Hesitant Hegemony for China and the US? An Interview with Lixin Wang

Speculation is mounting that the United States, with Donald Trump cast in the role of president, will step back from the world stage, and China will increasingly lead. But what would China face if it decided to assume international leadership and advance its own ideas and agendas for global order? Drawing lessons from the American…

Soviet Socialism with Chinese Characterisics? Understanding the Collapse of the Soviet Economy with Christopher Miller

Comparing the shifting fortunes of Russia and China over the last fifty years, one cannot but be struck by the dramatic reversal in the two countries’ fates. In 1967, the Soviet Union was in the midst of a massive military buildup that would eventually enable it to reach superiority in conventional arms and parity in nuclear arms with the United States. The Prague Spring was a year away, and in spite of earlier interventions in Hungary, socialism in the Eastern Bloc enjoyed prestige among intellectuals in the West. The Soviet economy grew at a respectable five percent annually or so. China, meanwhile, was still reeling from the effects of the Great Leap Forward when, in 1966, Mao Zedong plunged the country into the Cultural Revolution. Millions of people were persecuted, and China’s leadership nearly triggered a war with the USSR following clashes over islands in Northeast Eurasia.

Today, the two countries present quite a different story. True, since Vladimir Putin was named, then elected, President in 2000, Russia’s economy year after year until the global recession of 2008-09. And having prevented the collapse of a Middle Eastern client in Syria, not to mention Russian influence in European and American elections, Putin can present himself as a confident paladin of Russian power in the world. Yet these triumphs were built only upon the ruins of the Soviet Union, which collapsed in December 1991. And Russia today has to deal not only with the United States, but also a rising People’s Republic of China whose economy is nearly an order of magnitude larger than Russia’s. Even on a per-capita-basis, Russians are only approximately 10% wealthier than their Chinese counterparts.

Reviewing this reversal, those contemplating the decline (and subsequent revival) of Russian state power might point to 1989 as the crucial turning point. In the summer of that year, the PRC’s government imposed martial law as student protesters swarmed Tiananmen Square in central Beijing. The Chinese Communist Party declared the protests “counter-revolutionary” and launched a massive crackdown that resulted in perhaps thousands of deaths. Communist Party control over China—albeit now promoting “socialism with Chinese characteristics”—remained intact, as it does today.

In Eastern Europe, however, the Soviet General Secretary’s refusal to use Soviet military force to put down mass protests in Berlin, Prague, Budapest, and elsewhere led to the collapse of satellite regimes won at the cost of 26,000,000 lives. And whereas Chinese economic reforms strengthened the legitimacy of the ruling Communist Party, soon, in the Soviet Union itself, Mikhail Gorbachev’s economic reforms contributed to the centrifugal dissolution of the world’s largest land country into fifteen successor states.

“The Struggle to Save the Soviet Economy: Mikhail Gorbachev and the Collapse of the USSR” (UNC Press, 2016)

Could things have gone differently? Could the Soviets have reformed their economy into something along the lines of the Chinese success story? Could there have been a Soviet Tiananmen Square scenario that would have prevented Boris Yeltsin from coming to power, and thus averted what Vladimir Putin dubs the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century”? It’s a huge question—and also one that our most recent guest to the Global History Forum, Christopher Miller (the Associate Director of the Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy at Yale) takes on in his recent book The Struggle to Save the Soviet Economy: Mikhail Gorbachev and the Collapse of the USSR (University of North Carolina Press, 2016).

Using sources in Russian and Chinese and exploiting underutilized Soviet archives, Miller’s work challenges the conventional wisdom about the great Soviet-Chinese counterfactual. Far from ignorant of Deng Xiaoping’s reinvention of Chinese socialism, Mikhail Gorbachev and the advisors around him were well aware of how the Chinese were transforming their economy. While some criticized the Chinese for abandoning socialism altogether, Gorbachev and his team consciously sought to imitiate Chinese reforms throughout the 1980s. It wasn’t for a lack of awareness or effort that would-be Soviet reformers failed to match Deng Xiaoping’s results. Rather, Miller suggests, the answer to the failure of Soviet economic reforms lies in the political economy of interest groups in the late Soviet Union. Indeed, it was precisely because large lobbies in the military, the oil and gas industry, and collective farms refused reforms that a Soviet Tiananmen would have been impossible in content if not in form. Even had the coup planners who briefly seized power from Gorbachev in August 1991, there was no way they could have imposed the austerity measures on Russians that Deng imposed on Chinese, for such cuts would have meant cutting into their own bloated budgets.

