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A Santa Claus theory of China’s history

Published on 18 December 2013
Updated on 05 April 2024

(A review of Orville SCHELL – John DELURY (2013): Wealth and power. China’s long march to the twenty-first century. Little, Brown, New York)

All history books build on an overarching worldview; the authors call it “historical lens.” More realistically, one may call it ideology: it is mostly silent and implicit (no blame intended: the organization of facts into a (hi)story line always follows some plausible shared topos). This book is no exception. To understand it, one may fast forward to the concluding chapter. It contains a quick assessment of China’s past two centuries of progress (its “long march to the XXIst century,” as set out in the title). There, one can glean the authors’ self-assured[1] worldview of what happened along the way as well as their thoughts (and recommendations) about China’s future.

An agentic view of history

The first part of the chapter reflects the authors’ belief in historical necessities as well as an agentic view of history. China’s intellectuals and later politicians wrote and led – the Chinese people followed them through much pain to eventual gain.

Using a seasonal metaphor, the authors believe in Santa Claus (Deng Xiaoping) bringing bags full of foreign investment and technology from afar; but not before Black Peter (Mao Zedong) has soundly trashed the Chinese so as to cut the country from its “traditional moorings.” Alexander cutting the Gordian knot comes to mind. Here quotes from pg. 390:

“Seen through this historical lens, the wrecking ball of Mao’s revolution can appear in a somewhat different light, as an instrument necessary to clear the way for whatever may follow.”

“Looked at through the cold eye of history, however, it may have been precisely those periods of Mao’s most uncompromising nihilism that finally managed to bring about what no previous reformer or revolutionary had been able to, namely, a forceful enough demolition of China’s “old society” to finally free Chinese from their traditional moorings.”

“…purgative virtue of the Chairman’s permanent revolution.”

This metaphor of “pain for gain” is pervasive:

“China has suffered, but like the ancient hero King Goujian, through indomitable Sisyphean endurance[2] it also became determined to turn its defeat and humiliation into victory.” (Pg. 396)

The authors metaphorically collapse 450 million Chinese alive and struggling at the beginning of the XXth century into a living person endowed with sentiments, ambitions, and will to power and wealth. This is reification, concretism, or “fallacy of misplaced concreteness.” Analogies based on reification are misleading.

The history of China is anchored by ten easy biographical sketches (Mao and Deng each get double billing). For the authors, choice individuals drive causes and necessities of the historical narrative. The good people of China follow them as a herd follows its shepherd. It is “availability bias”[3] and a rather naïve belief in post hoc propter hoc. China developed after Mao’s revolution swept through the land – ergo Mao was necessary. The authors portray Mao’s havoc as “creative destruction,” a term popularized by SCHUMPETER and characterizing relentless change in capitalism. Unfortunately, the authors read the process backward. Just as in evolution, the overabundance precedes the destruction of the old, not the other way around.[4] The flawed analogy, however, incidentally glorifies Mao by association. Such grudging admiration is unwarranted.[5]

The topos reflects the belief in relentless “progress.” In the “strong” version history moves up and onward; in the “weak” version history is the only possible path. Both deny that any other course might have been possible,[6] and that China might have developed without the collateral damage of 100 million killed.

Historians have long harbored disbelief in agency as the mover of history: it antedates Marx and his “objective causes,” even though he did much to popularize the view. In Western historiography, we have even moved beyond the study of deep forces (BRAUDEL comes to mind) to pervasive skepticism, as in post-modernism.[7] Agency is limited to hagiographies – both religious and secular (the latter mainly in mainly business schools and politicians’ autobiographies). It is somewhat surprising to see it in full bloom with respect to China.

Most fundamentally, agency as the source of history denies the people a role of their own, and a voice. Implicitly, the Chinese are consumers of the history its leaders make for them. Instinctively, I recoil from such a view. I’m heartened in my view by recent history books recasting history in terms of the collective intentionality of people.[8] In this view, history is emergent, undirected or acted upon, and the process of emergence is people-driven.

Taken together with the easy anthropomorphism, this belief in agency makes for myth-building about China. On the odd morning, one may be allowed to wonder why China needs myths. Am I paranoid, when I sense a whiff of a patronizing attitude?

