin Biao, in 1971. The most violent period was during the rebellious group uprisings (more popularly known as Red Guards) in university campuses from May 1966 after the Central Committee of the Communist Party, the May 16th Circular, declared that everyone had to:

`hold high the great banner of the proletarian Cultural Revolution, thoroughly expose the reactionary bourgeois stand of those so-called ‘academic authorities’ who oppose the party and socialism, thoroughly criticize and repudiate the reactionary bourgeois ideas in the sphere of academic work, education, journalism, literature and art, and publishing, and seize the leadership in these cultural spheres.‘ (

Yang plots the impact of these, and other similar endorsements to engage in a new kind of revolution, in Beijing and across the rest of the country. The results were diverse, only united by their violence and tendency to produce high levels of disharmony.  In Shanghai, ironically the epicentre of radical leftism despite historically being the home of Chinese capitalism, different factions appeared, clashing against each other, in factories and work units from mid-1966. In Wuhan, even while Mao was resident there in July 1967, frenzied, impassioned competing groups almost invaded his compound. Even in the depths of the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region, in fact, particularly in a place with a complicated ethnic and class composition like this, the turbulence of the movement left deep marks. Yang’s account of the campaign to `dig out’ the Inner Mongolian People’s Party (内人党) leaves little to the imagination. In Siziwanqi area (四子王旗), a little north of the provincial capital of Hohhot:

`Bilig Tumen had each of his teeth pulled out with pliers and his tongue and nose cut off before he finally died. The Secretary of Naiyinebo commune in the Siziwang Banner, Aoribuzhamusu, and his wife were cut with razors after which salt was rubbed in their wounds and re-hot branding irons applied. After husband and wife were tortured to death, their five month old child died of starvation.’ (322)

Acts of barbarity like this are one of the reasons why this period remains so bewildering to this day. They are, alas, by no means isolated. In Guangxi, in the south west of the country, there were well documents occurrences of cannibalism. Tan Hecheng’s `The Killing Winds’, also superbly translated by Mosher and Guo records acts of similar violence in Hunan. How claims that an independence party active in the 1930s before the People’s Republic even existed led, in Inner Mongolia’s case, to the indescribably horrible demise of the two cadres of Mongolian ethnicity three decades later referred to in the quote from Yang above take some explaining. It is not surprising therefore that Yang only partially succeeds in this. He is in good company. Many other fine historians and analysts have also ended up metaphorically scratching their heads and simply sighing when looking at the carnival of violent action and rhetoric, mass campaigns and struggle sessions, and elite fellings that the CR ended up becoming.

If Yang has one overarching argument in this book, it is that the Cultural Revolution in the end was a struggle against a bureaucratic tradition with deep links into Chinese culture, one that the great revolutionary Mao Zedong wanted to finally root out and eradicate. Yang sets out the core parts of this argument in his introduction and first chapter. `The Cultural Revolution was a massive movement,’ he states there, `that swept up the political underclass at the lover level and attacked the bureaucratic clique at the upper level.’ (xxiii).  He argues later that in the late 1950s `Mao broke with the Soviet system by transferring power downward from the central government ministries and departments, but the result was chaos. He attempted another power transfer during the Cultural Revolution, but this merely resulted in another cycle of what is known in Chinese politics as “death in centralisation, and chaos in release”.’ (xxv). In essence, it seems that this argument posits three players – the charismatic leader (Mao), the Party State and its bureaucracy and power elite, and the masses. Attempted alignment between the first and the third of these to supplant the second ended up with instead a chaotic situation where, finally and almost inevitably, the bureaucrats still came out winning.

