Chinese political scientist endorses positive sides of European colonialism

September 10, 2014

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.


Re-reading The Star Raft

October 25, 2012

Philip Snow’s The Star Raft is not often cited in today’s China-Africa literature, but it remains the most enjoyable volume in it. Snow is an engaging narrator without being superficial; his prose is erudite and unmistakably “posh” (he is the son of a peer, after all!), yet plain. He relies on a wealth of references that are nonetheless discreetly tucked away (few academics dare write in this way any more). At the same time, he has a clear sympathy for China (a very different China than that of today) that always avoids being dogmatic or breathless in the way some commentary today is. And Snow is emphatic about his “overriding concern with human exchange” (p. xvii), as much of today’s literature is not.

I am re-reading the book for a class I am co-teaching, and am struck by the prescience of the preface, written in 1987 — except on the subject of South Africa:

…[R]ight up to the mid-1970s […] observers predicted the arrival of Chinese warships in the ports of […] the East African coast. […] Today, in the late 1980s, it is difficult to remember that the alarm was once so great. […] Europe and the United States have come to regard [China] as an amiable semi-ally in their confrontation with the Soviet camp. Africa […] has not found strength or unity, and it has not been able to free itself from Western influence. Most of its states continue to be economically feeble and sustained by constant transfusions of European and American aid. […] Neither China nor Africa seems likely, in the near future, to disturb the West’s repose.

But the quiet may be misleading. […] the process of modernization in which [China] is engaged will enable it, in the end, to assert its will far more effectively […] Africa may not always be weak. The continent may look a very different place, for example, when the apartheid regime in South Africa finally collapses and is replaced by a black-ruled state, rich, powerful and equipped with the nuclear arsenal which the defeated white minority will probably leave behind. And as African countries slowly become more stable and more prosperous, their leaders can be expected to grow increasingly impatient with the continent’s unhappy state of disunity and dependence on Western funds and advice. […]

We are going to have to accept the fact that the various non-Western peoples are likely to come together with increasing frequency: that they are likely, more and more, to question the disproportionate share of the world’s decision-making power and resources which we — and the Soviet Union — continue to enjoy. […] From this point of view we shall be well advised to follow with some interest the expansion of contacts between all parts of the Third World. Will Brazil step up its growing economic role in Africa? Will the Arab states live up to the pledges they have made to use their oil wealth to give a political lead to the poorer developing countries? […]

The Third World peoples will certainly have little hope of destroying our supremacy unless they can make a success of working together — not just as governments or companies but as individuals too.


Foreign Policy lists two “China-in-X” books among 25 notable books of 2011

January 4, 2012

Thant Myint-U’s Where China meets India: Burma and the new crossroads of Asia and La silenciosa conquista china, by Juan Pablo Cardenal y Heriberto Araújo, have been named by Foreign Policy‘s list of 25 notable books in 2011.


New book: The Silent Chinese Conquest

October 25, 2011

Spanish journalists Heriberto Araujo and Juan Pablo Cardenal, who traveled around the world documenting Chinese investments and migration, have now published their book in Spanish. The title, La silenciosa conquista china, leave little doubt about their take on the subject. English, Polish and Chinese versions are in the pipeline. An excerpt of the book has been published in El Pais.


New book on China-India battle for Burma

September 6, 2011

Our student Eric Schuit has alerted me to a new book, Where China Meets India, by Thant Myint-U, the U.S.-bred grandson of former UN secretary-general U Thant. From a review in The Guardian, the main thrust of the book seems — the “great game” between the two powers — seems fairly predictable. But what I found interesting — from someone whose sympathies are apparently not on China’s side — was this description of Special Zone 2:

The dirt roads become Chinese highways. And much of the Wa zone is on the Chinese electricity grid, and even its internet and mobile phone grid. BlackBerrys don’t work in Rangoon but they do in the Wa area … It’s a stunning reversal in Burma’s geography. What had been remote is now closer to the new centre. What were muddy mountain hamlets are now more modern than Rangoon.


Review of Chinese book on Chinese (in Africa)

May 16, 2011

The book review section of People’s Daily Online posted a review (originally published in 大众日报) of a book entitled The Wonderful Chinese People (了不起的中国人), edited by Su Dong 苏东 and published by Zhejiang University Press. The book, according to a blurb, argues the unoriginal point that the real reason behind China’s “economic miracle” is that “the Chinese people are the most industrious and frugal, possess the most hardy spirit, are the most obedient and law-abiding; moreover, the Chinese people have a more overwhelming craving of wealth” (更迫切的对财富的渴望).

The review is subtitled “Are the Chinese all over the African continent?” The reviewer states that “no matter whether in terms of industry or economic brains, the Chinese have an overwhelming advantage” over Africans, who are “harder to get to work overtime than to ascend Heaven: even if you ask them to do overtime just for a few minutes, you have to pay them several extra salaries, otherwise they might sue you.” Yet the reviewer also opines that although the Chinese may be the most hard-working, they are not the most positive or optimistic people. Furthermore, in his view, ethnic Chinese, whether in China or elsewhere, are yet to catch up with their countries’ economic development: their personal behaviour (implying ethics and manners) is stuck at a third-world level.

This piece is only worth noting here because it signals that the familiar discourses of social evolution and of “population quality,” along with fairly crude stereotypes, are alive and well even on such politically prominent sites as People’s Daily Online. So is the story of Liu Jianjun and his Baoding Villages, mentioned again in this review despite claims that it is no more than a hoax.


New “China in … everywhere” book in the pipeline

February 26, 2011

Spanish journalists Heriberto Araújo and Pablo Cardenal are working on a new book on China’s impact around the world, based on a year of travel across 24 countries, ranging from Ecuador to Burma and from Mocambique to Iran. To my knowledge this is the first book that documents Chinese investments on the ground with a global reach.

A preview of the book has just been published as a photo essay in Foreign Policy. Nice photos that nonetheless seem to emanate a rather sinister message of an invasion.

In a recent article in Hong Kong’s Sunday Morning Post, Araujo and Cardenal focus on Mozambique, where, they report, violent clashes between Chinese mine managers and African workers have continued over demands for higher wages and shorter working hours. They conclude that wages and working conditions remain worse than at Western employers (although, of course, in most places there aren’t any Western employers). But the article quotes a Zambian labour union leader as acknowledging that the Luanshya Copper Mines, owned by China Nonferrous Metals Mining Co., comes “close to the required labour standards.” According to the mine’s general manager, it has only 42 Chinese employees out of 2,500, wages start at $400, shifts are eight hours, five days a week, and there is free health care.

Considering that Zambia has seen the most protests and violence around Chinese mines, this is rather rapid improvement, although clearly, smaller companies may not be following these standards.