Wednesday, April 2, 2008

"Modern China: A Very Short Introduction"

Rana Mitter is University Lecturer in the History and Politics of Modern China and Fellow of St Cross College, University of Oxford.

He applied the Page 69 Test to his new book, Modern China: A Very Short Introduction, and reported the following:
Text from p. 69:

By June 1989, the numbers in the Square had dwindled only to thousands, but they showed no signs of moving. On the night of 3-4 June, the party acted, sending in tanks and armoured personnel carriers. The death toll has never been officially confirmed, but it seems likely to have been in the high hundreds of even more. Hundreds of people associated with the movement were arrested, imprisoned, or forced to flee to the west. It seemed to many that the hardliners had won, and that the chance for “science and democracy” had ended.

China since 1989

In retrospect, now that Tian’anmen Square is two decades in the past, the surprising thing is what did not happen. China did not, as many feared, plunge into civil war; it did not reverse the economic reforms; it did not close itself off to the outside world. For some three years, politics did indeed go into a deep freeze. The liberal trends that had fuelled the protests of the late 1980s were now regarded as “evil winds of bourgeois liberalism.” But in 1992, Deng, the man who had sent in the tanks, was now 88 years old. He must have known that his legacy was theatening to be similar to that of Gorbachev, a reformer perceived, at least in Chinese eyes, to have failed. That year, he undertook what was ironically called his “southern tour,” the Chinese term nanxun referring to the emperor visiting his furthest domains. By visiting Shenzhen, the boomtown on the border with Hong Kong (and appearing to local news reporters riding a golf buggy in a theme park), Deng indicated that the economic policies of reform were not going to be abandoned. He had made other important choices. Jiang Zemin, the mayor of Shanghai, had effectively dissolved demonstrations in Shanghai in a way that the authorities in Beijing had not. He was groomed as Deng’s successor, having been appointed general secretary of the Party in 1989.

This page describes a key moment in the development of modern China: important, as I argue, for what did not happen. The pages before this one describe the tragic events at Tian’anmen Square in 1989, which will be well-known to many readers. But what will be less well-known is the sequence of events that come in the 67 or so pages before that. How did China get to 1989, and what has happened since then? Did you know that the demonstrators of 1989 modelled themselves on an earlier generation of protesters who also gathered in central Beijing exactly seventy years earlier, on 4 May 1919? Do you know how the Japanese terror bombing of China’s cities during World War II helped to destroy faith in the government of the time and pave the way for Chairman Mao? If you continue beyond page 69, you’ll also find ways of understanding the astounding progress of China in the last two decades. Why didn’t the country fall apart after 1989, and how has the Communist party not just kept its grip but helped to create an image of China as the next global superpower? I also try and pose questions: is China a free country? Why is it crucial to the global economy? Will Chinese growth destroy the environment before China gets rich? How important is the legacy of Confucian thought, and why is it coming back to China today? What does the development of Taiwan tell us about what might happen on the mainland?

The book tries to paint a picture of a China that is both Chinese and modern – ideas that some think are contradictory, but have in fact been interwoven for more than a century. I thought it was very important to place contemporary developments in historical context: there are aspects of China in the early 21st century that are shaped by developments as far back as the Song dynasty of the 10th century or, more recently, the modernization of the 1930s that was cut short by war with Japan. It’s also a book about people – not just the famous figures such as Mao, but also the ordinary men and women who make up the powerhouse that we think of as “modern China.”
Read more about Modern China: A Very Short Introduction at the Oxford University Press website.

Learn more about Rana Mitter's research and publications at his Oxford webpage.

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue