James Holmes

History’s Lens: How to Look at China

What is the better optic for looking at today’s China: Bismarckian/Wilhelmine Germany, or post-Meiji Japan?

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.

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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?