Adam Tooze on understanding China’s rise in historical context

Society & Culture

The prominent economic historian was frustrated with the common story of China’s rise that “goes from GDP to defense budgets, to a challenge to American hegemony.” He appeared on the Sinica Podcast to discuss which historical comparisons and context help — or don’t — in making sense of modern China.

china modern history illustration
Illustration by Derek Zheng

This week on the Sinica Podcast I welcomed back Adam Tooze, a professor of history at Columbia University. Adam, as those of you who caught his last appearance on Sinica will recall, was trained as a Germanist and is known for his chops as an economic historian.

He’s written a number of excellent books, including The Wages of Destruction on the economy of the Third Reich; Crashed, which remains for my money the best book on the global financial crisis; and The Deluge, which looks at the First World War and the interwar period.

But the reason I’ve asked Adam on to Sinica today is that last month he published an excellent essay in The New Statesman specifically about China. It was titled “Why there is no solution to our age of crisis without China,” which may be a bit of a misleading title in that it actually has relatively little that’s focused on the need to work with China to address the usual litany of things that we, well, obviously need to work with China on: global warming and deadly pandemics and non-proliferation and the overall health of the global economy. Instead, it’s a much more ambitious essay, and we will dissect it at some length in what follows.

Listen to the podcast episode with Adam or read a lightly edited transcript of the podcast below:

Kaiser Kuo: Adam Tooze, welcome back to Sinica.

Adam Tooze: It’s a pleasure to be here.

Kaiser: Well, when I wrote to you to ask you to do another turn on the show, you mentioned that you had approached the assignment that you’d gotten from your editor with a little bit of trepidation. Why not ask a China specialist or an expert to write it? Let me say, first of all, that I’m glad that you did step up because I for one really value the perspectives of intelligent people from outside of the China field, because inside the field, people can be very narrowly specialized, and they often miss the forest for the trees and they get tangled up in these little sort of insider debates. They often also lack a comparative historical perspective, which is something that I want to talk about at some length. And they fail to engage often with the really big questions because, well, they’re just too big. So what ultimately made you decide to tackle this assignment and write this essay?

Adam: Well, the sense of obligation. Because I actually agree with you. I mean, I think in the same way as I would welcome a China specialist giving us his or her take on the situation in Europe, for instance, I feel we owe it to each other to reach out and to make that effort of synthesis and synthetic understanding. That was very much the spirit in which I approached the history of China the first moment I did, which was writing about the book Deluge and the aftermath of World War I or the history of World War I itself. I mean, no one is ever going to mistake me for a China specialist, but on the other hand, it’s clearly time for us all from our own particular vantage points to make that leap. And so that was really in the end what motivated me. Plus again and again and again, simply curiosity. That is one of the great advantages of reading and writing and researching as a nonspecialist: You’ve not reached the point of diminishing returns. The cognitive gains to new reading and new learning for me from doing that are much greater in some way than they are from revisiting the troubled history of the European integration project or something like that, not that I don’t do that regularly. So those were the reasons, And finally, I think, I do feel like so many other people concerned with the West’s relationship with China. There is a sense of urgency in this moment. And the piece is not in any way apologetic, but it is an effort at understanding. It is an effort to try to represent the rise of the Chinese economy, not as something primarily that’s menacing or that should concern us because it’s a matter of overtaking, but to represent, as it were, the story of China’s troubled and repeated efforts, intuitive efforts, really to achieve modernity, to achieve prosperity, and to put that also in the context of the violent history of the region.

Kaiser: Absolutely.

Adam: And that ultimately, I think trying to put across that version of events, rather than the sort of simple story that goes from GDP to defense budgets, to a challenge to American hegemony which is so prevalent at the moment. That was also a concern.

Kaiser: So it was actually in your research for The Deluge that you encountered Versailles and the May Fourth Movement and really the central piece of modern intellectual history. So that was a very good entree, a really good entry point for you. As I said, this is a really ambitious essay. So just for those of our listeners who haven’t yet read it and by the way, it isn’t very long so I suggest that you hit pause and you read it now. Just Google “Adam Tooze New Statesman China,” and it will come up. For those of you who can’t read it right now, let me just give a quick outline of what Adam has tried to do with the essay. Adam, you can correct me if I’ve gotten this wrong, but maybe we can do this because it’ll be more economical.

