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By Sam Burt

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The most insightful documentaries about China’s journey through the 20th century were all made before the 2008 Olympic Games, before China was called upon to bail out tottering Western financial institutions, and even before China joined the World Trade Organisation—in short, before China mattered so much to the rest of us. A year on from the centenary of China’s 1911 revolution, the British viewing public is overdue a thoughtful and comprehensive reflection on how much China has been transformed since the dynastic era drew to a close. China: Triumph and Turmoil was, unfortunately, not it.

In the first two programmes—‘Emperors’ and ‘Comrades’—Professor Niall Ferguson provided a sketchy, selective overview of China’s history from the late Imperial era to the post-Mao ‘Reform Era’. As so often with accounts of the People’s Republic under Mao, the programme avoided the most interesting problems, such as understanding the reasons why so many people supported policies which seem demented and monstrous. For no apparent reason, the second programme also devoted a lot of time to contemporary displays of ‘Maostalgia’ without any serious examination of how it is being fuelled by factional manoeuvring within the upper echelons of the Communist Party (CPC). In taking this approach, Ferguson was able to frame these ‘revivalist’ activities as symbolising Chinese people’s habit of unquestioning loyalty to their rulers, rather than considering the possibility that participating in factional dynamics might represent a bold political statement and an implicit recognition that the CPC is not a monolith—just as these sorts of activities did during the Cultural Revolution.

The third programme—‘Superpower’—dealt with some of the most widely-discussed issues in China today: the huge ‘floating’ migrant population; nationalist youth groups such as ‘Anti-CNN’ and the Red China Alliance; China’s role in Africa; and China’s high-end technology industries. Ferguson neatly outlined the central dilemma facing Chinese policymakers: that all the talk is of China’s economic growth rate declining from the double-digit rates it has sustained for decades, at a time when there are already far too few jobs relative to the working-age population. As he sought to describe the scene from the vantage-point of China’s leaders, economic growth tends to create new problems even as it solves old ones. In other words, slower growth could give short-term hardships an air of permanence, and turn the rising tide of routine social disturbances in China into something resembling a large-scale organised opposition to CPC rule. These were acute observations.

The most problematic aspect of the series was Ferguson’s habit of simply inferring politics from culture, and culture from history. His central argument concerning the relevance of China’s past to China’s present and future, appears to run as follows: for almost all of human history, a nation as large and diverse (ethnically and linguistically) as China could only exist under a centralised and authoritarian state; a drawback of this political arrangement was that whenever effective authority weakened, social ‘chaos’ (donggluan) would erupt with devastating consequences, as people fought fiercely to re-establish an effective authority; up to modern times, this has inculcated a fear for the breakdown of social order such that Chinese people will not respond to greater personal freedoms and material prosperity in the same way that other people would—they will continue to be far more cautious about directly challenging the Party’s monopoly on governing power.

Therefore, in Ferguson’s view, as long as the CPC can maintain a semblance of social stability, the factors that have given China its competitive edge in the global economy are not short-term phenomena. The average wages of Chinese workers may start rising as Chinese manufacturing gets upskilled, but the Chinese economy will always be a few steps ahead of its major rivals, simply because Chinese people are more willing than their major rivals to do the same work for lower pay, move house or change job for strategic development, and so on.

It is not hard to foresee the destination of Ferguson’s train of thought (though he does not lay it out in detail in this particular series). If the aforementioned cultural factors driving China’s unprecedented dynamism are expected to persist (even, perhaps, as China’s political system makes long overdue steps towards greater participation and accountability), then the developed nations will have to rise to the challenge. But lacking China’s supposedly deep-rooted and uniquely deferential political culture, Westerners may need some blunt guidance from the state to meet the China threat.

This kind of agenda does not just cover cutting red tape and improving schools—it also means further encroachments on the rights of organised labour. Ferguson speculates that the exploitation of some workers in some of the African states where branches of Chinese multinational companies are operating is a harbinger of how China will treat the developed world in future decades—essentially, we can expect to be paid a Chinese wage for working Chinese hours.

Ferguson’s familiar political agenda of ‘free market, strong state’ thus dovetails nicely with his rather static view of political culture as the determinant of Chinese society-state relations. And yet a moment’s reflection on the arguments he presents over the course of this series reveals just how unnecessarily confined are the horizons of this historian’s gaze when he looks to the future. If we instead consider how people themselves make their culture, and how people can be made aware of this fact—of what Raymond Williams described as the ‘ordinariness’ of culture—through political action, then the open-ended trajectory of Chinese attitudes towards the state is more apparent. On this point, it is worth noting how briefly Ferguson deals with the ‘May Fourth’ Movement of 1918, an iconoclastic and modernist cultural renaissance that grew out of disillusionment with the young Republic.

Once the concept of culture is uprooted from its supposed seedbed of ethnicity, there is space for matters of class to breathe. If projecting ahead from present trends really does imply ‘turmoil’ alongside ‘triumph’, with China’s rise having levelling effects elsewhere in the world, in pay, continuing austerity, and working conditions, then why not change present trends? Why don’t exploited peoples work together across borders and cultures to ensure that all have fair chances to benefit from the proceeds of global growth? There has been an international working-class movement with the potential to bring about revolutionary change in the past—why assume that no such agency for social change could exist in the future?

In sum, ‘China: Triumph and Turmoil’ was an opportunity missed. Ferguson makes a misguided attempt to apply his usual techniques of broad-brush historical analogy to analyse a country unique for its cultural continuity. The result is that epochal shifts in Chinese thought are obscured by the standard trope that the men running China today are basically the same as the emperors of Imperial China—and, deep down, the Chinese people are basically the same as the fractious, centrifugal but deferential subjects of the emperors.


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