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The Australian National University

CIW 2012 Annual Lecture

China's Choices

Professor Gungwu Wang

10:00 am - 12:00 pm 26 September 2012
Molonglo Theatre, Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University

Professor Wang Gungwu National University of Singapore University Professor (formerly, Director of The East Asian Institute). Emeritus Professor of Australian National University.

His recent books in English include Community and Nation: China, Southeast Asia and Australia (1992); The Chinese Way; China's Position in International Relations (1995); The Chinese Overseas: From Earthbound China to the Quest for Autonomy (2000); Don’t Leave Home: Migration and the Chinese (2001); Anglo-Chinese Encounters since 1800: War, Trade, Science and Governance  (2003); Diasporic Chinese Ventures Edited by Gregor Benton and Liu Hong (2004). He also edited Global History and Migrations (1997); Nation-building: Five Southeast Asian Histories (2005) and (with Zheng Yongnian) China and the New International Order (2008).

He is a Fellow and former President of the Australian Academy of the Humanities; Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Science. In Singapore, he is Chairman of the East Asian Institute, the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies and the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. Professor Wang received his B.A. (Hons.) and M.A. degrees from the University of Malaya in Singapore, and his Ph.D. at the University of London (1957). From 1986 to 1995, he was Vice-Chancellor of the University of Hong Kong.

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Forty years ago, two choices made history. Australia chose China over Taiwan and China chose the United States over the Soviet Union. Both led to happy results for the two countries that decided to make their great leaps. China faces new choices today. In the context of the rapid changes in China since 1972, Professor Gungwu Wang uses a quote from Yu Yongding as his text: "China must choose between higher growth and faster structural adjustment. It cannot have both at the same time." Professor Wang discusses China's cultural growth and political adjustment, and argues that it can have both at the same time. As a growing power, whatever road China takes will have a great impact. The future that Professor Wang believes its history and the people's capacity can build is one in which China is open to global development and does not retreat into the false modernity of nationalism and ideology that has plagued the world for the past century.


It gives me great pleasure to be back in ANU. I find it hard to believe that I first came in 1965, 47 years ago. Then I came back to join the RSPacS in 1968. Seeing how far China studies has come since then, let me begin by paying tribute to my predecessor at Far Eastern History, Patrick FitzGerald, and our colleagues in the Department of Chinese, Hans Bielenstein, Goran Malmquist and Liu Tsun-jen who started it all. Now we also have the new Australian Centre on China in the World. I had the pleasure to see the site for the Centre and cannot wait to see it ready next year; and also to read Geremie Barme's report, prepared jointly with Cui Liru, on Australia and China. Clearly ANU is an excellent centre for the study of China, so you can imagine how proud I am to be associated with this great university.

Thank you for inviting me to join the celebration of the 40th anniversary of Australia-China relations. That relationship has been tested and found to be strong. The forty years was a period of momentous change around the world and the valuable ties that have been developed are testament to good leadership on both sides. It is gratifying to see how many Australians and Chinese have contributed to making the relationship so enriching for everyone concerned.

When I joined the university in 1968, it was an eye-opener for me to see the policy changes that were taking place in Australia’s China policy. I had come as Asia Fellow in 1965 and met the ambassador from Taiwan, Chen Chih-mai, a respected scholar and cultural activist before he became a diplomat. Australia did not have an embassy in Taipei at that time, so I was surprised when I found that one was established in Taipei in 1966.

In 1971, Gough Whitlam, as Leader of the Opposition, went to China (accompanied by my Far Eastern History Department colleague, Stephen Fitzgerald). The same year, in the United States, Kissinger reported that he had made a secret trip to Beijing on behalf of President Nixon. Australia had made its choice.

Earlier, by inviting the American table-tennis team to visit China, Mao Zedong and his colleagues made their choice public: to reach out to the US and turn away from the Soviet Union. The fact that the Australian and Chinese decisions happened while the Vietnam War was going on was remarkable. The re-alignments happened while China and the Soviet Union were still pledged to support Vietnam against America, Australia and others in that war. The world was not for the timid in those game-changing times.