So you set out for us to give a sense on the occasion of the Communist Party’s 100th anniversary, of the scale of its accomplishments, you do this very quickly — or how its successes really challenged these long cherished Whiggish beliefs about the final triumph of liberalism. And then you frame up a right-sizing exercise, I would describe it as, or you offer your own answer to what basically everyone is trying to figure out, which is what are China’s actual ambitions. And you hint that they lie somewhere between the unthreatening quiescence of the “hide and bide” period — the 1990s and the early 2000s — and this full-blown ideologically or even existentially threatening aggression that you just talked about, the hawks’ fevered imaginations. So far so good?

Adam: Yeah, absolutely. No, I do think that is an essential first move. And also, I mean, just to position it against, say, America’s own, extraordinary — I mean, without making a normative judgment, nevertheless, historically unprecedented claim, I think, right in the full light of day strike at, in the mode of personal assassination, antagonists that it declares outside the law and fair game, if you think about. Senior figures in the military leadership of Iran are just struck dead on airport runways by drone attack. China’s not in that game.

Kaiser: Yeah. We will talk about that great paragraph where you write what China is not. But let me move through the essay. So I’ll go on. In search of an answer to that right-sizing question, you then I think turned very wisely to China’s history to see what that can tell us. And you dispense first with some historical analogies that’re based on this idea of the Thucydides Trap, which is recently so popular. Specifically, the Wilhelmine Germany analogy, and you being a Germanist that makes a lot of sense. We’ll talk about that in a bit. And you invoke, I thought it was fascinating, this figure who I’d only heard of in connection with his work, Imperialism, and only then, because it had been kind of influential on Lenin, JA Hobson, who was a British economist. And that was fascinating, I thought. I mean, first of all, where did you stumble on this quote where he really talked about how China was going to be a major determinant, not the major determinant of the future of mankind. He said, whatever it does, whether it becomes a fragmented power, whether it’s vanquished, whether it’s absorbed or it becomes a state standing on its own two feet, it’s going to be the big determinant. Where did you come across Hobson and what other gems of wisdom may be hidden in there about China?

Adam: Well, I mean, Hobson is well known as the inspirer of Lenin. Lenin’s quite frank about it. And Hobson is also an immediate precursor to Keynes, both in his economics and in his internationalism. And so he is the key representative before Keynes of the political intellectual tradition, which I personally feel attached to, which is left liberalism of the British variety. You can hear from my accent, that’s where I’m born. And so he’s thinking through that the fundamental dilemma is really of the late 19th century. And he’s crucial and he opens the door to Lenin because he blows open any kind of liberal Panglossian kind of optimism about everything being right in the world. And so we’ll know that consequences of economic growth are precisely the sorts of everything you’re familiar with from Lenin is actually already in Hobson, including the economics and the analysis of capital flows. And Hobson is thinking about two great, as it were, cauldrons of conflict at the moment of the turn of the century. And one of them is coming from a British point of view, South Africa and the Boer War, which he sees as an absolutely classic cauldron of imperialist antagonism. And if you have to understand for somebody like him, empire is broadly speaking thought of informatively positive terms. Empire is a source of universal order. It’s a form of legal structure that can encompass broad spans of territory around the world. And when he’s writing about imperialism, he thinks of imperialism as the antithesis of empire, because imperialism is land grabbing, aggressive, de-stabilizing, rivalrous, competitive, disorderly and leads to war. And what he’s diagnosed and what he’s trying to shake the British elite awake over is the fact that their Victorian hegemony, their mid 19th century, 1850s, 1860s Opium Wars period of unrivaled dominance, by coming off the Napoleonic wars, the British bestrode the world is under threat. And it’s under threat from all sides, the Italians, the Germans, the Japanese, the Russians, the Americans. And it’s that situation that we have to understand. So it’s a theory of crisis of globalization of the first generation. And one part of that is South Africa where you have the Germans dabbling and the other is China. And he’s writing in the immediate context of the Boxer Uprising. And it’s not by accident that China becomes the laboratory for thinking, not as it were particular types of aggression that are obviously the Chinese — for instance, single out the Japanese, is that they’re obvious natural antagonists at certain moments — but as it were imperialism in general. Because in China, around the Boxer Rebellion, you do see this extraordinary convergence of all of the imperialist powers in strike.