The moorings of the old

I am without doing (wu-wei), and the people are naturally transformed;

I am fond of stillness, and the people are naturally rectified;

I am without action and the people naturally prosper;

I desire not to desire, and the people naturally become like uncarved wood.


The authors are consistently and summarily dismissive of the “traditional moorings” – without going beyond scattered disparaging remarks about “misogynic Confucianism” and its “reverence” system. This breezy dismissal of 3’000 years old civilization harks back to the patronizing view of China as “obscurantist” and “superstitious” we find in the ethnocentric West’s imperialistic literature at the turn of the XXth century.

The Sinic civilization is different from the Western worldview.[10] The first challenge is how to enter it without getting lost in the maze.[11] The second is to obtain an appreciation of its complexity. I’m not an expert on the Sinic civilization. Each time I cast a glance on it from afar, I am struck by how poorly the Western mechanistic and categorical worldview is equipped to understand it. Only in the last 20-50 years have we begun assembling a language that allows us to navigate the distance. Unfortunately, we are still mostly sending poorly qualified explorers.

One example may begin to lift part of the first of the seven veils. One of the core concepts in Chinese culture is “harmony”. The authors pay little attention to it – possibly considering it as little more than a propaganda ploy. Harmony to me evokes Philip KITCHER’s provocative ethical proposal: “instead of conceiving ethical commands as divine revelations or as discoveries of brilliant thinkers, we should see our ethical practices as evolving over tens of thousands of years as members of your species have worked out how to live together and prosper.”[12]

What if, in imperfect ways, the Sinic civilization had grasped long ago that we have to strive for slow but enduring accommodation, rather than quick resolution of conflict? Harmony also evokes “emergent” properties of complexity theory, something we are only now beginning imperfectly to understand. Harmony also calls up the concept of homeostatic systems, which are often seen in both living[13] and social systems. Harmony may finally reveal cognizance that small causes having large effects.

The “moorings” the authors glibly dismiss may have echoed a far deeper understanding of social processes than we give the Chinese credit for. It may also reveal the West’s uneasiness with open-ended processes – transformations not allowing for categorization into good/bad (blame Plato for this[14]).

Could it just be that “obscurantism” is more evenly distributed between civilizations than the West’s ethnocentric and categorical view allows, and that we are not free of it? The Greeks called people whose language they did not understand “barbarians”. Far from being an expression of superiority, this word probably simply signified their rueful admission of incapacity to grasp the civilization behind the foreign walls of language.

Lest these remarks be construed as esoteric: China’s tributary system of foreign relations has shaped the Empire’s place in the world for 2’000 years. The Chinese polity seldom took an aggressive stance,[15] preferring to surround itself with tributary states (the West promptly censured China for being “self-absorbed”). Could this stance be rooted in its quest for harmony? If so, what does it mean for the future?

The authors puzzle over the CCP’s unexpected “puzzling vigor” and “surprising resilience and adaptability.” (Pg. 391) They credit Mao’s experience as guerrilla chief for “valuing flexibility and agility over rigidity and stability” (pg. 392). This may be nothing more than China’s age-old experience with relentless transformation, as set out in LUO Guanzhong’s Three Kingdoms. Mao much appreciated it together with all other picaresque novels of the past. He used such stories as vague metaphors of current events in order to get traction among people steeped in them (Mao fashioned himself as modern Qin Shi Huangdi, China’s first emperor). Contrary to the view of the authors that China had to abandon them in order to modernize, it may just be that China had to rediscover, re-invent, or re-interpret them.

The latecomer’s challenge

Much is said of the difficulty of the inventor or discoverer for having to prove that “it could be done”. The West sees facing the unknown as the greatest challenge. In this narrative, latecomers are copy-cats or, at best epigones. But is it true?

Japan was a latecomer to the international system, which had emerged among the warring kingdoms of the West. The system had created structures and institutions (to its own benefit). Latecomer Japan was not allowed to shape these structures – it had to adapt and “conform”[16] to them. Externally, for instance, it could not take the path of swashbuckling imperialism Western countries took as they co-determined their weight in the system (aka primitive accumulation).[17] Internally, it had to adapt its legal system to the one of the West in order to meet its “standard of civilization.”