We seem to be at one of those times again. What are the choices ahead? I have been trying to follow the ongoing debate on Australia’s choice, or how to avoid choosing between the United States and China? China does not have to choose between any two powers now, nor even between war and peace. It is really about the choices it faces as it becomes a power again in the region. However, whatever the Chinese choose to do will have an impact on Australia and the region. Australia’s choice may depend on what China chooses.

China’s leaders are known to be capable of making abrupt and unpredictable choices for their country’s future. Some of those choices were good for Australia, and others not so good. Since the 1980s, China has chosen to open up to the world faster than anyone expected. Are its future choices to be more of the same? How much further will it go to bring in more foreign technologies, institutions and ideas that its people need? China wants to be modern in distinctive Chinese ways. What can be done to achieve that and what kind of modernity will that be like? If a new Chinese identity becomes powerful, will it alarm the neighbourhood?  If it does and the United States chooses to intervene in the region, what choices would China have?

Let me project some likely choices that hinge on two key objectives: the first is to consolidate a reformed Chinese Communist Party; the second is to keep China united as a kind of nation-state.

In order to strengthen and save the CCP and ensure the legitimacy of its rule, it will choose to play down ideology but nevertheless affirm that Marxism has been a progressive force that had inspired Chinese leaders with ideas that are still relevant to their future. The CCP will not again be dogmatic or deterministic, but will remain pragmatic. For example, it recognizes it has to go through the capitalist stage on its way towards its own version of socialism.

In order to keep China unified, it will choose to build a kind of nation-state and accept, and adapt to, the international system of nation-states. It willm continue to rely on economic development within the global trading framework. It will choose peace with the United States – competing peacefully and seeking to work with the US for peace and security in the region. While China will not resort to military solutions if at all possible, it will remain particularly sensitive about issues touching on the country’s sovereignty.

Most of China’s choices have been very limited and will continue to remain so. But the Chinese have always learnt from the past; to them, the past has never been a foreign country. Their leaders today will not only look to the globalizing world outside but also inwards to China’s past for ideas to help them think about the future. They have a long past from which to look for guidance, and not simply react to events. They will try to act rationally and use all the knowledge they can gather, including their traditions of moral-righteous knowledge, and they will employ historical analogies to provide guidance for pragmatic action.

As examples of such usage, I shall go over some of the choices made during the past 150 years, when the Chinese were forced to deal with a world dominated by Western wealth and power. The choices they made then are still present in Chinese minds. To them, history is not linear progress: if there is a lesson to be learnt, they will study it carefully whether it is further in time from the present or nearer. I shall take as starting-point the Deng Xiaoping legacy because I see that to be China’s base position from which the current leaders have to chart the future. And then look back at the key choices that Chinese leaders made since the mid-19th century.

The Deng legacy began with his idea of feeling for the stones to cross the river. He wanted the Chinese to get away from the nightmares of the last years of Mao Zedong and concentrate on finding the way to the other shore. This

was a return to pragmatism. Deng Xiaoping’s main goal was to keep the socialist heritage as the country’s foundation and open the country to a wide range of choices that would help strengthen that base. He was open not only to the West and China’s modernizing neighbours, but also to fresh insights drawn from the Chinese heritage.

The first thing he wanted was to restore credibility to the Chinese Communist Party, one that was neither Leninist nor Maoist. Chastened by the horrors of the Great Leap Forward and the GPCR, Deng Xiaoping wanted a Party that was protected from the whims of a powerful leader, from internal divisions that led to distrust and fear, and from appeals to dogmatic ideology. The core of his political reform required the removal of party seniors from the decision-making centre. He restructured the selection process to the Central Committee and its Politburo and redefined the relationship between Party and the People’s Liberation Army. He personally picked two men to lead the Party, Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, to give the Party a fresh start. As it turned out, both failed him and the first phase of reforms ended disastrously in the Tiananmen tragedy in 1969. But he regrouped and the second list of younger leaders did lead to a stable regime that enabled the country to become increasingly prosperous. After that, the succession machinery was institutionalized somewhat and that has so far been successful.

This set of limited political reform of the CCP was the capstone of the Deng legacy. China’s remarkable economic performance for over 30 years suggests that this was the right step for him to have taken. After he died in 1997, a few changes were made. For example, “capitalists” were admitted to the CCP while several large state-owned enterprises were diversified and expanded. He had decentralized the administration further than thought efficient, and greater central control of taxation and security issues were reasserted. The quest for quality in scientific and industrial development, notably in the universities and academies, is now bearing fruit.