Kaiser: And also an absolute uncertainty of outcome. I mean, it could have gone any of these paths. It could have been fragmented, it could have been vanquished.

Adam: Yeah. It could have. Or as it were and what Hobson sees heaving into view on the horizon is the possibility that it could actually be consolidated around the national core. And if it does that, just looking at the bulk of it, it’s evident that it changes the game and it changes the game at the global level, because it will then be the mightiest state structure the world has ever seen. And so he maps this out. So it goes from a very general analysis of the problems of liberalism. People like Michael Pettis and Matt Klein have taken up to underpin their thinking about the imbalances of the global economy a hundred years later, to a rather particular analysis of the central role of China. And this, for me, thinking about China is always the problem. Does it subsume under what we think of as broad categories, or does that basically misunderstand the geography of the world? Because we are used in the West to generalizing from lots of small country cases. And what you do when you all of a sudden have this thing, which is one sixth of humanity, in and of itself progressing, developing, doing whatever it does. And Hobson for me is one of the first thinkers in the West in the modern period who really tangled squarely with that. And his conclusion was unambiguous. The whole game will be decided there fundamentally.

Kaiser: Right. So then in the piece you do something that I thought was really bold, and for my money deftly executed: it was a potted history of China, from the First Opium War to Xi Jinping’s ascent. And I have to say it was really well done. I mean, you being you, of course, linger longer and in more detail on some economic turning points, the economic history. But you didn’t leave out anything that was too important. And you remind us, as I’ve often reminded people on this program, that the turning point, and when you get later on in the history — and we can go back into some of this history — but the turning point in the U.S.-China relationship predated Trump, it predated even Xi. And if you had to fix a date on it, the year 2009 would be a good choice. And I completely concur. I mean, I have been arguing that for a very long time on this program.

You remind us of what China also is not. And like I said, we will talk about this. And I think these few sentences really pack quite a big punch, I thought, and again, we will talk about this. Then just as importantly, you list the various things that Beijing has done, or that still does that very much rankle. These things, as you know, are what a large assertive nation-state does. And that’s another pin I want to drop in there. You remind us for its sheer size, the ambition of its ruling party that China is not an ordinary nation-state.

Then you raise what is, I think, maybe the most intriguing question about China’s rise. And it’s one that rarely gets asked candidly. Well it’s never really posed or satisfactorily answered at least by American politicians. And you quote, Larry Summers here, who asked in 2018: “Can the U.S. imagine a viable global economic system” in which the U.S. is no longer the dominant player? Could an American “political leader acknowledge that reality in a way that permits negotiation over what such a world would look like?” To which the answer right now, I mean, it comes from Joe Biden, is “Not on my watch.”

So then just to wrap up our little summary. So then finally, to drive home what’s at stake, you raised an issue that you talked about in some of your earlier writings, the centrality of China to addressing global warming. And finally, there’s this, I guess it’s your own words, but it’s a kind of recapitulation of this Larry Summers theme and it’s in the penultimate paragraph, and this is what really did it for me. This was the money quote. You wrote, “It is not clear that American politics can digest plurality other than from a position of dominance” — before going on to hint that no, American politics cannot digest plurality from a position of parity or non-dominance.

So with that outline done there are just all sorts of questions I’ve got for you, but let’s start with this, historical analogies. It’s handy that you being a Germanist and since the analogies that you trotted out most frequently are the German analogies. You gave an interview to a Chinese newspaper called, well, The Paper — Pengpai — in which you were asked about historical analogies, and specifically about this oft-cited Thucydides Trap example of the Anglo-German relationship in the run-up to the Great War. After basically between Bismarck’s Germany after the Franco-Prussian war. And you were dismissive of that as you were in the New Statesman piece, although just very quickly, you dismissed it out of hand. What do we get wrong when we lean on these historical analogies? What does it mislead or what does it obscure?

