China re-connects: joining a deep-rooted past to a new world order
The China Centre lecture on Friday 19 March 2021 was delivered by Professor Wang Gungwu CBE, former Vice Chancellor, The University of Hong Kong, and former Director & former Chairman, East Asian Institute, Singapore.
Prof Wang Gungwu explained that the World Order is a complex, ever-changing structure. In fact, there was no ‘world order’ before 1800. Since 1800 the World Order has undergone a series of changes. In the 19th century China was forced to join the World Order. The West’s entry into China was a threat to Chinese civilisation, not just the Qing dynasty. Up until 1945 the World Order was internally divided and China was able to use the interstices to its advantage. After 1945 the World Order was relatively stable. China in 1949 faced a tremendous challenge to remain unified and prosper. The Cold War that emerged after 1945 lasted for forty years. China took advantage of the balance of power and found its own way. After 1949 China under Mao Zedong pursued a ‘Utopian path that led nowhere’. During this period, China decided that there was nothing that suited it in the West, including in the USSR. At the same time China rejected its own tradition.
Under Deng Xiaoping China found a way out. China held fast to its Marxist roots and continued to believe that ‘only the CPC can save China from destruction’. This sincere belief has remained constant down to Xi Jinping. A New World Order emerged after the collapse of the USSR. China’s leaders believe that if the CPC collapses it will be disastrous for the Chinese people. China followed a successful development path after 1978, but it faced a New World Order dominated by a single superpower, with no ‘interstices’ to take advantage of. By the late 1990s it was clear that China was the only power that could challenge US hegemony. Despite US foreign policy failures and its increasing internal difficulties, sooner or later China would have to face the US hegemon.
The New World Order post-1990 has lasted for thirty years. When Xi Jinping came to power the CPC was faced with pervasive corruption. The new generation of leaders aimed to eliminate corruption at the top of the CPC: ‘If the CPC fails, China fails’. There was a ‘revival of history’, that ‘returned to the roots’ of Chinese civilisation. Alongside opening up to the West there was a conscious effort to ‘connect up China’s history’. Connecting to and learning from history is not new as it has been a practice throughout China’s dynasties. China has complete historical records from the Qin Dynasty in 221 BC right through to the nineteenth century, which provide a ‘fantastic story of the Chinese past’. In order to understand the question ‘What is China?’ it is necessary to accept the diverse aspects of ‘China’s deep-rooted past’. This sense of continuity provides a ‘place of safety within the New World Order’. China views the past as real, non-linear and always cyclical. Each dynasty is equidistant from the present and can contribute to the present. The task is to understand the past in order to contribute to the present.
The post-1911 era was the inheritor of the ‘Glorious Qing Dynasty’ when China accounted for round one-third of global GDP. The CPC looked back to the post-1911 era as a period of nationalism and ‘learning from the West’, including Sun Yatsen and the May Fourth period. Mao Zedong himself was a creature of that era. Mao had a ‘tremendous dedication to historical understanding’. The early years of the CPC, with ideals, dedication and internationalism ‘should not be forgotten’. The Maoist era was ‘not all good’ but it ‘could not be dismissed as all failure’.
In the past, the continental powers from the north defeated China repeatedly. For 2000 years China had not faced a threat from the sea. This changed suddenly in the 19th century. The Western powers controlled all parts of southeast Asia and established naval bases from which to they could attack China. Japan endeavoured to force the Western powers out of southeast Asia. The South China Sea is common to China and the countries of southeast Asia. Freedom of navigation across the Sea is vital to China. In recent years China has shifted its focus of attention in international relations to the south alongside the Greater Bay Area development policy, which shifts China’s economic centre of gravity to the south.
The Q&A session included questions on the following topics: the relationship of China and the West today compared with the era of Sun Yatsen; the feasibility of the US and China leading the way in overcoming the threat from climate change; the relationship between China and the USA under Xi Jinping; the prospects for Chinese food security; the nature of the Belt and Road initiative; and the comparison between today’s CPC members and the pre-modern Chinese bureaucracy.
Professor Wang Gungwu is University Professor of the National University of Singapore and Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University.
He received his BA and MA from University of Malaya (UM) in Singapore, and PhD at the University of London. After holding the History Chair at UM in Kuala Lumpur, he was appointed to the Australian National University where he also served as Director of the Research of Pacific Studies. From 1986 to 1995, he was Vice-Chancellor of The University of Hong Kong. In Singapore, he was Director of the East Asian Institute (EAI) and then its Chairman until 2018.
Professor Wang is a Commander of the British Empire (CBE); former President of the Australian Academy of the Humanities; Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Science; Member of Academia Sinica; and Honorary Member of the Chinese Academy of Social Science. He was conferred the International Academic Prize, Fukuoka Asian Cultural Prizes and, in 2020, awarded the Tang Prize in Sinology.
He is the author of more than twenty books, his most recent being Renewal: the Chinese State and New Global History (2015); Home is not here (2018); China Reconnects: Joining a deep-rooted past to a new world order (2019); and (with Margaret Wang) Home is where we are (2020).