One key policy that he advocated, that China should keep a low international profile, is being changed. With China’s growing influence as the world’s second richest economy, it is difficult to avoid being proactive in foreign affairs. Paradoxically, this increased influence does not give China’s leaders greater freedom of choice.  By becoming more powerful and attracting closer scrutiny around the world, China’s every move is now met with new constraints.

In the long run, the greatest impact of the Deng legacy is China’s capacity to match anything that the developed nations can do. People selected for proven talent and performance have provided the country with skilled management. New cadres dedicated to advancing the country’s growth have transformed the quality of CCP membership. Today, most of its 80 million members have had high school education or above. They also include entrepreneurs and younger cadres who have mastered capitalist skills. By opening the door to foreign investment and new ideas and technologies, and by sending the best and brightest abroad to study in the most successful nations of the West, Deng established a new baseline for local initiatives. When the Party encouraged a large degree of local and regional autonomy, it shaped a new kind of state that could avoid centralized rigidity at one end and chaotic division at the other. This capacity to bring stability to a large and populous country that is also diverse and complex should play a determining part in shaping a future political system best suited to China.

While most Chinese are proud of the economic development that has made China second only to the United States, they are not all agreed on the social cost of growth. There are widespread complaints of inequalities having grown beyond what is endurable, of officials becoming more corrupt than ever in the past, of justice being wayward and not credible, and of moral values having been sacrificed in the race to material success.

There are also fears that the economy is over-dependent on a capitalist system that is now in disarray everywhere, and that the efforts to protect the CCP at all costs have made further reforms more difficult, and therefore, less likely. The weakened capitalist system has led some on the Left to want to make China less open and vulnerable and pay more attention to wealth distribution and social justice. And protecting the CCP has seen vested interests grow among party leaders, for whom the incentive to reform the power structure has been further diminished. Nevertheless, the Deng legacy still provides the baseline from which to prepare for the future, however uncertain that might be. It has consolidated the CCP state that was established in 1949; it is embraced by the Peoples’ Liberation Army, and it draws on bureaucratic experiences hallowed by China’s history. That is a formidable structure for future leaders to reform.

I shall take it that Deng Xiaoping’s river has been crossed. On the other shore are deserts, forests, even jungles, with dangerous fauna and quagmires but no clearly marked roads. The pressure to respond to global changes beyond China’s control has increased. China will want more time to examine future choices but, as global events close in, it also has to act quickly. In particular, the current financial troubles of the developed economies impinge directly on China’s production and exports, and the uneven development within China has distorted its own consumer markets. State interventions have so far been successful but these are hardly sustainable if current global conditions continue to worsen.

Deng Xiaoping’s choices have been successful in the eyes of most Chinese, even among those who are dissatisfied with the performance of the present leadership. Although hopes are not high about the next generation of leaders, few Chinese are calling for radical change. They would be content if serious steps are taken to reform the country’s governance mechanisms and the justice system. This leads me to what Deng Xiaoping learnt from the recent past, and how that can influence the choices ahead. I shall only outline the major lessons after 1978, and focus on four sets of choices, using shorthand headings for each of them. The four are:

  1. Restoration choices (mid to end of the 19th century);
  2. Reform-revolution choices (the first two decades of the 20th century);
  3. Nationalism-internationalism choices (1930s and 1940s); and
  4. Maoist choices (1950s to the death of Mao).

1. Restoration choices.
These were the choices made by mandarins of the late 19th century, like Zeng Guofan, Li Hongzhang, Wo Ren and Zhang Zhidong, and their advisers like Wei Yuan, Feng Guifen and others. They were impressed by Western military superiority, reviewed what the defeats that China experienced could teach them, and used analogies from Chinese history to argue for suitable responses. They also backed their reasoning with Confucian assurance and doses of Legalist realism, and supported that with insights drawn from the strategic wisdom of Sun Zi. They tried to understand what was behind the power of Western science, but thought that most of the non-military aspects of the new knowledge were unnecessary for China to learn. By 1895, the Japanese proved that they were seriously wrong in what they decided.

