Re-interpreting the past behind China's present

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Skyline of Shanghai, China. (Photo: Enrique Lopez Garre, courtesy of Pixabay.)

China today is an influential, yet insecure, global powerhouse that can best be understood by studying its institutions, says China historian Klaus Mühlhahn.

“What we need to explain today is no longer the deficit of China's history,” commented the author, “but the surprising and unexpected successes that China has produced at breakneck speed.”

by Guilia Piscitelli (UCLA 2021)

UCLA International Institute, October 15, 2019 — Klaus Mühlhahn opened a recent talk at UCLA about his new book, “Making China Modern,” by citing Walter Benjamin: “In every era, one must try to extract history from the conformism that is about to overwhelm it.” Vice president and professor of Chinese history and culture at Freie Universitat Berlin, Mühlhahn spoke at an event hosted by the UCLA Center for Chinese Studies. He argued that history is neither homogeneous nor stagnant, but rather, something that is constantly unfinished and evolving. As such, every era must rewrite history through the lens of its current conditions.

The most highly regarded “long-view” surveys of Chinese history were written in the second half of the 20th century by Jonathan Spence (1990) and John K. Fairbank (1970s and later), noted Mühlhahn. These historians focused on China’s stagnant economic growth and lagging development, he said, and sought to identify reasons for China’s inability to grow, exploring such factors as communism, Mao and Confucianism, among others. “What we need to explain today is no longer the deficit of China’s history,” commented the author, “but the surprising and unexpected successes that China has produced at breakneck speed.”

The best way to understand contemporary China, argued the speaker, is to take a long view of its institutional development since the high Qing era. His remarks centered on the last 150 years. A broader scope is necessary to fully understand the changes China underwent in that period to become the country it is today: powerful, but unstable, said Mühlhahn. Until such a scope is embraced, he commented, historians will not have a relevant voice in discussions of China’s present and future development. 

Institutions, said Mühlhahn, are the ideal lens for examining China’s strengths and weaknesses, its disappointments and triumphs, over the past century. He defined institutions as rules — written or unwritten — that allow people to collaborate and cooperate “based on mutual trust that comes from shared rules, common assumptions, expectations and values.” Unlike influences such as leaders or ideologies, institutions reflect long-term historical evolution and important continuities, he argued. The institutional lens reveals that China is much less impacted by external forces than is often believed — its fate is really being written domestically, and it has been for at least a century, he remarked.

An institutional view of modern Chinese development

During the high Qing era (1683-1839), China was trading porcelain, tea and salt on a global scale. The country maintained a strong position in the global economy by producing goods competitively, receiving large amounts of silver from the Americas (which fueled its global expansion), maintaining a trade surplus with Europe and even customizing goods for target markets. In the 19th century, however, it entered a period of crisis largely due to external factors beyond its control.

According to Mühlhahn, these factors included climate change, imperialism, famine, the rising cost of silver and increased global competition as European countries, particularly Germany, began producing porcelain. China had faced influences such as these in the past and the empire continued to thrive, but in the 19th century its institutions were too weak to overcome them, said the historian. 

Klaus Mühlhahn, vice president and professor of Chinese history and culture at Freie Universitat Berlin. (Photo: Guilia Piscitelli/ UCLA.) As the country moved into the 20th century, China’s leaders and elites attempted a series of institutional reforms with the goal of re-establishing China as a global power. Nearly every 20th century leader, from Sun Yat Sen to Chiang Kai-shek to Mao, “aspired to recover China’s lost centrality,” explained the historian. They sought to overcome the country's institutional weaknesses “by way of experiments, revolutions, and reforms,” he continued.

Mühlhahn stressed that this extended period of recovery is significant to China’s position today, commenting that “China’s return to a central place in the world is a change that has been going on for over a century. The decade since 1978 was really only the latest chapter.”

Thus China has experienced rapid growth and development in the last 30 years largely due to institutional changes implemented throughout the 20th century, not solely due to the reforms of Prime Minister Deng Xiaoping. Today, the historian said, “the country is strong but insecure,” as seen in the regime's oppression of minorities (especially in borderlands), societal controls and lack of meaningful political participation.

Sequential attempts by Chinese leaders to reform the country’s institutions and consolidate power in the hands of elites, said Mühlhahn, has resulted in a uniquely hybrid governance structure whose internal contradictions explain the frequent policy shifts and inherent disjunction of modern Chinese government.

In the speaker's view, China is currently experiencing a governance crisis. “[The country is] on the one hand very powerful, but its weaknesses and insecurities are also very strong,” remarked Mühlhahn. The author was not optimistic that the government would be able to govern in the current manner over the long-term and feared China might fall from global stature as it did in the late Qing era. “I see more problems, risks and challenges for the future,” concluded Mühlhahn. In the 21st century, he warned, China — and the global economy as a whole — will have to grapple with how China manages its current instability.


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Published: Tuesday, October 15, 2019