Rise and fall and rise of China to great power

June 27, 2008 11:38:43 AM PDT
"Modern China: The Fall and Rise of a Great Power, 1850 to the Present" (Ecco. 763 pages. $34.95), by Jonathan Fenby: In 1776, the 13 American colonies began their two-century march to making the United States the world's only remaining superpower.

Coincidentally, that was the year when Edward Gibbon began publishing his six-volume "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," detailing the millennium-long collapse of a superpower into a welter of European, Asian and African states.

Things move faster now. The first American edition of "Modern China: The Fall and Rise of a Great Power" expounds both processes in one hefty but highly colorful tome, covering a shorter period than it took the American epic to unfold.

The new book is by Jonathan Fenby, veteran editor of The Observer in London and the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong.

China's empire, 2,100 years old, was the first of a dozen to die in the 1900s. The United States had taken over what was left of Spain's holdings - Cuba, The Philippines, Puerto Rico - just before the century began. The Americans didn't impose harsh imperial rule but their wealth, military might, films and music deeply fascinated the rest of the world. Few except Americans themselves were shocked to hear talk of an "American empire."

So far in the 21st century, none of the imperial corpses has shown clear signs of resurrection - certainly nothing like China's spectacular reincarnation. Much of Fenby's introduction could be titled "Watch Out, America!"

"In 2007, for the first time since the 1930s, another country contributed more to global growth than the United States," it says. "A Gallup poll in early 2008 reported that 40 percent of Americans considered the (People's Republic of China) to be the world's leading economic power, while only 33 percent chose their own country."

Fenby's history starts in 1850 when China was already far along in decline, due to graft, disunity, incursions by foreign powers and sheer obsolescence. The United States was stretching its international muscle: It had just conquered nearly half of Mexico.

In a south China village, a schoolteacher who failed the civil service exam proclaimed himself son of the Christian God. A vision had shown him a golden-haired man who told him to wipe out the demons on Earth. He decided the demons were the Manchus who had conquered China 200 years before. His 100,000 man army took the imperial summer capital of Nanjing, but in 15 years, Hong Xiuquan's followers failed to unite and oust the Manchus.

The revolt overlapped the American Civil War. In thickly populated China, it proved even bloodier: The mandarin who suppressed it in Canton boasted of beheading 100,000 out of a million townspeople killed.

After nearly two more decades of disaster, 5-year-old Emperor Pu Yi "abdicated" with no successor. Sun Yat-sen proclaimed a republic but it was weak and plagued by what Fenby calls a decade of anarchy. A map at the start of the book outlines a dozen separate areas of this war lord period.

China joined the Allies against Germany in World War I. But its effort did little to reduce the influence of Japan - also an ally. In 1937, Japan invaded China again, an invasion that lasted 14 years, until Japan's defeat in World war II.

Chiang Kai-shek, a successor to Sun, at first cooperated with the Communist Party and its Russian supporters, then ousted it in a coup. After the Japanese defeat, Chiang fought a civil war against the Communists that ended with his defeat and flight to Taiwan.

Over the next 60 years Mao Zedong and succeeding Communist rulers suppressed almost all opposition on the mainland. They freed private markets but kept much production in government hands, promoted trade with the United States and owed the United States more than $1.5 trillion. They reclaimed Hong Kong from Britain and Macau from Portugal and threatened Taiwan, which is protected largely by the United States.

Meanwhile they went on building their armed forces and nuclear weapons, preparing to celebrate their status by hosting the 2008 Olympics.

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