Adam: Well, you get, first of all, war wrong, first of all. You get 1914 wrong. The Thucydides Trap logic may not be a bad way of thinking about World War I, but it is not the Anglo-German antagonism that drives it. The one that really does matter is the German-Russian antagonism. So that’s the sort of historian in me it’s like we might as well be talking the right thing. But Russia is the swing variable, because the war, it’s a ground war, it’s a land war. And what drives the German soldiers is the concern about the Franco-Russian [alliance]. So Kennan was right. George Kennan, the great analyst of American foreign policy, had a problematic relationship with Russia, shall we say. But his understanding that the relationship between republican France and czarist Russia was the worm in the apple of pre-1914 international relations, I think is, broadly speaking, correct. It messes everything up. Because you’ve got a French Republic aligned with an autocratic czarism, which is very unstable, but also very dynamic economically and that does everyone’s heads. Progressive Germans don’t know which way to align, because should you take a defeatist position to surrender, but then you’d end up surrendering to the czar. Anyway, so that is the first problem.

The Anglo-German antagonism in and of its own right was probably capable of being mediated. And the Anglo-American antagonism after all, which does take place at the level of the global arena, the Naval arena is mediated. Because the Thucydides Trap only takes you so far, but people like Lenin and Trotsky were convinced that, and Hitler as well, the United States and Britain would inevitably end up at odds on Thucydides Trap logic. In other words, how could the British Imperium not fight the United States for supremacy? And the answer is because they’re not crazy. Because they could see the problem coming, because they could see the advantages of buddying up to the United States, which through to the late 1960s, I was just talking about this with somebody else, until the late 1960s Britain is the hegemonic military power in the Middle East, not the United States. And it’s being held there by the Americans. So through to ’67. So that was the bargain and it worked very well for the British elite. And after World War I, they were clear: they could not afford an antagonism or even the prospect of that. So that’s another reason why the Thucydides Trap, you misspecify 1914, the one that really does matter is between the British and the Americans, that’s resolved peacefully.

But the third objection for me is simply, again, it’s like, does China fit into categories designed for smaller, historically in some ways in world historic terms, less significant antagonisms. I mean, let’s remind ourselves, this comes out to Sparta and Athens, two microscopic little European states 2000 years ago. And we generalize out to the British empire, admittedly, a giant world historic force. The Kaiserreich not. It’s a local regional reconfiguration of the European power balance. And all of a sudden, we’re now using that to read a 21st-century encounter between an American global superpower, which is historically unprecedented in its reach and its might, and China. One-sixth of humanity mobilized in a way that no group of humanity’s ever been mobilized before in economic terms. We’ve literally never ever in the record of human experience had anything like the ascent of China over the last 30-40 years.

So I just think I would not want to wager any significant money on this as a way of thinking about this. Plus of course, we know it’s internalized. I mean, Xi Jinping himself has referred to this model and said how dangerous it is. So we’ve also got years, decades, 100 of years, in fact a reflection on this as a way of analyzing the world. So for all of those reasons, it’s present. At this point, there’s no point in denying it. You can’t wish it out of the world. But I wouldn’t, as it were, want to anchor an understanding on that as a hard-wired determinative logic.

Kaiser: So the 4th century BC Peloponnese maybe isn’t our most instructive example.

Adam: Well, I mean a classical education of a Western civ variety might make that compelling to you if you’re continuously in the game of projecting yourself back to the Peloponnese. But I mean, I didn’t have the benefit of that kind of education. Maybe that’s one reason why it’s just not compelling to me. I’m sorry. I’m too much of a barbarian today to even be able to get my head in that place.

Kaiser: I do like reading my Landmark Thucydides and my Landmark Herodotus. Those are great volumes to own. But anyway, there’s another maybe even more freighted analogy that gets trotted out as well. And the other German analogy. You’ve heard it, for the Beijing Summer Games in 2008. “This is Berlin 1936.” Even more now with even more explicit references and more and more people making the suggestion that China today is an example of a mature fascist state. Now I studied with A. James Gregor at UC Berkeley. So I think I know from fascism enough, and I have to say this ain’t it. But what do you say to people who insist on the applicability of the label to the modern PRC that it’s fascist?

Adam: Yeah, and I do get asked that because I have this background — I mean, I get quite cross to be honest. I mean, I think it’s pejorative. I mean, it’s just flat-out pejorative. And yeah, so I mean, that’s my first reaction. I mean, it’s a misunderstanding of the nature of this problem. And it has a long lineage, that kind of pejorative liberal argument. And much as I would self-identify as a left liberal, it’s important to recognize the weakness of one’s own tradition, if you like, and the politics often associated with it. And one of its, stupider sides, is that it flattens its antagonists. So liberals come up against something they recognize as illiberal, they’re terribly tempted to say, oh well, therefore it’s totalitarian or fascist. And this is to my mind, a profoundly unhelpful way of engaging with a much more complex reality and a reality which is massively path-dependent. I know you have very strong views about the nature of the ideological project, which the Communist Party in China was still engaged in.