In short, Miller’s work offers not only a tight empirical reconstruction of key events in the history of the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, but also offers a new vista on the political economy of Russia and China as they emerged from that annus horribilus (for the regimes, if not tens of millions of Europeans) of 1989. In order to discuss some of the issues raised by The Struggle to Save the Soviet Economy, Toynbee Prize Foundation Executive Director Timothy Nunan recently sat down with Dr. Miller to discuss his road to writing the book, some of the results of his research, as well as his ongoing research agenda.…

Chinese Jesus: Discussing German Missionaries’ Journey “From Christ to Confucius” with Albert Wu

Is Christianity in danger of disappearing? Since at least the middle of the twentieth century, Christianity in Europe has often been seen as in decline, with the most recent surveys indicating that scarcely more than half of EU citizens believe in any God at all. Many Christian communities in the Middle East, such as the Assyrians, have been displaced through the US invasion of Iraq, the Syrian Civil War, and the emergence of ISIS. The Eastern Orthodox Church, freed in its Russian incarnation from decades of Communist rule, shows strong signs of growth in Europe. However, the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the displacement of Russians means, increasingly, that Orthodoxy’s southern frontiers end thousands of miles further north than they did a century-and-a-half ago.

In fact, Christianity in the world is in no danger of vanishing. The percentage of Christians as a part of world population is nearly the same as it was a century ago. What is changing, however, is the face of Christianity, as both the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant denominations see more and more of their congregations be composed of Latin American, African, and Asian populations. Pope Francis is the first Pope from Latin America, while Brazil constitutes the single largest Catholic country. There are almost as many Catholics in Nigeria as there are in Germany. There are perhaps tens million of Chinese affiliated with official state-sponsored Protestant organizations in that country, but the proliferation of unofficial “house churches” means that there could be up to 58 million Protestants and 9 million Catholics living in the People’s Republic of China. This, in turn, would make China the fourth-largest Protestant country after only the USA, Nigeria, and Brazil.

Demographic changes like these are bound to bring about conversations about theology and dogma. To take the example of the Anglican Church, bishops from the “global South” have boycotted conferences on the grounds that North American churches are too lenient on the ordination of homosexual bishops and their blessing of same-sex marriage. Conversely, many theological conservatives who approved of Joseph Ratzinger have expressed concern over the stress that Pope Francis has placed on issues such as global warming, consumerism, and US-Cuba relations (his more traditional views on matters such as abortion and same-sex marriage notwithstanding). As nations whose entry into Christendom is inescapably entangled with European imperialism come to occupy greater prominence, the question of how “North-South” relations will affect Christianity cannot but occupy the attention of Christians and non-Christians alike.

Our latest guest to the Global History Forum, Albert Wu, offers perspectives on these question in his recent book, From Christ to Confucius: German Missionaries, Chinese Christians, and the Globalization of Christianity, 1860-1950, published with Yale University Press.

In his book, Wu (an assistant professor at the American University of Paris) explores how German Protestant and Catholic missionaries engaged with China during the late Qing period and during the Republican period. At the heart of the book stands a paradox. At the start of the period in question, German missionaries viewed Chinese Confucianism as backwards and a crucial hindrance to China’s conversion and, more broadly, modernization. Yet by the 1930s and 1940s, German Christians viewed Confucianism as a crucial ally of Christianity in China. They insisted that a synthesis of Confucianism with Christianity constituted not heresy but rather only common sense. Wu’s book explains this paradox of how Germans “struggled to make a religion with universal claims adopt particular forms” and “how a global religion should assume local guise.”