Japan was lucky: it already had isomorphic natural conditions and well-developed institutions,[18] which could be readily made to fit Western “standards of civilization.” Circumstances spared Japan some of the destructive unintended effects of contact with the West – starting with, but not limited to, China’s Opium Wars. Interestingly, Japan was the last of the countries joining the international system that was henceforth allowed aggressive nationalism. After that, external aggression no longer is an option.

China too had to adapt to the Western international system. Its natural conditions and institutions may indeed have less isomorphic than Japan’s. Modernizing China, however, faced an international system that had evolved since Japan’s entry into it. It could no longer rely on aggressive nationalism, even had it wished to do so. On the contrary, it had to confront it in its own territory. Today, it continues to adapt to a hegemon projecting its full military power along China’s coast while not allowed to reciprocate.

Having established the international and national system of its own liking, the West all too soon forgets how long it took to get there (hardly less than 100 years), how difficult and full of reverses[19] the process was, and which strategies it employed that are no longer open to latecomers.

The lingering effect of stigmatization

The authors conclude their assessment of China by bemoaning the “innate sense of insecurity” (pg. 398 – my italics) still in the national psychology. “One of the pieces still missing is the kind of self-confident mind-set that would finally allow Chinese to feel that they have arrived and thus deserve to feel comfortable in their new global skin.” (Pg. 397 – my italics) And they remind China: “to regain the respect of those great powers has always been an essential ingredient of any cure.” Innate, deserve – regain… Contrast this with Henry R. LUCE’s confident invitation to his countrymen: “…to accept whole-heartedly our duty to exert upon the world the full impact of our influence for such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit.[20]

The hegemon asserts his rights and demands respect – the others have to earn it. Will they ever be up to the challenge? “Chinese themselves seem not to quite know what their nation’s most fundamental values now are.” (pg. 399) As if the West knew – or should know. Let me quote the dying John ADAMS in 1826: “America is destined in future history to form the brightest or blackest page, according to the use or the abuse of political institutions by which they shall in time to come by shaped by the human mind.”[21]

The authors conclude loftily: “Foreign imperialism is no longer the primary cause of China’s afflictions. It depends on an ability and willingness to see that the missing tiles in the mosaic of respect that Chinese so ardently seek now revolve more around the question of the Chinese government’s own ability to nurture a more open, transparent, tolerant, just, and even democratic society living under the rule of law than anything else.” (Pg. 401) We have not progressed much since the Unequal Treaties, have we? China is made to meet the West’s standards, and no sooner it has met the current benchmark that it is lifted: faster, better! Admittedly, the Marines are not on Chinese soil, but they are just over the horizon.

Even if unintended, such patronizing paternalism hurts. The West urges China to forgo its traditional society of reverence, all the while asking it to revere its values. Respect is a birthright, not something one “deserves”. Conclusions like these confirm social stigma, which is a pervasive (if hidden and destructive) force in social relations.[22]

What about dissidents? China has long had a deeply ambiguous attitude to dissidence.[23] It may have been intolerance, or awareness that revolts in the country were common, and had to be prevented lest they bring down the country.[24] These dissidents, however, nowadays inevitably place themselves at the interface with the rest of the world. International media amplify their voice. The West’s supporting dissidence reminds China deeply of the ongoing stigmatization – the Western assertion that China does not make the grade. No wonder the CCP reacts fiercely.

Deepening the dialogue is of the essence. The dialogue will have to rest on mutual and unconditional respect and profound curiosity for the other. There is no question, in my mind that the preponderant West has a long way to go in shedding its prejudices and understanding the Sinic civilization. Perceiving itself on top of the greasy pole does not help, nor does the lingering unspoken dread of losing that position.

The West’s international system, based (in theory) on equality of states under a common set of international rules, must learn to coexist with China’s traditional tributary system, toward which the country seems to gravitate. Both sides will have to adapt. The West is haunted by its own experience of aggressive nationalism and (Communist) internationalism, which have been responsible for much of the violence of the last two centuries. This strategy no longer is an option in my view. Both systems have to come to a shared understanding that nationalism – the sense of self-worth and pride – need not be aggressive. Acknowledging this is also a task for the West. It might help redefine e.g. its military presence at China’s door.

