China is dominating news cycles globally – beginning with the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan early this year and Donald Trump’s accusation that it has “total control over the World Health Organisation”. Earlier this month, military tensions with India along the Line of Actual Control in the Galwan Valley in Ladakh escalated after the death of 20 Indian soldiers. There is now growing anti-Chinese rhetoric in India amid calls to boycott Chinese goods. China also recently engaged in territorial disputes with Nepal and Japan.

This interview with Rana Mitter, Professor of the History and Politics of Modern China at the University of Oxford, explores China’s social, political and economic history to help determine a global response to the country’s recent actions.

Mitter describes China’s evolution from “command socialism to market-driven socialism”, its rise as the driver of a global consumerist economy, and how the “century of humiliation” continues to be the dominant narrative of its nation building.


These days the focus is almost entirely on the Chinese state and its diplomatic, military and trade arms. Do you think that the responses to China will be far more fruitful if the world tries to know a little more about the society in which the Chinese state operates?
That’s a very shrewd question and I think it gets to the heart of something very important. Within the last 30 or 40 years, China has turned from command socialism to market-driven socialism. I think if you look at the society as a whole, there are a lot of phenomena that do not immediately seem to be obvious results of that kind of one-party system.

One thing is that economic freedom has grown very considerably in the last 30 or 40 years. There has been a sort of bargain, unspoken but real – particularly after the Tiananmen Square killing incident in 1989, that the party-state is ordering its people not to get involved in politics. But it is promising a sort of economic harvest.

Like an economic growth that will emerge as a result of their policies. So that means a very great deal of most exciting part of Chinese life on the ground is in the small and medium enterprise sector. It’s a country which has generally been very amenable to starting up and doing business and that has been one of the reasons behind its huge economic growth in the last 30-40 years.

Particularly in the manufacturing sector?
Traditionally in the manufacturing sector. I think that’s moving and changing very much into a whole variety of areas considered to be more high value. A lot of manufacturing these days, meaning within the last five to 10 years, is moving off-shore from China to places like Vietnam and Cambodia. China is now developing hugely profitable and productive domestic services. Companies like Alibaba, Tencent are taking advantage of the fact that one quarter of the earth’s population is in China. That means China has also driven a very powerful, sort of, consumerist economy that I think isn’t often appreciated.

Rana Mitter, Professor of the History and Politics of Modern China at the University of Oxford.

So the Chinese are opening the economy and at the same time not allowing people the freedom that Western democracies or even India or other postcolonial nations have experienced. How does the Chinese state maintain that?
It’s a very interesting question which is asked frequently. But the answer I shall give is that you are starting from what many Chinese would regard is the wrong premise in the first place. If your point of comparison is why China could develop one of the world’s most innovative and powerful consumer-driven economies while having very heavy censorship and authoritarian party-state, arbitrary arrest of many academics and lawyers; ask the question differently.

Ask it this way: 50 years ago in the early 1970s, China was in the middle of the Cultural Revolution, one of the most destructive periods. Even the Chinese themselves – the Chinese Communist Party – rejected it as a massive, destructive era. And 50 years after that, which in historical terms is not really a very long time, they have the second biggest economy in the world and a country with geopolitical influence. Now that doesn’t happen by accident. Many Chinese – the ordinary Chinese, the middle-class Chinese – are very proud of what their country has managed to achieve.

So their point of comparison is not saying whether we necessarily have everything the liberal society has but rather how does China look now compared to what their parents had or what their grandparents had. That would be their logic.

So what you are then saying is that their comparison is not with their contemporaries. It’s not a horizontal comparison in time that they are making but their comparison and sense of satisfaction grows from a vertical comparison through time – that is to go back in history?
Broadly speaking, yes. I mean today even the middle-class Chinese, particularly ones living in big cities like Shanghai, Chongqing [and] Beijing, travel overseas very frequently and it’s actually quite normal. The fact that they can go on quite expensive holidays is also regarded by them as sign of their developing middle class lifestyles that their parents could never afford. But they also go to these places and see clearly what it is like having uncensored TV.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean they come to China and say, “We have it so much worse.” In some cases they do. But in other cases, they come back and say, “Well that’s just one of the differences, but what we’ve been living with actually does show year on year, decade on decade improvement in terms of our industrial lifestyle compared to what we were used to.”

Screens showing stock market movements at a brokerage house in Shanghai. Credit: Johannes Eisele/AFP

There’s a lot of focus about China being primarily an authoritarian, communist political culture. But I am also interested to know whether China is only a communist, political culture which looks up to Mao very favourably or is it that it is equally nationalistic and we are forgetting about the influence of Chiang Kai Shek?
You have to dig a little bit into modern Chinese history to understand some of what you have implied. But essentially up till 1949, China was ruled by a succession of nationalist leaders like Chiang Kai Shek, who you mentioned, and probably the most prominent till 1927 and 1949; particularly during the period of WWII in China. After that Chairman Mao came to power and the Chinese Communist Party has been in power ever since.

But one of the phenomena that’s most notable in the last 25 to 30 years is that as China has moved from a socialist top-down command economy as it was under Mao, to being a country that is authoritarian but has a certain amount of leeway for non-state organisations – more under previous presidents than under Xi Jinping – many people have looked back at the earlier period and said in some senses that it looks more similar to the kind of nationalist governments of pre-communist era than Mao period. The major difference was that Mao’s China was dedicated to revolutionary social change.

One thing that is very clear is that Xi’s government does not want any kind of revolutionary social change. It wants evolution and not revolution in terms of economy and in terms of social welfare. So to that extent, I suspect that that the mindset would have been much more familiar to Chiang kai Shek than it would have been to Chairman Mao.

There seems to be almost an obsession with territory as far as China and the Chinese state is concerned. Is there any historical ambition which they think is unfulfilled and which they now wish to fulfill?
I think history is very important. You are right. The Chinese still talk today and they talk extensively about the early 20th century – about what they call the “century of humiliation” lasting from “the opium wars” of 1840s to the World War II in the 1940s. And this is the idea very much understood by all educated Chinese that China had been previously invaded and occupied by Western powers.

In fact, they look at India under the British as an example of how a nation could become completely occupied and lose its national status because of the actions of outside imperialists. The “century of humiliation” still lives very strongly in the historical memories of the Chinese and it has created this huge, as you have implied, sensitivity about territory because they still have memories of imperial powers essentially deciding what China’s borders were going to be.

And having regained their autonomy from 1945 to 1949, they are determined that one thing one they are unwilling to make any sort of compromise is the question of borders. That’s one of the reasons, I think, why it has become such a strong and in many ways, obstinate obsession on the part of the Chinese state.

There seems to be some sort of sympathy towards both Mao and Stalin in academic circles. I study in a university which had Mao and Stalin on its library walls even a few months back. Why is that?
Not the academic circles in which I move, I can tell you that. I think anyone would have to say that it’s an objective fact that Stalin and Mao were responsible for millions of deaths and that they operated totalitarian systems of government which created immense suffering amongst their people. I think that that’s something which is historically demonstrable.

Arunoday Majumder is a doctoral candidate in sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University and an assistant professor of sociology at the School of Law, NMIMS Bengaluru.

Waliya Hasan has helped transcribe the interview.