As many Christians on both sides of the North-South (not to mention European Muslims in search of a “European Islam”) debate these questions, Wu’s book provides useful historical perspective. Outgoing Toynbee Prize Foundation Executive Director Timothy Nunan recently sat down with Wu to discuss From Christ to Confucius as well as Wu’s ongoing research agenda.…

Chinese, Christian, Global: Discussing Chinese Popular Histories with Dr. Melissa Wei-Tsing Inouye

The Republican Period (1911-1949) was an extremely important period for modern China. During this time, China was often politically divided, while there was no strong central government. Meanwhile, however, people in China enjoyed relative cultural, social, and religious freedom. Some people became Communists, while others converted into Christianity. Although China was generally seen as a weak and poor country by people in the West in the first half of twentieth century, some ordinary Chinese  people grew increasingly aware of China’s position in the world. Among them, Chinese Christians played important roles as they could act as bridges between people in China and the outside world. Chinese Christians became more aware of the global situation, since they often enjoyed international networks.

Scholars often study Chinese church leaders, and their institutional structure, but we know little about Chinese Christians’ life experience at an everyday level. That’s where the research of our latest featured scholar on the Global History Forum comes in. Based at the University of Auckland, Dr. Melissa Wei-Tsing Inouye seeks to enhance our understanding of social and cultural histories of China by studying Chinese ordinary people and in particular Chinese Christians in the first half of the twentieth century. Her research suggests that many Chinese Christians were increasingly aware of the global affairs and China’s position in the world during this early twentieth century conjuncture. How, then, did Chinese converts view the place of the Chinese nation in the world? How did they perceive events like the Great War? Like the partial disintegration of European empires following that conflict? And how were the egalitarian ideals of Christianity reconcilable with a world that still spoke the language of “yellow perils” and which often limited the circulation of Chinese into the “white man’s world” of European, North American, and Oceanian spaces?

Dr. Melissa Inouye, our guest to this latest installment of the Global History Forum

Dr. Melissa Wei-Tsing Inouye, our guest to this latest installment of the Global History Forum

These are some of the questions that Toynbee Prize Foundation Editor-at-Large Tiger Li discusses with Inouye in the interview that follows. In it, he discusses Inouye’s initial road from her upbringing in Costa Mesa, California to her undergraduate education at Harvard College in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as well as her graduate studies at Harvard University, where she completed her dissertation in 2011, writing about the history of the True Jesus Church and the history of charismatic Christian modes in China in the twentieth century. You might not be familiar with the True Jesus Church, but as one of the largest Christian denominations in the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan today (1.5 million members), it merits attention both as a matter of current affairs and intellectual history. Inspired by Pentecostalism, the True Jesus Church is also of interest for scholars of Christianity insofar as it forms the largest branch of Oneness Pentecostalism in the world. (In contrast to mainstream Christian doctrine, which stresses the trinitarian nature of Jesus Christ, God, and the Holy Spirit, churches like the True Jesus Church stress the indivisible nature of God and the idea that Jesus Christ is the sole manifestation of God’s personhood.) Lest we move too far away from history to theology, however, let us jump into the conversation between Inouye and Li to learn how this movement fits into an emerging wave of scholarship on China in the world and transnational religious movements.

Sandalwood Commonwealth? Traveling Across a Chinese-Australian Pacific with Sophie Loy-Wilson

Scan the news these days for news from the western and southern Pacific, and it doesn’t require too much reading for the outlines of a multipolar future to emerge. There are, of course, the obvious stories: competition between the United States and China; that relationship’s reverberating effect on the Korea-Japan-China triangle; and the effect of a dynamic and rising Vietnam and Indonesia on what is likely to be the main engine of global economic growth in years to come. Sometimes obscured through a focus on the areas of Northeast and Southeast Asia, however, can be the important role that Australia plays in the broader region. While party to numerous strategic agreements with other Commonwealth countries and the United States, the world’s twelfth largest economy plays a role as a key trading partner for China. Indeed, one of the major ongoing debates within Australian politics is how this former Dominion, so far from “old” British and former Imperial markets and so close to a region with a near-unlimited appetite for raw materials (plenty of those in Australia’s arid interior) should balance between the Angloworld and the East, China in particular.