And this is in no way to exculpate. Again, another one of these sorts of liberal weaknesses is to say, well, if you’re saying that you must be downplaying the murderousness, that you understand that tens of millions of people were killed. And of course the answer is no. Death is not the same as politicide. They are all in their own ways, of course, horrific and being a privileged citizen of the West, never having being on the receiving end of that I speak about all of these experiences with due modesty, because who are we to sit here and pontificate about the kind of violence that a regime like that can dish out and does dish out. But it is clearly not the same in so many different ways. I mean, there’s no equivalent in the history of the Chinese Communist Party’s history to the Holocaust, nor is there any equivalent to Operation Barbarossa within which the Holocaust was fully nested after 1941. This is an absurd comparison. So I think it derives from either a polemical intent of which there’s plenty around right now, or it derives from a really kind of flaccid and flat liberal demonization of illiberal enemies. And simplifying in unhelpful schematics.

Kaiser: Let’s talk a little bit about your potted history of China. First, I’m really curious. So when you set out to write this, what did you turn to? What books, what resources did you consult? Who did you run your draft account by? I’m curious about what sources you would have regarded as sufficiently authoritative since some of the stuff is still pretty hotly contested. What was your process?

Adam: Oh, Lord, this might not be a bit that we want — you might want to cut this out. [laughs] I mean, the way I constructed it is that it’s organized around a series of ideas. So it’s organized around a series of the idea being that the process of Chinese economic modernization is iterative, and it involves a series of bounds, a series of efforts. Part of the argument of the piece is after all that one of the misleading features of the invocation of the Thucydides Trap at this moment is the idea that it’s new. This is something we’ve suddenly run into, whereas I think a more balanced account of China’s national political history, and I understand that’s problematic term might apply to China because you can think of it as an empire or civilizational. But any case, let’s just say that part of the project here is the making of China as a nation-state. This has run up against repeated obstacles. If we were in a Thucydides Trap situation, in other words, this would not be the first time. And that is in fact absolutely internal to the self-understanding of the Communist Party regime in the current moment is that it is the heir to a history of violently contested struggles. And some of those are external, starting with the Boxer Rebellion in the late 19th century. I’m going through the humiliating interactions with Japan during World War I, culminating in May 4th. But then even more dramatically in the 1930s. Because I do read, and this is as it were based on various people’s analysis of Japanese elite thinking. I do read this basic driver of Japanese aggression towards China in the ’20s and ’30s, above all in the ’30s, as being the effort to anticipate and forestall the consolidation of a potent national republican regime on the mainland of China, which would fundamentally as it has done in due course alter Japan’s position in the world.

And then of course the other sources of tension are internal to China. So divisions within China, classically of course, in the so-called warlord period, but then also within the period of Maoism with this really unique in the history of global developmentalism, violent antagonism between projects or state-building, which are instantly recognizable to anyone who knows the history of the Soviet Union on the one hand and the Maoist project of bottom-up, bombarding the headquarters. There’s a sort of insurgent notion of revolutionary politics, which is the bit I think from a Western historian’s point of view, the hardest to understand in its potency, continuing potency through to the 1970s. And so that’s what the piece tries to lay out as the backdrop to the much more, I think for a contemporary audience a more familiar story of reform since the late ’70s on the drive on from there.

Kaiser: Yeah. And you did an excellent job of making that relevant and making the case for why it’s important to understand both these external and these internal forces. So, I mean, China’s history is often said to be daunting and certainly all the more so for someone without steeping in the language and in the culture and whatnot. But I’ve often said — and I remember when a really good friend of mine and I were talking about exactly this question one night over beers in Beijing — is it all you really need to know to develop a basic appreciation for how that history has shaped the worldviews of Chinese people alive today, you can learn it in an afternoon. Or less, actually. I mean, you just kind of provided a nutshell right there. The broad contours of that history are just not all that complex. And while historians would certainly balk it at the kind of squashed-down, oversimplified narrative that I’m talking about, it is the version that Chinese people have learned and internalized for many decades now. And for that reason alone, it’s really important to know how they think about their own history — and apart from maybe the CCP’s starring role in the eventual victory over Japan, the rest is close enough to factual that it goes largely unchallenged. So you were able to give just now a pretty decent overview and you certainly did so in the essay. And that suggests to me that you don’t think your intended audience maybe yet has a grasp of the basics of Chinese history on how that understanding of the country’s history has shaped its values, its priorities, its behaviors, its institutions. So what did compel you to include a relatively detailed overview that takes two-thirds of your essay? What was the reason why you decided I need to educate this readership on the outlines of Chinese history?