To put that in perspective, the colonies established on the Australian continent were guided primarily by Victorian Britain at the peak of its power, the age of Empire. For the colonists, the work of greatest importance was to lay down the foundations for an extension of Britain “down under”. They knew China only as the homeland of thousands of largely Cantonese miners who came to join the gold rush. In the distant background were mandarins of a declining Manchu Qing polity who did little to support these miners.

2. Reform-revolution choices.
At the turn of the 20th century, Chinese officials chose to adopt aspects of the Japanese model of constitutional government, and introduced the Xinzheng 新政 or New Reforms to save the regime. Others outside the court were more radical and looked elsewhere. For example, the revolutionaries led by Sun Yat-sen, Huang Xing and discontented intellectuals in Japan and in China’s Treaty Ports, argued for French and American models. They advocated republican nationhood as the engine of progress, and were prepared to take China through revolutionary change. The fall of the Qing in 1912 was unexpected and the decision to establish the republic was hastily taken. No steps had been taken to prepare for that outcome. Of course, either reform or revolution would have led to discarding key parts of the past. But, given the circumstances, neither brought the country the result its leaders sought.

During those years, Australia had become a federal Dominion in the British Empire committed to uphold the imperial values of the Mother Country. The new state was also determined to stop more Chinese from coming. At the same time, the Chinese who had lived and worked in Australian cities brought innovative ideas back to China, and what they offered to their home towns and villages, and also to cities like Shanghai, appealed to reformers and revolutionaries alike. In an unexpected way, Australia began to be part of the modernity that Chinese leaders were now keen to have.

3. Nationalism-internationalism choices.
The desire to pursue the modernity that the young Chinese activists admired was overtaken in the 1920s by the narrowing choice between nationalism and internationalism.

By nationalism, I refer to the KMT/GMD cause that emphasized state sovereignty and pride in 中华文明. This Chinese civilization included heritage concerns that were not unlike the Restoration choices some decades earlier, but they also included militarist lessons from Japanese and German models that were seen as powerful alternatives to the French and Anglo-American liberal democratic ideals that many Chinese found appealing.

By internationalism, I refer to the political agenda that began with the willingness to totally Westernize 全盘西化. This also led the founders of the Chinese Communist Party to the commitment to destroy imperialism and colonialism and change the world.

This period of the 1920s to 1940s was one of division, civil war and Japanese invasion. In the end, the internationalists won, but they also had a nationalist core that remained strong.

Australia saw the emergence of national consciousness during that period. It was not a happy period for the Chinese living here, and the KMT government in Nanjing encouraged them to be Chinese patriots. But radicalized Chinese sailors and workers working in or visiting Australian port cities saw the labor movement here as an inspiring example of internationalism. Australians came to sympathize with a China threatened by Japanese imperialism, fearing that it might one day be similarly threatened

4. Maoist choices.

This began with a triumphant Mao Zedong determined to industrialize the country as quickly as possible. Progress was rapid. The CCP set out to produce the new socialist man. Mao Zedong wanted China to be less dependent on the Soviet Union and seek to become the leader of the revolutionary world. In the end, his struggle within the CCP to push for continuous revolution baffled even his closest comrades. To wrest control from them, he was prepared to destroy the Party and turned for inspiration to China’s peasant rebellions to launch the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. This choice came from a combination of China’s populist heritage and his interpretation of the communist ideal. It was not the country’s choice, but that of someone who came to be seen as god-emperor.

During the Second World War, Australia had made a new choice of protector, the United States. It strongly supported the Western position in the Cold War, and most Australians were suspicious of Soviet and Chinese links with its own communists and their Labor Party sympathizers. Mao’s choices, the antithesis of Australia’s commitments, confirmed Australia’s worst fears. Nevertheless, Gough Whitlam led the Opposition to open doors to China independently of the US. The 1970s was a decade of shifting perspectives in Asia, and Australians watched the changes closely and re-calculated its long-term interests.

