Chinese political scientist endorses positive sides of European colonialism

I am reading Wang Yizhou’s book Creative Involvement: The Evolution of China’s Global Rise (as is often the case, the book is in Chinese but also  has an English title). The book came out last year and is the second of what the publisher, Peking University Press, describes as a trilogy. (The first is entitled Creative Involvement: A New Direction in Chinese Diplomacy.)

Wang is a professor of international relations at Peking University. He started his career as an Eastern Europe specialist, publishing books on The Hungarian Way (1987) and The Polish Crisis (1988).

Towards the end of the book, on pp. 174-176, Wang delivers a surprisingly ambivalent assessment of European colonialism. He begins by what appears to be an endorsement of early European explorers’ propagation of modern technologies such as cartography and firearms; the export of European architectural styles, expositions, flush toilets, sewage systems, the Latin alphabet and sports by engineers and missionaries; and the spread of education and legal systems, accounting methods and labour organizations by colonial officials and non-governmental organisations. He distinguishes these positive aspects of European colonialism from Japanese and American imperialism, which he describes as essentially militaristic and violent, and approvingly quotes another scholar, Chen Lemin, who describes colonization as a spread of civilization — exactly as it was justified by the colonial powers. He also notes that the European colonial enterprise was not purely a state affair but involved many non-state agents, an aspect he also sees as positive. Further on (pp. 179-80), Wang makes clear that he sees Europe’s contemporary international role as principally an exporter of norms. Europe, in his view, continues to possess a “normative power” unmatched by the U.S., which leads through military power. He ascribes this to Europeans’ superior knowledge of history and “cultural upbringing” (文化修养).

Wang tempers this assessment by criticizing the “eurocentrism” apparent in the “white man’s burden” and, confusingly, traces a straight line from old-style colonialism to Churchill’s “iron curtain” speech and Sarkozy’s military interventions in Africa. Nonetheless, the description of the European colonial enterprise as largely benevolent is striking. Acknowledging the positive side of colonial modernization is not, in itself, surprising for a Soviet- or Chinese-style Marxist approach to history, as, in a teleological frame of development from feudalism to socialism, it propels society to the next stage of development and produces national elites and proletariats that can then take up the fight against colonialism but also against feudal oppression. But in official PRC readings of history, given the CCP’s strong reliance on anticolonialism as a source of legitimacy, this theme has been downplayed, whereas Wang completely omits the violent and coercive aspects of European colonialism (as well as the modernizing aspects of Japanese colonialism).

In non-academic writing in Chinese, notably about Africa, approving comments on the British colonial legacy of jurisprudence and rights awareness are quite common, but I think in academia this is fairly new, and seems to be intended to create a discursive basis for legitimizing the “civilizing projects” of current Chinese engagements in Africa and elsewhere. Indeed, Wang describes China’s attitudes to global modernity as a “winding” but nonetheless “increasingly clear,” from forced acceptance to forceful resistance to cautious adaptation to “attempting to assert its own values and interests in the enterprise of humankind’s progress” (p. 176). He adds that China has already contributed significantly to the “hardware” of that enterprise, but that its contributions to spreading new societal norms have been out of proportion with its economic weight.

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