On the eve of modern China’s centennial, UBC Historian Tim Brook discusses China’s role in the world today.
The end of the Xinhai Revolution, on Feb. 12, 1912, marked the end of over 2,000 years of Imperial China and the beginning of China’s Republican era.
How did you get interested in Chinese history? What do you think is the value of studying Chinese social history?
I first became interested in Chinese history due to my youthful fascination with Buddhism as an alternative to Western philosophy. I moved from philosophy to social history out of the conviction that, whatever we think, our thoughts arise from the circumstances of everyday life.
How close is China to becoming a full democracy?
That might be the wrong question. Certainly, there are many Chinese in 1911, when the revolution got underway, who were hoping to create some kind of a democratic republic, but there were just as many Chinese, if not more, that were suspicious of the way Western republics and democracies worked. There are many in China today who would like to see China achieve a full democracy, but I suspect there are even more who are suspicious of democracy and prefer to see a more centralized state that remains above popular demands.
What are some of the specific challenges that China faces in its path towards so-called “Western democracy”?
China has a unique set of circumstances, and the most unique its geographical scale and the size of its population, and this has been true of China for the past 2000 years. China has no historical precedent to follow, and there is no other country of a similar scale to compare it with. It is just so much bigger and therefore, so much more complex a historical case than any other country.
I think it’s useful to compare China with other nations’ transformation from monarchies to democracies, but it’s really hard to predict where China is going. The Chinese revolution was one attempt to find a political solution to what you do with an empire when it’s over. The revolution was not successful, and very quickly veered off into a kind of dictatorship, and then communism. China is still trying to find its way forward.
Former Chinese revolutionary leader and president Dr. Sun Yat-sen visited Vancouver several times, and Chinese nationalists living here helped to fund the revolution. Is there any evidence that the Canadian model of democracy served as a model for the Chinese one?
Sun Yat-sen grew up in Hawaii, so he was familiar with the Western world and travelled extensively. Canada was certainly part of the world he thought China had something to learn from. The younger community of Chinese living in Canada at the turn of the 20th century was quite excited by Sun Yet-sen’s promise of a transformation of China. He had a lot of support here – he came three times, maybe four, and travelled around Canada – to proclaim his political program and raise funds for the revolution, which he did very successfully.
Some say China’s on pace to take over the U.S. as the dominant world power, and it will be the first time in 500 years that a non-Western country will be a global economic power. What are your thoughts?
I would say it’s difficult to predict the future. At the moment, the United States continues to be the dominant world power. The Chinese economy is certainly powerful. Whether the economy is enough to give China the capacity to be the leading world power is a question we cannot answer.
China is certainly becoming a world superpower, but it may still have to develop a leadership that is not unilateral, to learn to work with other nations around the world in order to capture the international position that it hopes to attain. However, it would be unfair to say that this would be a particular problem for China. In many ways, the United States also operates unilaterally and fails to work with its international partners, so we can’t really blame China if it has yet to develop a fully multilateral diplomatic style.
What impact will China’s growing international clout have on the world, and on the Chinese people?
I think Chinese people are generally enthusiastic about its growing power, but thus may be a matter for caution. When people are enthusiastic about their country, they can become super-nationalistic or fail to understand, accept, or accommodate other ways of doing things in the world.
What are some of the social impacts that have come from this rapid shift, such as increased trade liberalization and a robust economy?
Well, money has been the greatest shock to the culture. There is a lot of money sloshing around, but mostly in the hands of the very wealthy. China now has the greatest income inequality of any nation in the world, and it has created pride, greed, and envy. China’s going to have to find some way to sustain itself as a society where there’s a possibility of all people prospering, instead of just the tiny minority that is attached, often against its will, to the Communist Party.
How do you expect China to exert its global influence?
China’s been cautious about using its military internationally, and I think that’s a good thing. This is not to say that they might not use their military for their own advantage against other nations, but traditionally they’ve been cautious on that front. I suspect that their path will lie through asserting influence in international organizations. It’s tended not to step into the vanguard of any issues at the United Nations, despite having a veto seat. Many people might criticise China for failing to show leadership at the UN. They haven’t been very good at demonstrating international leadership, so that may be an area where China may want to strengthen its diplomatic role in the world.
Any final thoughts?
The Chinese Revolution started something, and it’s failed to achieve it, so in a sense we’re still waiting for the revolution to come full circle.
Timothy Brook is a distinguished historian at the University of British Columbia who specializes in the study of China (Sinology). Since 2008, Dr. Brook has been Editor-in-chief of The History of Imperial China, a six-volume work published by Harvard University Press. Dr. Brook is also a contributor at UBC’s Asia Pacific Memo.