Hendrik Schulte Nordholt. 2018.
China and the Barbarians: Resisting the Western World Order
Leiden: Leiden University Press
The Chineses in their homeland
Unsurprisingly, the book under review, China and the Barbarians, begins with the origins of the Chinese people and how they survived and developed on the Asian continent. From the outset, there is an apparent division between the West and China, with China appearing as a developing civilization as the peoples of Europe struggle to find balance and achieve lasting peace on the continent.
Far from adopting a pro-Chinese approach that would say that China was a civilization before Europe, the author prefers to argue that there are two divergent dynamics. China is laying the foundations for a structured society based on order and family structure, while the Europeans go from experience to experience and every conflict gives rise to a new European order. From the early beginning, the author mentions the excessive weight of Chinese administration and respect for the family, which hinders the development of the ‘Middle Kingdom’ for several years and generates a society divided between civil servants and civilians. Respect for the Chinese government and the caste of civil servants, as well as respect for the family, will gradually hinder the development and innovation of the Chinese people and lead them to a point of stagnation, a civilization that does not innovate fast enough and prefers to focus on social harmony and respect instead.
This social philosophy, combined with the rapid expansion of the European empire in search of power and – unlike China – not wishing to find social harmony, leads China to fall further and further behind them and fails to find an answer to the growing influence of the Western empires in Asia.
The book offers a detailed and sharp vision of the development of the Chinese civilization up to the European colonial era, finding political and social references that make this book a must read for those who wish to understand the differences between the different Chinese dynasties. The first part of the book deals with China rather than the West. Some would say the West is considered here as Eurasia (Slavs and Central Asian peoples) and not in the contemporary sense of the term.
The colonial era and the division of China by European empires
In the second part of the book, the author sets out the relationship between Western empires and China, tackling the theme contained in the title itself (‘China and the Barbarians’). In this part of the analysis, we witness the decline of a civilization, which can only be explained with a relevant analysis of the Chinese society and the weight of the civil servants (first part of the book).
The arrival of colonial empires upsets China and generates a deep trauma, that of defeat in the face of Western Empires accustomed to ruling colonized peoples and imposing a vision antagonistic to Chinese values.
European values are presented to be incompatible with the Chinese way of life: trade, family, religion, art, culture, and language, are all elements that fascinate Europeans who discover and occupy China like Latin America and Africa. In the eyes of the Europeans, China is no more than another territory to rule and occupy to get resources. Conversely, and because of its status as a colonized country, the Chinese view the influence of Westerners with growing concern.
As mentioned in the book, China's mistake will be to consider that its demographic power will compensate for its technological weakness. The Opium Wars are a landmark event, and the Chinese military defeat comes on top of a moral defeat (allowing Westerners to sell opium to the Chinese people) with an intoxication of Chinese society and a collapse of the economy.
As the author mentions, the transfer of Qingdao from Germany to Japan in the beginning of the 20th century is an affront to China, which fought with the victorious peoples on the European continent during the First World War. It is at this very moment in China's history that the feeling and vision of a hypocritical Western world emerges. In order to recover its past greatness, China cannot count on the support of a Western country and will have to act alone to regain its greatness and defend its identity.
The two World Wars gave the Chinese people the opportunity to emancipate themselves from Western influence. Playing on the division between European countries and their weakening after the Second World War, China and then the People's Republic of China (PRC) played on their good relations with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR, another country opposed to colonisation) to gradually expel European empires – one by one – from the mainland and then from the Asian world itself, for fear of their return.
The colonial era explains both the anti-drug policy of the PRC and the low esteem it has for the West nowadays. Similarly, Russia and the USSR are perceived to be allies but linked to the West in many ways because of the early Chinese history.
From its colonial experience, the PRC also understands that decolonization will come from its domestic policy rather than from international alliances. Moreover, military conflict with the West is not the best strategy, nor is fighting alongside the West, and demographics cannot compensate for technological shortcomings.
From the end of the Second World War, China therefore set itself the objective of having an ambiguous but friendly attitude with the USSR, of developing its economy in order to understand its technological backwardness, and of recovering its territorial integrity with the return of Hong Kong (United Kingdom), Macao (Portugal) and Taiwan (US military support to the autonomists).
Contemporary times and the return of Hong Kong and Macao
The author presents Mao Zedong's approach as relevant from a military point of view but relatively ineffective from an economic point of view. Without mentioning it openly, the book makes it clear that Deng Xiaoping is the man behind the success of the PRC. As an economist and strategist, China finds in Deng a leader capable of understanding the contemporary world and of combining a national approach with an economic openness to the international arena.
Deng's policy is a success that lays the foundations for a new superpower that will survive the implosion of the USSR and the demonstrations that destabilized the country in 1989. On the strength of this economic success, the Chinese government will be able to start negotiating the return of Hong Kong (1997) and Macao (1999).
This return of the two regions is the accomplishment of a new stage in the Chinese strategy which not only grants itself two prosperous regions with a consequent GDP, but also expels the United Kingdom and Portugal outside of Asia. Beijing manages to retain what makes Hong Kong and Macao so economically successful, and not only retains the economic power of these regions, but also makes them an example for mainland China. China's success after the return of Hong Kong and Macao is objectively to succeed in adopting a similar economic model on the mainland with free zones and a commercial mentality, while retaining the Chinese autocratic system.
At the beginning of the 2000s, the PRC was therefore strong, as the book shows, with an economic system that retained the advantages of Macao and Hong Kong and was able to adapt without having to undertake profound political changes as Russia had done in the 1990s after the collapse of the USSR.
After the departure of the United Kingdom and Portugal, the only obstacle to China's full success therefore remained to be the United States, which supports the autonomist in Taiwan. Washington is described as a power at the very heart of Chinese divisions because it provided direct military support to Chinese anti-communists after the Second World War. After Mao's victory, the United States allowed Chinese anti-communists to settle in Taiwan and protect them from a Chinese invasion, making the United States the new Western barbarian.
In addition to supporting Taiwan, Washington did not diplomatically recognize the PRC until 1979, which had weaken its position at the United Nations and could only rely on the USSR (recognizing the PRC in 1949), France (De Gaulle's grandstanding policy to show its disagreement with the United States recognizing the PRC in 1964) and the rest of the Western world in the 1970s.
The book ends with the question of the future of the PRC, which appears as a hybrid model. Chinese civilization has managed to preserve some elements of its past philosophy and practices, reflecting the weight of its officials to this day. However, the country has been able to adapt and even innovate with the concept of ‘one country, two systems’, which could serve as an example to countries such as Russia (Kaliningrad) and the whole Western world with regard to regional tensions (e.g. Catalonia, Quebec).
The PRC thus combines all the aspects of a superpower tormented by its colonial past, paradoxically approaching ambitions such as the conquest of space combined with the stubborn determination to recover control over Taiwan.
This book is a must-read for historians of China who wish to find answers to the contemporary policy of the Chinese government by looking at the traumas of the past.