History's prominent lessons

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 December, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 December, 2006, 12:00am

A new, 12-part Chinese documentary on the rise and fall of major powers is clearly an effort by China to prepare itself to become a leading nation. But it also contains not-so-subtle questions about the country's readiness to be a major power.

The documentary, titled The Rise of the Great Powers, took CCTV three years to produce. It has been shown on prime time nationwide, and has had a significant impact in China.

The documentary takes a serious look at how nine countries - Portugal, Spain, Holland, Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Russia and the United States - became key world powers at various times over the past 500 years.

By talking to prominent people in the various countries - including Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, former British foreign secretary Geoffrey Howe and Paul Kennedy, author of the book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers - the documentary tries to analyse the factors that enabled those nations to step to the front of the world stage.

While it does not talk about China, the documentary clearly contains many lessons for the country. For one thing, there is considerable emphasis on the importance of innovation and independent thinking - something for which China has not been known since the communists took power in 1949.

For example, while China has produced many prominent writers, such as Ba Jin and Cao Yu, their best writings were before 1949. Since the communists took power, creativity has been curbed as writers were turned into instruments of propaganda.

The sole Nobel laureate, Gao Xingjian , winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 2000, lives in exile in France. He was sent to a re-education camp during the Cultural Revolution, and had to burn a suitcase full of manuscripts.

After moving to France, Gao was declared persona non grata by Beijing and his works were banned.

This attitude does not nurture creative thinking and non-conformism. It is the very antithesis of the attitude prevailing in the European countries that became major powers.

For years, mainland China emphasised the 'thought' of only one individual - chairman Mao Zedong , whose embalmed remains are still preserved in a mausoleum on Tiananmen Square.

As long as the thinking of this one man remains exalted, it will prove difficult for independent thinkers to emerge.

One lesson that comes out of the documentary is the role of war in the rise of many of the major powers, such as Germany and Japan. However, the documentary warns against using that route to power, explaining what happened to countries that tried - and failed - by using that route.

The handling of Japan was particularly interesting, since the documentary did not dwell on its invasion of China. Instead, it emphasised Japan's reforms during the Meiji Restoration in the 1860s and its attempts to become a modern country. Japan achieved that even though it was under threat of being divided into various spheres of influence by western countries, as happened to China.

Perhaps most interestingly, the documentary spent much time looking at how Britain and the US rose to become world powers. It emphasised the systems of government and the institutions that were put in place, including Magna Carta, the creation of a constitutional monarchy and the role of Parliament and the two-party system.

Chinese viewers, no doubt, contrasted that with the situation in their country - where there is a one-party dictatorship and little freedom of speech or of the press.

The documentary's makers reportedly briefed the Politburo on their conclusions about how other countries advanced. One hopes that Chinese leaders will reflect on the past.

Further, one hopes they will understand that, if China wishes to become a great power, it must put the proper government institutions in place, permit much greater pluralism in society and not keep the people in a mental straitjacket.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator.