Understanding China


Western observers often describe China as “inscrutable,” but perhaps a lot of the mystery surrounding the Chinese condition comes from the fact that Western eyes are so focused on China’s culture and history that they are blind to China’s geography and demographics, which are ultimately the roots of the culture and history. 

To explain China, we need to understand three basic principles about China:

1) China is so vast in terms of land and people that it sees itself as an enclosed universe onto itself.

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2) China’s overpopulation and its limited natural resources mean that the Chinese economy and political system are both based on a national zero sum game of exploiting the peasantry. 

3) This exploitation of the peasantry is so convenient and lucrative it becomes the elite’s raison d’etre, which in turn leads to a stagnant inward-looking authoritarian political order and philosophy that fears progressive ideas as much as peasant rebellions. 

To see how these three principles explain China, consider Barbara Tuchman’s Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-45.  It’s a brilliant biography which attempts, through the prism of the extraordinary career of one of America’s finest tactical field commanders, to explain how an army of one million Japanese could overrun a nation of 400 million, and why once Chiang Kai-shek had successfully manipulated the United States into helping China against Japan he began demanding bribes for defending China. 

In becoming Chiang Kai-shek’s advisor and director of America’s Lend-Lease program in China, the Sinophile Joseph Stilwell wanted to infuse Chinese soldiers with the American fighting spirit of individual initiative he had seen so triumphantly prevail over the ancien regimes of Europe in World War I. Stillwell’s major enemy in teaching the Chinese to stand up for themselves wasn’t the Japanese, but Chiang Kai-shek and the Chinese ancien regime he so personified: 

“It was a long time before Stilwell could bring himself to admit that Chiang did not really want a well-trained, well-equipped fighting force; that such a force represented to him less a boon than a threat; that he feared that an effective 30 divisions might come under a new leader or group, undermining or challenging his own control, and that Stilwell’s proposal to remove incompetent commanders would remove those loyal and beholden to him; that he was not interested in an army that could fight the Japanese but only in one that could sustain him internally; that for this believed it sufficed to have more divisions and more guns, planes and tanks than the Communists.”  

Chiang thought like so many Chinese leaders before him, believing that China’s size and culture would eventually shallow the invader, and thus his priority was to maintain his position within China, not strengthen China’s position in the world:  “[Chiang] had made the same choice as his predecessor, Prince Kung, Regent at the time of the Taiping Rebellion, who said the rebels were a disease of China’s vitals, the barbarians an affliction only of the limbs.”

Much more painful for Stillwell, a general who prided himself on his closeness to and compassion for the infantryman, was to see the contempt the Chinese elite had towards the people they led, a contempt borne out of both fear and reliance. One of Chiang’s officers told Stilwell that one battle’s 600,000 Chinese casualties was “really a good thing [because] Chinese soldiers are all bandits, robbers, thieves, and rascals. So we send them to the front and they get killed off and in that way we are eliminating our bad elements.” Educated at West Point, Stillwell was from a distinguished military family, and was shocked to hear from the same officer that “the Chinese learned long ago to make the lower classes do the fighting.  At first the nobles fought, but they soon got over that and made the people do it for them.”

Soon enough, Stilwell witnessed for himself the Chinese elite’s callousness. While Stilwell was in India preparing for the Burma offensive, the Chinese soldiers sent to his command were packed on a cargo plane and naked because their officers thought “it would be foolish to waste uniforms if the men were to be given new ones anyway.” When an American officer complained to his Chinese counterpart with a list of the soldiers who froze to death on the plane, the Chinese offer threw the list into the garbage can.

Stilwell eventually became so disgusted with Chiang’s regime that he compared America’s Asian ally to its European nemesis: “a one-party government, supported by a Gestapo and headed by an unbalanced man with little education.” 

But Tuchman, armed with the hindsight of history and perspective, understood that Chiang’s situation was as hopeless as Stilwell’s mission of reform was impossible. China’s size and population made it unmanageable and ungovernable, and those who rose to the top could not lead, but at best hang on:  

“For a hundred years the Chinese had struggled to unburden themselves of misgovernment only to have each effort of reform or revolution turn itself back into oppression and corruption, as if the magic prince were bewitched in reverse to turn back into a toad.  China’s misgovernment was not so much a case of absolute as of ineffective rule.  If power corrupts, weakness in the seat of power, with its constant necessity of deals and bribes and compromising arrangements, corrupts even more…

“Chiang Kai-shek’s authority, like that of Europe’s medieval kings, rested on the more or less voluntary fealty of provincial barons…Chiang was not an activist possessed of compelling energy to overturn the old. He changed nothing. He was a holder with no goal but to hold.” 

In 1944, Stilwell was recalled by President Roosevelt at the Generalissimo’s behest, and he died of stomach cancer in a San Francisco hospital shortly after.  The cancer had been spreading for quite some time, but Stilwell, oddly enough, never felt any pain.  Did he feel no pain because he was so absorbed by his China mission, or did he feel no pain because China had taught him not to feel anymore?   

We’ll never know the answer to that, but we know what happened to Stilwell’s China and what will continue to happen to China. Here are the book’s final words: “In the end China went her own way as if the Americans had never come.”

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