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  • Dec 22, 2014
  • Updated: 4:01am
My Take
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 January, 2014, 4:24am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 January, 2014, 5:55am

Stop likening China to 1914 Germany

"The streets were all crowded with civilians and their wives, cheering us [soldiers] on, bombarding us with flowers from café terraces, railway stations, crowded churches. You never saw so many patriots in all your life!"

That is from the opening scene of Louis-Ferdinand Celine's classic Journey to the End of the Night, in which he describes how Parisians went crazy with joy when war was first declared in 1914. Such scenes were repeated in virtually all the major European capitals, where La Belle Epoque, during which Europeans enjoyed unprecedented advances in science, technology and standards of living, had bored everyone. We, too, have had extraordinary advances in all these categories of life, especially in newly developed countries in Asia. But there is at least one respect in which we are much wiser than Europeans a century ago. No one wants a war now, and everyone appreciates how destructive it would be.

The rise of modern China has of late been compared to Wilhelmine Germany. But such "learning" from history may be more misleading than illuminating. Those who insist on the wrong lessons from history are bound to make even worse mistakes. For one thing, no one in China really thinks an armed conflict with the US or a major power like Japan, a threshold nuclear-weapon power, could be anything other than devastating to the Chinese.

Kaiser Wilhelm II built a powerful navy which, though inferior to the British, had a fighting chance against them. Chinese commanders realise their naval vessels, despite their modernisation, are sitting ducks for the Americans. Wilhelm had no idea that the centuries-old ruling Hohenzollern and Habsburg monarchies could simply collapse after the war. Beijing very much fears the Communist Party may not survive a major conflict.

An influential new book, The China Choice, has attracted the attention of policymakers across Asia and in Washington. The author, Hugh White, a former Australian defence official, argues that China does not seek dominance and has no ability to achieve it in the region. But it wants, and should be accorded, "an equal share in the leadership of Asia" with the US. That is far less ambitious than Wilhelm's, or Hitler's, Germany.


More on this story

No echo of 1914 in China's rise
20 Jan 2014 - 10:01pm

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Sorry, but why do you always structure all of your comments like stanzas in a poem? Ever heard of paragraphs?
Huge White is a straight shooter
His counsel is well understood
by most western leaders who aren’t stupid
they posture with tendentious statements
and misleading appearances for ulterior motives
trying to leverage maximum advantages from China
See how Bush Jr and CRice twofaced Elbaradei
respect in private and criticism in public
As leaders they would ask themselves
what could they do if they were Chinese leaders
Only misguided academicians and ignorant commentators
bigots overwhelmed by cold war fixation and silly self-righteousness
would entertain the illusion of aggressive militarism
in China’s peaceful development
Vietnam, Aden, Malaysia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Suez Crisis, Grenada, Laos, Northern Ireland, Falklands, etc. etc. etc. So many wars fought by the traditional duo of the US and the UK since the end of the Korean War, and their hard earned leadership. How many aggressive wars has China fought in that time? Who needs to learn from whom?
I agree with Mr. Lo's general premise here, and would in fact go further. Too often, people are inclined to compare current situations to past events, not because there is some lesson to be learned, or because such comparison might somehow be illuminating; rather, the comparison becomes its own narrative, and the relevance and applicability of the comparison itself becomes lost. It's comparing for the sake of comparing...much like making a point about being pointless.
So whether China 2014 is "comparable" to Germany 1914 is of little usefulness. There are probably specific themes that bear some resemblance, just as there will be many aspects that are widely disparate.
In 100 years, I wonder if there will be some narrative about an emerging world power that lacked the strength of its own convictions to allow its own people to openly and freely debate its merits. I wonder if a narrative will emerge about would-be world powers that cannot sustain itself in the realm of open disclosure, or of public scrutiny of its leaders and their hangers-on. I wouldn't concern myself with how China 2014 is not like Germany 1914. I'd simply concern myself with what China 2014 is, and acknowledge that some aspects of that mural aren't so pretty.
Again, I wish to bring up the terrible hardships and suffering wrought by the Japanese not only in China, but South East Asia during its war mongering years. Many families were destroyed, wives lost their husbands, children lost their fathers, students lost their teachers.....
I hope the Japanese nation will not let the likes of Abe lead the country down that disastrous path again. Abe is just using China as the bogeyman by making such comparisons to divert attention from economic woes at home.
The people who made the comparison obviously did not study Chinese nor Asian history for the past 500 years.
Even in the glory days of the Ming Dynasty 500 years ago, China was content to receive tributes from its lesser neighbours - there was no colonisation of its neigbours unlike what the Portugese, Spanish, British, Dutch and the US did worldwide.
As for China building up its military might, which country with the same experience of being attacked by the Japanese in and before WW2 wouldn't? With a neighbour like Japan who continues to tout US support, one would be unwise not to.


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