The dangers of dim sum history

JEFFREY N. WASSERSTROM, a professor of history at UC Irvine, is the author of "China's Brave New World -- And Other Tales for Global Times," published this month.

HISTORY HAS been trotted out recently by both domestic defenders and international critics of Chinese Communist Party rule. But while both groups have stressed the value of looking back roughly 70 years, they have drawn sharply different conclusions from what they see.

When supporters of the regime have invoked the 1930s, they’ve tended to focus on the Nanjing massacre, the 70th anniversary of which will fall in December. They see that tragedy — the six-week-long orgy of death and destruction after the city fell to the Japanese in December 1937 — as symbolic of how much the Chinese suffered before the communist era as a result of Japan’s imperialist aims and the weak Chinese state. The lesson they draw: Keep China strong, even if that requires forfeiting some individual freedom.

Meanwhile, foreign critics of today’s China have adopted the Berlin Olympics of 1936 as their favorite historical analogy. They argue that was the year when the international community made the grave mistake — which they insist is about to be repeated with the 2008 Beijing Games — of helping to legitimize a brutal dictatorship. The lesson they draw: Don’t ever make deals with repressive regimes.


I would argue that this kind of historical reductionism is not terribly useful, no matter which side is doing it. If one is truly interested in looking backward — not to help Beijing play the nationalism card or to bolster calls for a 2008 Olympic boycott, but simply to understand today’s China — it is important to do so in a way that is not so simplistic.

It’s true that the 1930s were a fascinating period in China, and one with interesting parallels to our own time.

China was governed in those days by an authoritarian party that had repudiated some key ideals of its first great leader — much as the Chinese Communist Party has today. At that time, the Nationalists had placed founding father Sun Yat-sen’s anti-imperialist ideology on the back burner as Chiang Kai-shek made extermination of the communists his top priority. The contemporary parallel, of course, is the Communist Party’s abandonment of Mao Tse-tung’s anti-capitalist teachings.

Then, as now, this ideological shift did not mean that the regime stopped making symbolic use of its most famous former leader. Mao’s giant portrait still looks down on Tiananmen Square; in the 1930s, Nationalist Party officials often bowed before Sun’s image.

A Chinese consumer revolution was underway during that period, and new consumption patterns then, as now, took hold first and strongest in coastal cities such as Shanghai.

Another parallel is that in the 1930s, as today, there was a great deal of discontent in the Chinese countryside, which often manifested itself in outbreaks of violent protest. And in both periods, cynicism toward the ruling party was widespread, with many feeling that China’s leaders were less concerned with the welfare of the people and the nation than with maintaining their own power.

In the 1930s, the regime invoked tradition in its struggle to appeal to a disaffected population. Specifically, the Nationalist Party invoked Confucian codes of behavior and used Confucian references to social harmony to show that their ideological about-faces didn’t mean that they lacked a moral compass. Similarly, in China today, Confucius is once again celebrated as a great sage whose ancient wisdom has relevance for “New China.”

Even though all these similarities are interesting and thought-provoking, they do not, unfortunately, provide a simple answer to the crucial questions of where China is heading and how the West should treat it. Despite the similarities, there are also many differences between the eras.

Today’s Communist Party, for instance, has a much firmer grip on the country than the Nationalists ever had. Among other things, it does not face an organized opposition party, as the Nationalists did. What’s more, the communist regime in China today has overseen years of dramatic economic growth that Chiang could only have dreamed of when he controlled the mainland.

Indeed, China’s place in East Asia is now so completely different that something like Nanjing could never happen. Japan poses no military threat, and China is simply far less vulnerable than it was.

It is always tempting to invoke the past to convey a simple message — one that tells us how we should act in or think about the present or how we should prepare for the future — but the actual matchup between “then” and “now” is rarely neat enough to allow for this. (Remember the efforts to compare the 9/11 attacks to Pearl Harbor, even though 9/11 was not an act of war by a foreign government?) History is just too complicated, too nuanced and too contradictory to make any analogy a perfect guide to action.

Historians have to be constantly searching for lessons we can use today. If handled carefully, and not treated as providing a perfect blueprint, even imperfect analogies can be useful. This is because, while history seldom if ever repeats itself, as science fiction author Bruce Sterling noted in a 1998 speech, it does “rhyme” — meaning that old patterns often come around again, just with variations.

But the selective use of history by partisans is too often simplistic and misleading, and we must be on guard against it.