One can make a lot of this argument. In some ways it might also be a barbed critique-cum-tribute to the endless resilience of the bureaucratic governance system in China, able to survive through history, and still maintain itself despite the onslaught Mao directed at it. Paradoxically, the Cultural Revolution activists themselves far from eschewing bureaucracy ended up creating their own unique version, with the Central Cultural Revolution Leading Group sitting atop a plethora of other groups, some of which (the Central Investigation Group for instance) undertook the main purges and attack campaigners against top level figures. Nor is Yang’s story one where there are any real heroes. The sainted Zhou Enlai comes across as the faithful implementer of Mao’s will, chairing the aforementioned Investigation Group as a kind of willing executioner. Deng Xiaoping was an enthusiastic purger of rightists in the 1950s, only denouncing himself and his former colleagues at the start of the Cultural Revolution, before disappearing to rustification and several years of silence. If there were any real victims, these were the `masses’, the underclass Yang referred to in his trinity of actors mentioned above, who were manipulated by campaigns and propaganda to undertake. Maybe though, this too is not truly reflecting of the uncomfortable truth that for many of these individual actors, while they can excuse themselves on the grounds of being lied to and used, some of the extreme acts they engaged in, and the fervour by which they did this, denotes something deeper about their commitment to the idealistic, but terrifying Utopian vision that the whole movement held before them rather than just brainwashed enforcement.

Much of Yang’s narrative as he goes through the landmarks of the `turbulent decade’ (one, he points out towards the end of the book, that actually lasted not ten, but eleven years if one counts to the end of the Gang of Four’s full downfall) does deal with specific named actors – figures like Peng Zhen, Wu Han, Liu Shaoqi, Lin Biao and his family, and, of course, Jiang Qing. The latter, cast as some demon in the Chinese state propaganda after her husband Mao died in 1976, can be viewed in a different way in the recent BBC documentary `Can’t Get You Out of My Head’ which has excellent footage of her time as an actress in Shanghai in the 1930s, and then during her peak as a demagogue and leftist during the CR years.  Unrepentant at her trial in 1981,  one that Yang himself acknowledges was a travesty of legal process, she was to die in May 1991, committing suicide with tights she had managed to secret in her cell and hang herself with. This happened during my first visit to China. I remember the news being carried, sotto voce, on pages of the international news, but being largely ignored in the country itself. Somewhat bafflingly, recent reports from China state that people have been allowed to visit and pay their respects at her tomb in the lead up to the centenary of the Party’s foundation in mid 2021.

I have often wondered, over the years, reading accounts like that by Yang, and others, what happened to some of the actors referred to as leaders of CR groups or campaigns at more local level. Nie Yuanzi, a firebrand at the Philosophy Department of Beijing University, who wrote Big Character Posters denouncing the university leadership, died at the grand old age of 98 in September 2019, striving to explain herself to the end. Song Binbin, whose pinning of a Red Guard armband during one of the vast rallies held in central Beijing on the arm of Mao Zedong became one of the iconic images of the era, migrated to the US in the early 2000s and then returned to China to work for a British company later in the decade. This was despite claims she had been involved in the beating to death of a school leader. But there are endless other names who simply disappear into silence after their brief appearance during the CR era, some of them named in this book. Many must have had to wrestle with the memories and trauma of the events they had taken part in for the rest of their lives. But to all intents and purposes, they are as good as voiceless now. One can only wonder about them.

Yang of course is both an historian, and a participant, and this tremendous book testifies to his ability simultaneously to be in the events he talks about, but also be able to observe them from outside. In a sense, he is a bit like the director, Hitchcock, who famously usually did cameos in his films. Yang appears briefly in his own account, during the hottest phase of the CR in 1966, and then in December 1978 towards the end of his book, looking at Wall Posters in Xidan, during the brief and ill-fated Democracy Wall Movement. Whether his overarching account of the CR being comprehensible as one which had bureaucratic power struggles at its heart, is another matter. In the conclusion of this book, he has figures for what he describes as the burgeoning of the Chinese bureaucracy over the period from the 1960s to the 1990s. Even so, at the end of this period its personnel numbered 12 million – 1 per cent of the Chinese population then. That number has not increased vastly today, if we are talking about only Civil Servants rather than those work in the State Owned Enterprise world. The mystery therefore only deepens as to exactly how best to explain the real drivers of the Cultural Revolution. But Yang’s attempt is a noble, and a powerful one.

Making Sense of China’s `Belt and Road’

One of the sure signs in recent years that people commenting or writing about China might have a clue what they were talking about was the great divide between those from 2015 who referred knowingly to China’s grand `Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI) and those who remained wedded to the term `One Belt One Road’ (OBOR)  which had been used, for a year or so, before then.  The former were clearly more up to date than the latter.

