History's Lens: How to Look at China
Image Credit: Wikicommons

History's Lens: How to Look at China


A question about historical precedents for China’s rise landed in my reader mailbag last week. “What,” my correspondent asked, “is the better optic for looking at China today — Bismarckian/Wilhelmine Germany, or post-Meiji Japan? Or both?” Both! Forced to choose, though, I think Imperial Germany supplies more useful indices for plotting China’s trajectory. Someone should really write something making the comparison. Like 19th-century Germany, China is a land power situated amid weaker, nervous neighbors. To compound matters, it has set out to make itself a sea power. Managing its rise without uniting a hostile coalition could demand a virtuoso performance from Chinese diplomats.

The early reviews are less than stellar — at least from this reviewer.

This isn’t to say the Japanese precedent lacks merit altogether. The Meiji Restoration saw this secluded island nation burst forth from centuries of military rule, vowing to remake itself as an outwardly Western industrial power in order to fend off Western imperialism. It did so virtually overnight by historical standards.Within three decades after the Meiji emperor ordained that Japan would modernize, it had constructed a navy able to vanquish China’s. It stood on the brink of crushing the Russian Navy. Tokyo’s triumph in the Russo-Japanese War signified Asians’ first significant defeat of a European imperial power in centuries. It electrified regional audiences.

Meiji Japan, then, shows how quickly an authoritarian Asian nation with moxie, the makings of great power, and strong political leadership can marshal the necessary resources. Those who deprecate China’s rise — or prophesy that it will take Beijing many decades to consummate its economic and military development — ought to bear the Japanese example in mind. It has been done before, and at breakneck speed. Alfred Thayer Mahan pronounced Japan one of the two most changed societies of the late 19th century, alongside his own United States. Theodore Roosevelt saluted Japan for vaulting into the forefront of progressive civilization.

Fin de siècle Germany, on the other hand, is useful because it provides not just one but two yardsticks for China’s rise. During his long tenure, founding Chancellor Otto von Bismarck skillfully depicted the Reich as a satisfied great power with no further claims on its neighbors’ territory. But Kaiser Wilhelm II dismissed the Iron Chancellor after ascending to the throne. Where Bismarck had gone out of his way to soothe anxieties among Germany’s neighbors, Wilhelm frayed nerves as though by conscious choice. Ultimately, of course, he marched Europe over the precipice into World War I. Such are the wages of vesting near-absolute power in the hands of one man — or a few men.

James Madison sagely counseled that enlightened statesmen aren’t always at the helm of state. Is China’s new leadership more like the Meiji emperor, Otto von Bismarck, or Kaiser Wilhelm II?

January 17, 2013 at 05:51

John Chan, your texts are always ridiculos, almost too ridulous to be really ment so! Are you some western proxy that is trying to ridiculise Chinese people?!  You should be ashemed !

December 29, 2012 at 23:16

The analogy between China and Willhelmine Germany has been written on extensively – particularly by Henry Kissinger "On China" in the epilogue, and also by Robert Kaplan briefly in "The Revenge of Geography". 

December 24, 2012 at 13:51

You do not know China's history. From 1949 to 1974, China was under blockade. Thailand and Vietnam are two of the rice producers in the world. There is no need for ships to buy rices from them. If the war brokeout, they will try to stay out of the war as far as they can. So, they will not join the blockade.
Besides, for each ship America sink, America will lose a satellite. The trade is not going to be good.

December 24, 2012 at 04:43

China would get very hungry very soon.  Even a partially effective blockade would cause serious problems.

December 23, 2012 at 01:58

"but this objection remains irrelevant because what matters is not the technology but the will and ambition."
China has neither the will, resources or ambition to be a global hegemon like the U.S. It's ambition is multipolar world.
then you are blindly ignoring millennia of your own history, as well as the very reasons for the modernizations that your culture has undertaken since the latter half of the 19th century. You are also intentionally blinding yourself to the true purpose of what you repeatedly name "sovereign territory". If the PRC was aiming for a multipolar world, it would make efforts at true cooperation with surrounding nations, such as designating those disputed territories neutral territory and taking cases before the ICJ; it would end its propaganda campaign against Japan; it would end the modernization of its military, for there are no nations that truly wish it ill within its periphery, nor within the world at large. This is not what we have seen, however. Instead, we have seen a nation whose leaders and populace seem to be high off the idea that somehow it is their destiny and theirs alone to lead mankind, that anything they name theirs must be so and in regards to that objective they go to the very brink of military force in order to force their will upon others; they continue a relentless propaganda campaign of demonization against a nation that has not made war for nearly 70 years, continually provoking it despite the multiple apologies made, and they arm themselves to throw out the only guarantor of regional security because–rather than desiring greater stability and peace–the PRC and its leaders see said nation as the one and only obstacle to the return of the "flower at the center of the world" to her proper position within the cosmos.

December 23, 2012 at 01:46

either you're being sarcastic, or you made a terrible stumble there. I am well aware of what my ancestors did; what matters is that comparable action is taking place in Xinjiang and Tibet in the modern day.

James Hollifield
December 22, 2012 at 16:57

Right.  It is obvious that, if a war is started, China will be quickly defeated.  They should be well aware of that as well.  Therefore, the war will never start.  They will never become a new Japan or a new Germany.   They may use some scare tactics from time to time, at the most, like the fights between Republicans and Democrats.  Everything will become just right at the last moment.  And that's it.  Everyone can rest now.
Still, many authors and commentators keep showing unwarranted fears on China.

December 21, 2012 at 17:48

I think your assumption full of bugs, remember US locate 10,000nm away from China, even Hawaii is 5,000nm away. US do not suffer any damage during WWII, especially their production line, but now if China can attack US, I mean bomb your cities by ICBM, it's a different story. You DO NOT have any idea what means that, but US Navy will be negatively affected, that's something for sure.
To discuss the possibilty of potential Sino -US conflict is crazy, think two big vehicle clash, it's naive to assume one will not be destroyed.

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