Such debates about Australia’s economic, political, and to some extent cultural orientation have, of course, not only a history of their own but are themselves influenced by the work of journalist, scholars and activists on the meaning of Australia’s place in the world. And it’s precisely because of her contribution to these debates that the Toynbee Prize Foundation sat down recently with Dr. Sophie Loy-Wilson, a member of the Laureate Research Program in International History at the University of Sydney.

Sophie Loy-Wilson (Sydney), our guest to this most recent installment of the Global History Forum

Refreshingly for a country whose political culture can sometimes play up images of Australia’s aloofness from a wider Oceanic and Asian world, Loy-Wilson seeks to unearth the often obscure history of Chinese-Australian relations from the nineteenth century to the present day. Using Chinese, Australian, and British sources, her work locates business history and cultural history in a transnational context to examine the web of exchange and ideas about the other in which Chinese-Australian relations have formed for nearly two centuries. Such a package of skills and interests is no doubt likely to make hers a voice to watch from Beijing to Canberra for years to come. It also made for a stimulating conversation as we sat down with her recently to discuss her intellectual formation and her ongoing scholarly work.…

The Sino-Soviet Split and the Left as Global History: An Interview with Jeremy Friedman

Among the crimes cartographical and otherwise perpetrated by the Mercator projection, the Cold War projection of an Asia dominated by the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China numbers among the most egregious. Famous for inflating land areas the further away they were from the Equator, when applied to the world of the early 1950s, the map projection made it seem as if the Communist world was monolithic. The greater part of Asia was covered with red ink, while the freedom-loving (and less cartographically distorted) blue fields of the earth shrunk before the grim crimson blob stretching from Berlin to Vietnam.

Of course, the “Communist world” was never as unified and cohesive as the mapmakers suggested. While the Soviet vision of proletarian workers unifying to overthrow capitalist oppressors and the Maoist vision of peasant armies challenging imperialists from from Hanoi to Havana seemed to march in lockstep to Cold Warriors, by the early 1960s, the two socialist powers came to irreconcilable differences. Soviet advisers were expelled from Beijing as Chinese leaders castigated the Soviets for making peace with the imperialist Americans; Soviet leaders denounced Mao as a revisionist and a nationalist.

But the Sino-Soviet Split, as it is called in English and Russian (“Sino-Soviet Hostility” in Chinese – zhōng sū jiāo’è), had ramifications that went far beyond the oceans of red dye spilled by the Mercator projections. As country after country “the Third World” gained independence, the Soviets and the Chinese were among the few major powers that offered compelling developmental – and historical narratives – to fledgling nations. But what would the meaning of Revolution be in a decolonizing world? Was Revolution really about anti-capitalism, as the Soviets argued? Or was the real essence of Revolution opposition to empire, as their Chinese rivals put forward? How did the Chinese challenge affect the Soviet outreach to the Third World, and vice-versa? And what was the effect of the Sino-Soviet Split on the intellectual repertoire of a global Left?

Jeremy Friedman, whose work forms the basis of this latest installment of the Global History Forum. Image courtesy of Yale University Office of Public Affairs and Communications

Jeremy Friedman, whose work forms the basis of this latest installment of the Global History Forum. Image courtesy of Yale University Office of Public Affairs and Communications

These are among just some of the questions at the heart of the work of Dr. Jeremy Friedman, our guest in this latest installment of the Global History Forum. Friedman, the Associate Director of the Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy at Yale University, is the author of the forthcoming Shadow Cold War, scheduled to appear with the University of North Carolina Press next year, in 2015. Global History Forum spoke with Jeremy recently to discuss his intellectual journey thus far, the book, and a forthcoming project on the history of the Third World.