Will there be war?

Howard W. French

  • China and Global Nuclear Order: From Estrangement to Active Engagement by Nicola Horsburgh
    Oxford, 256 pp, £55.00, February 2015, ISBN 978 0 19 870611 3
  • China’s Military Power: Assessing Current and Future Capabilities by Roger Cliff
    Cambridge, 378 pp, £21.99, September 2015, ISBN 978 1 107 50295 6
  • China’s Coming War with Asia by Jonathan Holslag
    Polity, 176 pp, £14.99, March 2015, ISBN 978 0 7456 8825 1

On 1 October 1949, Mao Zedong stood on top of the Gate of Heavenly Peace to proclaim the victory of his revolution, and told the world that the long-suffering Chinese people had finally ‘stood up’. After decades of tremendous violence and turmoil, China was going to relaunch itself into the arduous and disorienting task of embracing modernity. This project had begun in the late 19th century, near the end of the thousands-year-long imperial era under the Qing dynasty, and continued at the start of the republican period in the early 20th century. But it was cut short by chaotic warlordism, followed by Japan’s vicious attempted conquest of China and finally by brutal infighting between Communists and Nationalists. It was Mao’s armies’ outmanoeuvring of the forces of his longtime rival, Chiang Kai-Shek, that landed him triumphantly in Tiananmen Square that day in 1949. What set China apart from almost every other people whose lands were subjugated by European imperialism, then thrown into chaos by the turmoil that followed its collapse, is that through all the violence the nation suffered, one ambition remained constant: to restore to China what those who aspired to lead it believed was its civilisational birthright and heritage – a position of pre-eminence in world affairs.

Self-belief of this sort has always been a feature of Chinese thinking. But during Mao’s early years in power, the notion that China could make progress only by adopting imported ideas was still a relatively new and radical concept. As recently as the late 18th century, China was still displaying utter disdain for the ideas and innovations coming from Europe. When George Macartney, Britain’s first envoy to China, arrived at the head of a delegation in 1793, the Qing Emperor Qianlong refused his request to establish a permanent embassy in Beijing. Qianlong also spurned Macartney’s gifts, which had been carefully selected to demonstrate British progress and greatness. ‘Our Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance and lacks no product within its borders,’ Qianlong wrote. ‘Therefore there is no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for our own produce.’ There are few better examples of how pride precedes a fall. Among Macartney’s gifts were several brass cannons capable of firing seven shots a minute – an astounding feat at that time. Britain even proposed to export them to China, but the Qing declined. A half-century later, Britain would return to the country with cannons blazing, humiliating China and its technologically backward armies in the first Opium War.

The country that Mao inherited was poor and economically devastated. Its situation compared to the major powers was arguably worse than it had been when the Europeans made their scramble for China a hundred years earlier. Mao knew this and had no intention of repeating the errors of Qianlong – this was no time for false pride. Beijing aligned itself closely with the USSR, believing that Marxism-Leninism offered the best chance of reordering Chinese society and allowing it rapidly to make up lost ground in economic and geopolitical power. Barely two months after taking power he made a pilgrimage by train to Moscow, spending two months holed up in a dacha awaiting infrequent audiences with Stalin in order to plead his case for assistance on an unheard-of scale. Mao asked for factories of all sorts to be dismantled and shipped off to China; he wanted the Soviets to accept huge numbers of Chinese students into their universities and technical institutes; and he requested that the Soviets send thousands of advisers to China to help oversee the country’s economic take-off.

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