Eyck Freymann’s book rather bravely carries the old name (`One Belt One Road: Chinese Power Meets the World’. Harvard East Asian Monographs, 2021). As a book clearly written by someone who has worked in depth on the BRI it would be a huge puzzle if they were not aware of the updated title. Freymann is very aware that this question might be raised, and deals with the issue of names right at the start of this interesting new work. His rationale for maintaining the old label is that in many ways it is the more accurate translation of the Chinese `一带一路‘ (yidai yilu). That is fair enough. Nevertheless, it is still a bold, confident move – to basically overrule the current main architects of an idea and decide to deploy one’s own language for it. Is there a hint of American hubris here?  (Freymann is American, though currently undertaking his doctoral degree at Oxford).  

These questions of why one party names something one way and one another are not ones I would have bothered pondering much about till recently. But the fierce contestation about everything related to China, from the name to use about the current COVID19 virus (which Trump called the `China virus), to whether Chinese investment should in fact be called loans, means that even the basic language one uses to talk about China in English is symptomatic of potential bias and preconceived ideas.  Suddenly, one is super-alert to the slightest clues that tell whether a person has some particular axe to grind. In fact, as proof that one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, Freymann’s book ends up being a nuanced, and well informed, argument that shows that the BRI (or OBOR, to use his language) is not some grand masterplan being imposed on the Asian region and the wider world by a control-obsessed Beijing. Yes, it has plenty of signs of partial design, and yes, China has been presented with lots of opportunities, many of which it has taken. But in the case studies that Freymann helpfully sets out – Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Greece  and Pakistan – he makes the situation he saw while travelling through these places clear enough: governments there have, for different reasons and in different ways, all taken the China chance for investment eagerly, and have all admitted that the majority of mistakes that subsequently occurred were more their fault than because of any dictatorial behaviour from Beijing.

This is an important message to hear.  Beijing is frequently associated with flattering levels of power and control. In the beginning of his study, Freymann does seem to hint, a little too easily, that Chinese statecraft today is derived from the tributary model of the past. Was there really a tributary model, uniform and distinctive, across the dynastic periods? If China was complex and multiple over this time, so was its mode of behaviour. There may have been times when particularly dynastic entities in the geography we now call the People’s Republic were economically and politically strong enough to enforce their fiat over smaller bordering entities. Some of these are today part of the sovereign territory of the PRC – think of Tibet, Xinjiang, or even Yunnan. But that tributary trope is clearly not a straightforward one. Today, China is very different, and it is doing something like the Belt and Road simply because of the somewhat unexciting reason that it can. It has the economic resources to do so.

After that, though, Freymann’s analysis is sound. The port of Piraeus in Greece is an excellent example – a place which when run under local management never functioned properly, but which was taken over by the China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO) state conglomerate in the late 2000s when Athens was heading into a period of brutal economic pain (up to a quarter of people were unemployed as a result of the Great Financial Crisis of 2008 and the Eurozone crises which followed it.)  Political parties of the left which were fiercely critical of this, once they were elected to power in the mid 2010s immediately started to embrace it. Piraeus has become one of the most successful investments from the PRC in Europe, massively increasing throughput through the port, and creating badly needed jobs.  It has also posed tricky political issues, because it is indisputable that Greece, a member of the European Union (EU), has been amongst the most averse to seeing any motions tabled which criticise China by the EU.  The author makes this clear by saying that the main costs to the BRI are not so much debt diplomacy and the other mostly economic issues critics have pointed at, but simply political ones.  Here, far from setting out to pick political entities apart in the countries in which the Belt and Road has figured most heavily till now, the Chinese government’s volume in terms of potential investment has been more than enough to see people fall apart because of already extant tensions between each other, rather than because of any actively malign behaviour by Beijing.

But Beijing itself has also grown better at understanding the places where it works. In Tanzania, one figure interviewed for this book records how African leaders going to Washington get five minutes of the President’s time – if that. We all remember the very unflattering names that the previous occupant of the White House called some of these countries. But in Beijing, there is a closedown of the city centre, police cars surrounding the visiting dignitary in their limousines, and a general level of flattery which only the Chinese are able to do well these days.  That alone was able to overcome some of the wariness of the Tanzanian government in recent years towards embracing large scale Chinese investment.