The Maoist choices offered the most immediate lessons for Deng Xiaoping. He clearly wanted to turn away from what Mao wanted with the Great Leap Forward or the GPCR. Recently, there have been suggestions that the “singing red” phenomena in Chongqing when Bo Xilai was mayor marked a wish to return to the Mao Zedong era. I do not agree with that. Mao’s choices were influenced by an idiosyncratic reading of Leninist-Stalinist doctrine that was combined with China’s peasant rebellion traditions. No one today can hope to succeed by following that path. That belongs to a time when political and cultural throwbacks were still possible and should now be considered an aberration.

Nevertheless, the Maoist choices had their impact. Mao Zedong’s poetry referring to several of China’s empire-founders was not rhetoric. He did want his contributions to match those of Qin Shihuang, the first emperor who unified China and rewrote Chinese history. Qin Shihuang’s reign marked China’s first rise and, to many, Mao’s could be seen as the start of the second. Never mind that it was Western imperialism that brought ancient China down; and Western ideas and technology and the revolutions they inspired that enabled leaders like him to rebuild China. He saw the chance for China to rise again from its 19th century ruins, and believed that a totally different China was now possible.

Another example is Mao’s choice to sinicize the Marxist-Leninist model. That came from another strand in Chinese thinking that drew from Chinese history. The desire to sinicize what China received from the world outside reflects its wish to remain as Chinese as possible while being modern. Chinese thinkers know that the immediate sources of modernity are European and that these were developed out of traditions that were largely unique to the Mediterranean region. Local manifestations of modernity in Asia have been grafted onto those European roots. Chinese leaders believe that China can contribute to the enrichment of what is modern. They also are aware that a sinicized modernity might be unrecognisable and rejected by others. The question is, how can they make that modernity attractive so that others can learn to respect it? What can they learn from their efforts during the past century and a half?

The nationalism-internationalism choices just before 1949 are obviously the most relevant. Most Chinese directly or indirectly experienced the nationalism that the KMT government had aroused. Now that China has become more confident of its place in the world, to choose to return to national pride is to be expected. People remember the wartime origin of national consciousness and the leaders know how volatile nationalism can become. This is particularly true of the modern idea of state and territorial sovereignty that has been associated with China’s century-long struggle against foreign encroachment. This is now deeply etched in the modern psyche and no leader can afford to neglect it.

At another level, China does need patriotism as a force to bind people together. There is much to be done because the task of nation building in China is not complete. Beijing is struggling to win the hearts and minds of many of its peoples, especially among the larger minorities in Tibet and Xinjiang, as it tries to get them to feel proud to be Chinese. There are signs in the social media as well in published writings that nationalism is becoming a test of political loyalty and cultural cohesion. It is a political issue that people can give free expression to without retaliation by the state. Thus it can be a double-edged sword that the Chinese state will be careful to encourage only sparingly.

Prior to nationhood, Chinese leaders at the turn of the 20th century had focused on choosing between reform and revolution. They now recognise that the time for revolution is over, and new reforms are what China needs. The questions today are what to reform, how far and how quickly, in what direction, and also how actually to manage reform under conditions that are so very different form those of the 20th century. The obvious lesson learnt is not to leave necessary reforms until they are too little too late, as the Qing rulers had done, and this is being underlined by many calls to Chinese leaders today.

Another feature of the early 20th century was to choose between foreign models for China to copy, for example, between following Japan for many reforms and France and America for the republican ideal. Today, Japan is no longer a model and France is too remote. Only the United States still interests those Chinese who are keen to learn from the American ideal. However, the time for any country to be a model for a rising China is over. China will still look abroad for advanced ideas and technologies but will be more selective about what they choose.

Finally, there remain the lessons from the 19th century Restoration choices. Here the Chinese today are looking afresh at what their history and traditions can offer and have been re-examining what made China great and revisiting the highlights of Chinese and world history. They have embraced the extensive work of scholars in Taiwan, Hong Kong as well as the best work by non-Chinese sinologists and historians. There is a realization that politics and prejudice have been standing in the way of understanding China’s past. The cadres who serve the state do not necessarily share this view, but the progress made since the Mao Zedong years of rewriting history is encouraging.

