What matters in China matters to us all

Out of China: How the Chinese Ended the Era of Western Domination by Robert Bickers is an excellent scholarly account and a very detailed history of China from the end of the First World War to its rise as a  powerful country in the 21st century. Robert Bickers, a professor at the University of Bristol,  tells a  complex tale of the forces of attraction, rejection and interdependence that have consistently defined China’s varied dealings with the world.

When looking back at the history of World War II, we tend to concentrate on the military contributions of the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Russians.  China, which had fought alongside the Western allies against Germany, tends to be forgotten. And yet, China’s  involvement in the war was massive. It was one of the longest and among the bloodiest. China paid a hefty price, it  lost an estimated 14 million people in the World War II. Had China folded, Japan’s capacity to fight the U.S. or even the Soviets would have been vastly amplified.

In President Xi Jinping’s words,

The Chinese People’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression strategically responded to and supported the allied operations and coordinated the strategic actions in the European and Pacific battlefields to restrain and upset the attempt of strategic cooperation between Japan’s fascists and Germany’s Fascist. As an important rear base for allied forces in the Asia-Pacific region in their operations against Japan, China has provided the allies with a great deal of strategic material and military intelligence. The significant contribution made by the Chinese people to the world anti-fascist war has marked an increase in China’s international status.

The end of the World War II did not bring glory to China. After years of misery and devastation, China was left with  its territory partially occupied, and its internal politics subjected to relentless and decisive meddling from the outside. Only after U.S. insistence, it was made a permanent member of the newly formed U.N. Security Council.  The end of the war brought more suffering and humiliation to China. It was a failure of diplomacy, writes Bickers.

In the 1946, China fell into all-out civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists. It was a brutal war which brought more misery and suffering to the Chinese people.  By the time it was all over in 1945, Chiang Kai-shek’s China was finished. The communists controlled most of the mainland and Mao Tse-tung became the most  powerful man in the country. Between 1946 and 1976, tens of millions died from repression and starvation.

China’s strategic reorientation changed at the end of the 1970s. Deng Xiaoping had sufficient political capital  to reorient both the international and domestic policy environment. Without being  an economic specialist or particularly self – confident about economic issues, he managed to create a framework for successful economic reforms , without contributing much to the specific content of economic reforms.

Why does any of this matter now?  Although it never politically took hold in mainland China, as it did in India or Africa, the cultural and political legacy of British imperialism and the experience of World War II shape Chinese attitudes today, especially between China and the United States and China and Japan.

Out of China is a massive work, but it worth the effort and the time.  Robert Bickers covers everything from  popular culture and art to wars and politics. He sheds light on Chinese new nationalism which is characterised, he argues, by anger “Being effectively equipped with the facts might help us understand the roots of that rage.”

If you want to understand China’s crucial  role  in the modern world, this is a good place to start .