Freymann nails the key issue towards the end of this book: `US policy has opened up strategic space for China to take on a more active role’ (194). It is an interesting question whether China would have come as far without the Trump withdrawal. Something in addition to this he does not make clear however is that in many ways China itself had little choice about coming up with an idea that answered what it was intending to do with its new geopolitical status. From the middle part of the last decade, these questions of what China wanted swirled around. Hu Jintao, Xi’s predecessor, was uncommunicative and created an uneasy silence on this key question. Xi has been more forward, and at least given an answer. Not saying anything would have been far worse. It is hard to think of any idea China under its current political model would have devised that would have managed to appease those who look at its economic success and see nothing but threat and pain heading their way!

This is a good book for those who want to take their bearings on the Belt and Road. It has no heroes or villains, but a good overview of the benefits and downsides of the intiative as it unfolds. The account of Putin’s attitude to the idea is salutary for everyone else. Rhetorically, he has heaped praise on the idea. But in his actions he has done almost everything he can to thwart and stymie associated projects in the central Asian states which are regarded as Russia’s backyard. Perhaps that is the secret to the China policy quandary – say one thing, do another. The only downside with this is the slight issue of honesty – but that particular quality depends on a world where the divide between true and false is clarified by having access to clear facts. That is not the world we live in most of the time currently, nor the one the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative is helping to reshape and recreate.

Anxious China

In the 2000s, during the era of great enrichment, the Chinese nationalist blogger Wang Xiaodong and a group of writers associated with him put together the book `Unhappy China’ (中国不高兴), a collection of complaints about the way the country was treated not just by the outside world, but by itself. One of the contributions referred bitterly to the milk powder scandal of the year before, wondering aloud how it was that its own rulers seemed incapable of stopping its people being poisoned by their own food.

Over a decade on, and it is hard to see anyone in Xi Jinping’s China being brave enough to issue an edict like this, even if it was clothed in the protective language of patriotism. Rules exist now to shush people away from anything that veers close to the space of politics.  Even so, it’s a moot point whether the country has got much happier even as it has burgeoned in power and outward confidence. It is this issue that US academic Li Zhang addresses in `Anxious China: Inner Revolution and Politics of Psychotherapy’ (University of California Press, 2020).

The inner lives of Chinese people remain one of the world’s great undiscovered areas. While physically the country has been accessible to travellers, visitors and experts from elsewhere for a number of decades, what to make of the world views, and inner aspirations and turmoils of a fifth of humanity is another matter. There have been some heroic and important attempts to conquer this territory. Arthur Kleinman, of Harvard, with collaborators has been working on mapping out `Deep China’ since the 1980s.  Jie Yang’s book on Mental Health in China managed to divide up what sometimes looks like an unmanageable behemoth into something a bit more approachable. Her work refers to the `empty heart disease’ (空心病) suffered by cadres in the Communist Party, and the `princess syndrome’ by young women burdened by ideals in China that end up leaving them forever frustrated.  In Chinese, the veteran economist Mao Yushi (茅于轼)has written about the issue of anxiety and status in post-reform China., addressing the key question of why as they grow richer, they get more miserable.

One of Li Zhang’s key points in her ethnographic study of the practice of psychotherapy in contemporary China is that indigenisation matters (she calls this by its Chinese term in her study, `bentuhua’ – 本土化). This is something that prevails whether it be in the field of economics, social organisation, or business.  China takes things from outside and then adapts and transforms them.  Interest in psychotherapy started after a conference held with Germany partners in Kunming, South West China in the late 1980s. It seemed a bold move then, to bring knowledge of a practice that was associated with western individuals and almost regarded as a spiritually corrupt bourgeois practice.

As capitalism, and consumerism, have seeped deeper into Chinese economic life (despite having little impact so far on politics) this attitude has changed.  In October 2016, the Chinese government issued `Happy China 2030: Blueprint’ (with a further document on public health supplementing this a year later, available at As Li says, `this is the first time that the health and well-being of the nation have been considered of paramount strategic importance and placed on the very top of the government’s agenda and long term planning’ (171). COVID19 has only reinforced this urgency.

