China's booming economy a case of history repeating

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 May, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 May, 2006, 12:00am

'A gateway is a good metaphor for China. It is a long, dark tunnel, below walls and fortifications. Every city was walled, with a curfew and trade controlled. The tunnel is long, dark, difficult and easy to defend and it is hard to know where we will end up.'

So began a speech by Jonathan Spence, 69, the most famous China historian in the English language, to an audience of investment bankers and fund managers at the CLSA China Forum in Shanghai last week.

It was a salutary reminder of the uncertainties of history to an audience that came to Shanghai eager to spend money on the world's hottest investment target - from stocks, bonds and IT start-ups to hotels, office buildings and textile plants. This year, there is more foreign money chasing projects on the mainland than projects able to absorb it.

Shanghai is an apt location for a history lesson, as the centre of the China fever, with the mainland's main stock exchange and most speculative property market. While it is, by Chinese standards, an infant with a history of only 150 years, it operates under the tight control of the 'emperor' in Beijing, following the same rules as its older sister cities all over the empire.

'We are all here because we think something is happening,' Professor Spence said. 'China has been the leading hi-tech civilisation, in the 10th to the 13th century, in silk, the compass, navigation, book-printing, and porcelain and the furnaces used to make it.

'It has a big balance of payments surplus now, as it had in the 1770-1820s, when it accumulated gold, silver and credits from the west to pay for its silk, porcelain and other luxury goods. The west, and Britain in particular, was only able to alter this by exporting opium.'

He said China had a long history of centralised, non-representative government, from Qin Shi Huang in 221BC to the end of the Qing dynasty in 1911, and most of the period since then.

'The brief republican government was born with big hopes. It wanted a new supreme court and held a nationwide election in 1912, the only one. But this had collapsed by the early 1920s, and was replaced by the single-party Nationalist government. It nearly exterminated the Communist Party, but could not contain the Japanese military.'

In 1949, the communists took power and imposed its own guidelines and control.

'There is a great wariness of the central government breaking down, a consensus that the populace accepts its strong powers as long as it ensures safety, controls the borders and prevents famine.'

It is this appeal to social stability and delivering economic growth that have become the legitimacy of the communist government, which has long abandoned its promise to build a fair and classless society.

For many in the party, democracy means factionalism, chaos, weakening of the central government, the end of growth and the possible independence of Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang .

One legacy of this authoritarian government is the absence of a legal challenge to the government, in imperial China as today. 'The laws were codified and distributed by the central government, along with a code of punishment. There were fixed rules and few lawyers. The legal profession was not accepted in China. The idea that the state had already interpreted the law is still with us,' Professor Spence said.

'There is no tradition of an independent judiciary, which could struggle against the centre, as in Britain or France. It is easy for the centre to control the legal system. The early Chinese republic wanted a new supreme court in the 1910s, but it did not work against the powers of the state.'

This reality is played out every month, with lawyers who handle sensitive cases that challenge the police or redevelopment projects often stripped of their licences and, in some cases, developers or officials sent to prison. Most lawyers prefer to concentrate on commercial and business cases, which are more lucrative and less dangerous.

Professor Spence said the communist government shared with its nationalist predecessor and the emperors before them the control of culture. 'In the second century BC, there was total destruction of many texts that were critical of the state. The dynasties monitored poetry and paintings and arrested people with unauthorised works.'

In the late 19th and early 20th century, new media was only able to flourish in Shanghai, a city under foreign control in which Chinese law did not apply.

'We had the same control under the nationalist government and now under the communists, of television, satellite, the Web, mobiles, pagers and iPods.'

Although he is an academic, Professor Spence is working in a field that is highly political, since Chinese rulers attempt to present history as it suits them. 'The anti-Japanese sentiment is both real and calibrated. Why do they emphasise it after so long? The Nanjing massacre remains tempestuous for Chinese, Japanese and western scholars. Once I was shouted at for not accepting the official Chinese figures [of dead]. I simply said there was an absence of foreign sources and Japanese military records.'

A native of England, Professor Spence discovered his passion for Chinese history in his 20s. An outstanding student at Cambridge, where he studied western European history and graduated in 1959, he went to Yale University and was inspired by a professor of Chinese history, Mary Wright.

'There was little teaching of China when I was an undergraduate. I discovered an extraordinary culture and civilisation, with written documents from the second millennium BC, and detailed documents from 1,000BC.'

He became the first western scholar to make use of the secret memorials of the Qing dynasty held in the National Palace Museum in Taipei. He has been teaching at Yale since 1966 and written 12 books that have opened Chinese history to a wider audience.