In that light, curiosity about what can be helpful in China’s past has been reviving. Texts are reviewed and forays made into the ancient classics and all periods of dynastic history. Thus the efforts to re-evaluate the Restoration choices of the 19th century should not be surprising. The ups and downs in historical interpretation about this period are revealing. In the early 20th century, there was criticism of everything that was done during the Restoration era. After 1928, the Nanjing government encouraged a reassessment of the patriotic efforts of leaders like Zeng Guofan and the Hunan gentry. But, with CCP victory in 1949, there was a turning away from that as fresh praise was lavished on the Taiping “revolutionaries” and the traditions of peasant rebellion that used to be condemned. For several decades in the 20th century, nothing done by the late Qing officials were thought to deserve any attention.

Since the 1980s, however, there is a new willingness to look at what the Late Qing mandarins tried to do to defend China’s interests. This reminds us to ask whether the literati were simply blind to weaknesses in China’s political culture, or were they merely over-cautious? Revisiting that period reflects the mood of Chinese leaders and their advisers today. There is none of the dismissive judgment that once marked their writings. Instead, consideration is being given to what was enduring in late imperial China that the mandarin elites were trying to save.

In short, the Chinese now find the idea of historical continuity with the ancient past appealing. There is even official approval to re-write Qing history as dynastic history, and many accept that there are cyclical features in Chinese history. Chinese civilization can once again be described as one that was enriched over the centuries despite periods of division, invasions and conquests. How did it survive the many severe tests of the civilisation’s viability? In what ways were its enduring qualities enhanced after each challenge? Surely modern China can revive key parts of that civilisation again?

Mao Zedong’s generation compared the 1949 victory of the Communist Party with the impact of the Qin-Han unification 2,000 years earlier. The current generation sees that China experienced other rises after drastic falls, and that each rise was marked by China being reunified. And each time, the civilization incorporated some of the new ideas and institutions that foreign enemies and friends had brought to China. Therefore, the failure of the 19th century Restoration offers lessons about what could go wrong in times of serious threats. Taken together with current views on opening up China and the affirmation of patriotism, such history lessons can be valuable. The idea of retaining Chinese foundations that can make use of Western knowledge, as in the tiyong 体用 debates of the 19th century, is no longer mocked as it used to be.  A modern world-view is accepted but the desire to rediscover the value of Chinese foundations has also returned. Can Chinese Learning be restored to greatness? If that is not possible, can it be bolstered and given a place of respect by the application of modern scientific thought?

In fact, there were Restoration policies that were never abandoned. For example, when China was forced open, two policy changes markedly departed from Chinese tradition. The first led the Qing leaders to see Chinese merchants as entrepreneurs who could adapt capitalism to China’s needs. Attitudes towards commerce had been changing since the 16th and 17th centuries, but the Treaty ports after the 1840s transformed the relationship between the literati and the merchant classes. Through the literati-supervised and merchant-managed 官督商办 enterprises, the role of merchants was better appreciated. After the end of the Confucian state in 1912, the modern entrepreneur attained a higher status in the eyes of both state and society. Although that position was reversed when capitalism was demonized in Mao Zedong’s time, it has been gradually restored as entrepreneurial cadres are being rewarded. Since the late 1990s, Jiang Zeming even convinced the Party to admit capitalists into its ranks. In this new economic structure in which cadre and entrepreneur could share responsibility, there is a continuity that may be traced to a pragmatic Restoration decision.

The other policy change dealt with the thousands of Chinese who were living overseas. Although the ban against people leaving China without permission was still in place in the 19th century, the opening of the Treaty Ports not only allowed large numbers of Chinese to work abroad but also forced the mandarins to rethink their policies towards Chinese who were already living there. These officials conceived the idea that these Chinese were only qiaoju 侨居, temporarily living abroad. They then adopted a policy of rewarding successful huaqiao 华侨 and welcoming them home to invest in China and acquaint their countrymen about the outside world. A great deal has been written about these huaqiao as supporters of Sun Yat-sen’s nationalist revolution. But it was Qing officials who first recognized their importance for China’s future and recommended that the court change its policy towards them. This policy was officially confirmed when the imperial ban was lifted in 1893, and it is one of the major policy changes of the Restoration decades that are still operative today.