The authorities are right to attend to this area. Fast paced changed, increased physical and social mobility, on top of a society that was already characterised by dense and complex human networks, have created something akin to a perfect storm for a mental health crisis. Urbanisation anywhere in the world has been associated with sharp increased in problems in this area. No society has experienced a vaster, faster shift of people into cities and towns than contemporary China. It is not surprising therefore that people are feeling disorientated. All of this is compounded by the social stigma that individuals suffering various forms of mental illness endure in the country. People may no longer be locked up in institutions little better than primitive prisons as they were in the recent past for suffering from schizophrenia or depression, but they often end up isolated and ostracised.

Li Zhang brings a very personal touch to this account, by talking of her own battles against depression, particularly after the death of her mother who, she argues, clearly suffered from long term issues which, in a different context, would have been manageable by treatment and therapy. This is no naïve account however of how today suddenly treatments and approaches once unavailable in China are now there to be used by everyone. As she shows, the Communist Party in the end is all about control, and in its construction of a `loving, caring’ (guanai – 关爱) discourse, this too figures as a regime and set of discourses and practices that can be used to get people to behave in ways that favour the state. `In post-socialist China,’ she states, in a key sentence towards the end of the book, `it has become more apparent that psychological counsellors and other mental health workers are becoming a new form of authority’ (153). As Foucault pointed out, medical and psychological practices were, in the end, associated with forms of power, and it is these that the government has displayed interest in. Even so, `the therapeutic state’, she says a little later, `is not monolithic.’ It operates in this area much as it does in economics or administrative governance, often organically, allowing innovation and change, till solutions appear. And in 2017, in one fell swoop, the national accreditation process for counsellors was simply stopped, creating confusion, but not, Li argues, any restraint on the rich market for help that now exists in the country.

This is a timely and important study, rich in empirical observation, and conveyed in a human and accessible way. This is a hugely important issue, and one that will almost certainly prove a great point of convergence between China and the world outside. For all the differences, one thing is clear: in the age of raging against China as a predatory, threatening state posing multiple questions for the outside world, the simple fact is that people everywhere, inside and outside the PRC, are suffering from spiritual and mental health maladies. In this area, despite all the indigenisation, we are the same, and we can seek to work together better to sort out some common answers.

Uwe Johnson: The Enigma of Sheerness-on-Sea

The full new translation, highly acclaimed when it was issued, by American Damion Searls of German author Uwe Johnson’s monumental novel `Anniversaries’ was one of the most important literary events in 2018. A year later, as the world was buried in the pandemic crisis, author Nicholas Dames recognised the curiously calming and curative powers of the book under the lock-down his native New York was suffering at the time. New York, after all, was the place where Gesine Cresspahl, the key character in Johnson’s 1700 page novel, settled after her journey from war torn Germany. The story she told her daughter over the course of a single year from 1967 to 1968 had been described by one German critic in the early 1980s as a `letter to the Germany people’. But it was also a clinical and accurate description of New York, and heled Dames remember the landscape around him at a time when that was largely inaccessible.  

British academic Patrick Wright in his `The Sea View Has Me Again’ addresses the particular question of why it was that this hugely consequential European writer, one whose star has been strongly in the ascendant in recent years, and who, as Wright says several times in this 650 page study, was so relentlessly focussed on fact and objectivity, a powerful antidote to our `post trust’ `fake news’ world, spent his final decade in the small seaside town of Sheerness, on the Isle of Sheppey, Kent.

Born in what is now part of Poland, brought up in East Germany, an emigrant to West Germany when it was still relatively easy to make the transition, and then working in New York and Berlin, Sheerness was, to say the least, a curious choice for a writer called by Nobel Prize winner and compatriot Gunter Grass `the most important post-War writer in German.’ Wright supplies some speculative answers: the ways in which the sea vista Johnson could see from his house at 28 Marine Parade along the sea front in Kent reminded him of the same marine view he saw as a child growing up on the Baltic;  getting refuge too from the often claustrophobic, gossip ridden world of Berlin was another.  Johnson had become stuck on the fourth, and final, part of `Anniversaries.’ In 1974, when moving to the UK, he had acknowledged the attraction of being far away from distraction.  Here was a refuge he could come to with his wife and daughter and concentrate on writing.