[1] One may be allowed to contrast this book’s title with that of a work on the same subject written a generation ago. Jonathan D. SPENCE’s “magisterial” work bore the less self-assured title: The search for modern China.

[2] One may ascribe to a rhetoric flight the reference to Sisyphus – contrary to King Goujian the mythological King of Ephyra suffered on forever. That was his punishment…

[3] Daniel KAHNEMAN (2011): Thinking, fast and slow. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, New York.

[4] Admittedly, a meteorite wipes out the dinosaurs and is followed by the emergence of the mammals. We do not credit the meteorite with “freeing evolution from its traditional moorings.” “Shit happens” is good enough an explanation. In the same vein, we do not credit Hitler with “teaching Germany manners in international relations.”

[5] It would not be the first time that historical assessment from a distance yields over-fulsome praise. The Romans, but not the Greeks, called Alexander “Great” – the former had their reasons. See: Peter GREEN (1992): Alexander of Macedon, 356-323 B.C. A historical biography. University of California Press, Berkeley.

[6] For a discussion of this bias in evolution, see: Henry GEE (2013): The accidental species. Misunderstandings of human evolution. University of Chicago Press.

[7] See e.g. Richard J. EVANS (2001): In defence of history. Granta books, London.

[8] See e.g. Timothy N. BREEN (2011): American insurgents, American patriots. The revolution of the people. Hill & Wang, New York.

[9] Edward SLINGERLAND (2003): Effortless action. Wu-wei as conceptual metaphor and spiritual ideal in early China. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

[10] See e.g. Marshall SAHLINS (2002): The Western illusion of human nature. Prickly Paradigm Press, Chicago; also Marshall SAHLINS (2004): Apologies to Thucydides. Understanding history as culture and vice versa. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

[11] See e.g. François JULLIEN (2012): Entrer dans la pensée ou des possibilités de l’esprit. NRF, Gallimard, Paris

[12] Philip KITCHER (2011): The ethical project. Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

[13] See e.g. J. Scott TURNER (2007): The tinkerer’s accomplice. How design emerges from life itself. Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

[14] François JULLIEN (2009) Les transformations silencieuses. Grasset, Paris.

[15] China’s imperial adventures were limited. The last effort was in the XVIIIth century. See Peter C. PERDUE (2005): China marches West. The Qing conquest of Central Eurasia. Harvard University Press, Cambridge. The title’s term “conquest” is somewhat of a misnomer. China had ruled these territories under the Han, and was thus returning to its earlier frontiers. The Mongols, after having conquered China, tried to conquer Japan. Such adventurism was alien to China proper.

[16] Tomoko T. OKAGAKI (2013): The logic of conformity. Japan’s entry into international society. University of Toronto Press, Toronto.

[17] It tried, belatedly, but after having achieved full membership in the international system. The Unequal Treaties, which relegated it to “non-civilized status” in the system and justified foreign occupation, were scrapped in 1899. The defeat of Russia and the conquest of Korea followed.

[18] Isomorphic are “natural” conditions comparable to Western Europe that were conducive to modernization (e.g. climate, size of the country, location – what Jared DIAMOND lists, in his Guns, germs and steel, as the contingencies of environment. Isomorphic institutions are social structures that can perform the same functions of those in the West, or easily made to. Japan was modernizing on its own well before the arrival of Commodore Mathew C. PERRY in 1853.

[19] One might reflect, for just a minute, as to whether the many failed European revolutions of 1848 were not akin to the Tienanmen Incident in 1989.

[20] Henry R. LUCE (1941): The American century. Life, February 7th; (well before Pearl Harbor.

[21] Joseph J. ELLIS (2001): Founding brothers. The revolutionary generation. Knopf, New York, pg. 247

[22] See e.g. Claude STEELE (2011): Whistling Vivaldi: How stereotypes affect us and what we can do. Norton, New York.

[23] See e.g.: Jonathan D. SPENCE (2001): Treason by the book. Viking Press, New York.

[24] The Taiping were a speck in Cixi’s eye, until the engulfed the country. See: Jonathan D. SPENCE (1996): God’s Chinese son. The Taiping heavenly kingdom of Hong Yiuquan. Harper & Collins, London.

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