The Republican government after 1912 continued with that huaqiao policy and gave it new importance from time to time. For example, under the KMT government in Nanjing and during the Sino-Japanese war, the role of the overseas Chinese in raising funds for the cause of national salvation was greatly appreciated. And, in the propaganda wars between the governments in Beijing and Taipei after 1949, competition for the loyalty of the Chinese in countries in Southeast Asia like the Philippines, Vietnam and Myanmar was intense. And that remains a serious factor in the politics among Chinese Americans today. There was a brief period during Mao Zedong’s later years when the returned huaqiao, or guiqiao 归侨, were suspect and mistreated, and their relatives abroad were deeply hurt by that treatment, but that policy was rejected by Deng Xiaoping and a much more open approach towards all Chinese overseas was revived. With China’s rise this past decade, and with new cohorts of rich and well educated Chinese from the mainland encouraged to study abroad and seek foreign experience, there will be ramifications for Chinese relations with many more countries globally. It is now likely that the distinctive modernity that China seeks to shape will have to take into account the potential role of millions of Chinese overseas.

In the growing numbers of Chinese overseas during the past 200 years, we can see evidence of historical continuity. At the beginning of the 18th century, they numbered a few tens of thousands, most of them loyal only to their hometowns and villages in South China. That figure rose dramatically during the 19th, including thousands who were grateful for imperial recognition. The figure stabilized in the early 20th century but the trajectory of growth since the 1970s is steep and is characterised by a remarkable global outreach. The continuity of this overseas Chinese policy is symbolic of the ambivalence that most Chinese people feel about the outside world as well as about their past.  From the creative response by mandarins in the 19th century, the policy was adapted to the needs of both nationalist and communist regimes. It now serves as a conscious effort to treat the Chinese abroad as a bridging asset between Chinese and modern civilization. It is a manifestation of modernity, often with Chinese characteristics, that cannot but become a factor in Chinese thinking about its future.

Let me now try and draw together key features of China’s choices relevant to China’s future. The over-arching choice has been that between pushing for radical change and pulling back to consolidate what is resilient and essential for the country’s safety. The sets of choices outlined above show that they were not uniformly painful and forgettable; nor were they all challenging and stimulating. But they have in their different ways contributed to current thinking about the choices they will have to make. For the Chinese, the past is not a foreign country and their leaders will not allow the past to be too foreign.

In this regard, how might we compare Australia’s recent choices? Australia’s historical ties with Europe were re-directed when it turned to America for inspiration and protection. With that support, Australians could more securely adapt to a changing Asian neighbourhood. But most Australians realize that careful thought is needed for the next set of choices. An analogy may be found in the choices that Singapore made. The city-state has a strong Anglo-Chinese heritage but it is situated in the middle of a Malay-Muslim world. In the 1960s, it could have chosen to identify with China or Anglo-America, but it saw both to be precarious and decided to take the Southeast Asian or ASEAN road. Australia, too, has long practiced geographical realism. It is not a question of choosing China but of adapting to a rising Asian mega-region: that is, one that encompasses East, South and Southeast Asia as well as the Western Pacific. To adapt to that requires a mindset change as great as what was demanded of the pioneers who came half way round the world 200 years ago. Just as those early founders succeeded, there is no reason why Australians today cannot do as well.

As for China, its people have experienced radical change in attitudes many times in their history. They are again prepared to re-order their priorities for their future. China’s new leaders will start with Deng Xiaoping’s legacy that focuses on reform backed by economic development. From that, they are likely to stress the value of patriotism as a necessary factor in nation building. But the earlier Restoration choices remain important. They reflect the desire to restore continuity with China’s long history, the understanding of which is again seen as essential to China’s future. We should not underestimate the value of the lessons learnt from Mao Zedong’s excesses and from choices that demonstrate the futility of copying foreign models. One should not preclude the possibility that new paths will be found as China opens its doors wider. What is clear is that openness will not only bring in foreign ideas and institutions to stimulate inventiveness and but also help define the modernity that China wants. It will also enable the entrepreneurial classes as well as the Chinese overseas to enrich China through their cosmopolitan networks. China has re-affirmed the vitality of reason and historical experience. If there is any way to attain the condition of becoming both modern and Chinese, the Chinese people will find it.

Updated:  2 May 2014/Responsible Officer:  Director, China in the World /Page Contact:  China in the World