Things inevitably didn’t go to plan. The information, somehow conveyed to him, that his wife had, very briefly, been in a relationship with a Czech musician over a decade before had a corrosive effect on their relations (she was to move out of the house leaving him alone in 1978) and on his own health and stability. Already a strong drinker, he became even more so, frequenting two of the public houses within walking distance of his house, and becoming famous there as `Charlie’ (`Uwe’ proved too hard for the English mono-lingual fellow patrons of the bars to say). There he sat, drank, and observed. Some of what he saw seeped into his work. He had plans to write a full book, `Island Stories’ after `Anniversaries’ was completed. But that never happened. What observations of his immediate environment he had were largely conveyed in letters back to his friends and circle in Germany.

Johnson was, at least from the account in this book, not an easy man to get to know. He was intensely private, and made it clear he wanted no biography of him in his own will. Wright’s book, therefore, despite containing a huge amount of material about his life, both before and after coming to Sheerness, is also deeply respectful. Curiously, it is the environment to which Johnson came rather than the man himself that is Wright’s main subject. Much of it is about the history of his final home – of the way in which Sheerness had grown from naval dockyards in the 17th century, of how it had developed into a resort of sorts in the 19th and 20th, of how it had figured in the Wars, and of the devastating impact of the closure of the British naval posts in the city in 1960. Wright has undertaken meticulous research, using local newspapers much in the same way that Johnson used copious references to the `New York Times’ in his own work. He himself too has a link with this place: he was a student at the University of Kent in the late 1960s, and then taught in Whitstable around the time that Johnson came to the county. There is the haunting possibility the two may even, unknowingly, have crossed paths. Wright knew of Johnson at that time through some of his earlier works newly translated into English. Even so, the secrecy with which the older author surrounded his life meant few penetrated it. Those who did make the trip to Sheerness were often baffled by the environment they found him in.

A lot of Wright’s writing is about the sea: about its meaning for Johnson, and about floods, about the ways in which somehow Sheerness is a survivor, its coastal front directly before Johnson’s old house now overshadowed by a huge concrete protective wall. The final part of the book is concerned with another survivor of sorts that intrigued Johnson – the wreck of the bomb laden Liberty Ship, the SS Richard Montgomery, downed in 1944, its masts still poking hauntingly out of the water, the subject of endless enquiries and attempts to resolve what to do about its potentially deadly sunken cargo. Ironically, a situation judged critical and in urgent need of redress in the 1950s remains, today, equally critical, equally in need of redress, and equally unsolved.

Johnson died in later February 1984. He was by that time so isolated that his body was not found until the early part of March, over a fortnight after he had collapsed while trying to open a third bottle of wine. The fellow patrons at one of his favoured pubs regarded Johnson benignly as a curious but game foreigner. But as Wright says, starkly, what they were really witnessing was one of the greatest authors of the era slowly, but thoroughly, destroying themselves. Johnson was only 49 when he died. His relentless cutting off of his wife (it is not clear, from this book, what contact he had with his daughter after their final estrangement in 1978) showed an almost callous streak. This is ironic in view of the sensitivity with which he wrote about the relationship between Gesine Cresspahl and her daughter.

This book is about many things: the rise of post-industrial society in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s; the ways that diverse memories and feelings can be melded into a narrative by an author to give them some kind of shape and explanatory power; the relationship between location and imagination. Finally it is testament to the ways in which writing offers a sort of salvation, even to the most blighted of souls. Johnson was, on the glimpses one gets of him here, not a person to get close to; but his writing offers everything he had. That can be easily opened and read today. Sheerness may have had an accidental place in global literature, but with this one writer, that place is becoming secure.

Dreaming Chinese Style

Scholar of ancient China Robert Ford Campany makes clear in the introduction to his monograph, `The Chinese Dreamscape: 300 BCE-800 CE’ (Harvard-Yenching Institute, Harvard University Press 2020) that any historian will attest that everyone, everywhere, dreams. Recorded history, and for that matter the speculation about much visual art on cave walls in Europe from millennia ago, is full of the testimony to this. His mission in this brief, but fascinating overview, is to explore the trickier question of what sort of meaning people from the Qin to the Tang dynasty, a period covering over 1500 years, imputed to the things they saw when they fell asleep – and, equally importantly, what relationship they had to waking reality.

One of the clear conclusions he comes to is that much of the documentary evidence (and here, ancient China is rich in recorded material – way more than Europe, for instance) shows that Chinese people over this period did feel that what they saw in dreams had meaning, and that in particular it portended something. This was not about them being important in revealing the dispositions of an individual, but about offering insights into a different world, one with its own objectivity, which related directly to our own waking one. The key was how to accurately interpret what these dreams said about that world, or worlds, and about this link with ours. Dreams, as he writes `do mean things’ (72). The question is what, and how.

In imperial China, a huge amount of thinking clearly went into both the different kinds of meaning that could be attributed to dreams, and the sort of messages they had for those dreaming. Wang Fu (王符)in the Han, 2nd Century CE, produced one of the most comprehensive treatises covering the first issue above. His `Discourse of a Recluse’ (潜夫论) talks of literal dreams, indirect ones, ones prompted by longing, or by physical sensations, illness, or people’s temperaments. Other theories around the same time associated oneiric activity with levels of `qi’ in the body. For others, there was a direct link with spirits from another world. From the period of the Zhou, people existed who were credited with having particular abilities to read and interpret dream meaning – diviners as it were. Manuals came into existence with listings of phenomenon that might be seen in dreams along with their possible meaning – Wang Fu, mentioned above, made the logical enough argument that monsters and strange beasts implied impending trouble, and dancing or people acting something more positive and joyous. `Seeing in Dreams’ (梦见)necessitated a particular kind of hermeneutics and a skilled interpretation – something the `New Collections of the Duke of Zhou’s Book for Interpreting Dreams’ ( 新集周公解梦书)attempts to comprehensively list. In this book, dreaming of ascending to the sky meant one will have a noble child. Seeing a clear sky meant experiencing joy. Most auspicious of all was dreaming of the sun and moon disappearing (83). Campany lists some of the most well known of the diviners – from Suo Din (索紞) from Dunhuang, active around 300, CE to Zhou Xuan (周宣)active a half a century earlier whose success at being able to foretell future happenings from dreams is recorded in the `Romance of the Three Kingdoms.’

Over this period, Chinese also put great effort in trying to work out the narratives structure of dreams. For the latter era, Buddhist meanings were often found, usually reflecting on someone’s karma. What is striking, as the book explains in its concluding chapters, is the absence of the one thing that in modern times has become most associated with dream meaning – links to the instinctive sexual life of individuals and the most intimate areas of their inner lives. The dream descriptions in this book present those dreaming as almost like detached observers witnessing an alternative world, not one with lesser reality than that which they lived in. This world had enough substantiality to sometimes result in physical things being able to transfer from one to the other. It also had its own objectivity and logic: `Dreams were not taken to be expressions of latent fears or wishes of dreamers, but rather as indices of the direction of events’ (121).

Cover: The Chinese Dreamscape, 300 BCE–800 CE in HARDCOVER

This is not a subject that many have written about – nor one that immediately suggests the range and depth of material that the author has succeeded in finding. That Campany has been able to describe consistent patterns of interpretation and approach across such an extended period is as much as tribute to his own scholarship as it is to the remarkable extent of classical Chinese texts that still exist today – some of which have only been recently discovered in sites like Dunhuang. The most famous of ancient Chinese dreams are recorded here – Zhuang Zhou dreaming of a butterfly and, after awakening, then wondering if he was a butterfly dreaming of being a person. But there is also the equally haunting other Daoist story of the carpenter and the tree, who in their dream encounter discuss the use of uselessness – and of how the carpenter had spared the old tree because he was looking for better, stronger ones to fell. Dreams in east and west, past and present, have always maintained this endlessly tantalizing possibility of either meaning a great deal – or meaning nothing at all. In the puzzlement dreams produce, at least, we are all on common ground.