Adam: Because I think it is crucial that we have this outline in our heads. We should understand it. And I don’t take the elements to be entirely unproblematic. And as it were, emphasizing the bits that they do in the way that I do is intended to make in each case a point, I mean, not a polemical point, but certainly to make a point. So the sort of move to rehabilitate the warlords as actors in a story of national modernization is important I think, to impart to a Western audience who just generally has a sort of Tintin conception of that period of Chinese history or sort of J.G. Ballard filtered through those. It’s a sort of exotic view of Shanghai and then the Japanese come in from the outside. So putting that element in the picture. I also think for me conveying to a Western audience, the way in which economic growth per se is a relatively, as it were, normal idea as consolidating the focus on the development of the forces of production per se, as a project under which one can read in Marxist terms after all. I mean, it takes you back to the Menshevik position. That or a Stalinist position, depending on which way you want to read it. That is something that has, as it were, to be inserted into the DNA of government in China, in the late 1970s, rehabilitated.

That’s the idea, I think which again, takes people by surprise because they’re not — they think of Maoism as sort of the mad project of this extraordinary individual. They think of it as murderers. They think of lots of young people running around in blue suits and waving Little Red Books. But then I don’t think there isn’t really a deep appreciation of the radical intent of that politics. I mean, once upon a time, of course, large numbers of Europeans in particular were infatuated with it, but it’s largely absent from the conversation in the present day. It’s remembered perhaps obliquely by way of ghastly the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia, which of course is not what’s going on in China, but related to it. And so I think making those sorts of elemental news is absolutely a worthwhile essay. Well, I hope it is anyway! I think as an author, you put your bottle out to the sea and see if it lands anywhere. And this does seem to have resonated with people because it’s in the manner of this kind of sketching of history, the selectivity is radical. But sometimes as a result of that, you end up with a rather bold caricature. And I think in policymaking terms as well, that having the right kind of bold caricature in your head is crucial. I’m a big believer in Nicky Kaldor, the veteran Keynesian economist called stylized facts. Ideas nuggets to think with, and to position on your intellectual chessboard.

Kaiser: This mission statement of Chartbook. So indulge me in a little rant here. I just want your reaction to it in a specific question, but I find that even if you teach someone, even in some depth, the history of a country, and it doesn’t have to be China, it can be any other country, that in itself just is never enough. Back in my days when I was an inspiring academic and I was teaching undergrads in the 1990s, I found that their knowledge of Western history was just appallingly shallow. And even if they could tick off the names and dates and the battles and the treaties and what have you, they hadn’t really thought about European or American history enough. So often, even now when I was trying to teach Chinese history, I found their thinking to be just shot through with teleology. No appreciation whatsoever for the contingency that’s so inherent in history. And as I’ve doubtless said this before on the show in different contexts, but I think many of us, and this is especially true after the collapse Soviet communism, in this kind of moment of triumphalism in this moment of grand amnesia, historical amnesia, where we just checked out. And we find ourselves standing on this side of this yawning, historical chasm, and we look across and we see Russia and Iran and China and India, and the nations of the Arab world. And we say, “Come on over, be like us!” Just cross the chasm, it’s super easy. If you’re Niall Ferguson, you might just say, “Just download these killer apps of Western civilization and you can be just like us.” But of course we don’t bother to look down into that chasm and see all the bodies strewn along the path that took us here, those skin-of-the-teeth escapes and lucky rolls of the dice that got us here. We act as if it were preordained or easy or when it’s absolutely neither. And so all these tensions that had to either resolve one way or another, or not be resolved as the case may be, allowed us to develop concepts like rule of law or separation of powers or this belief in the sovereign primacy of the individual. So there’s this blindness, this amnesia, it’s just incredibly frustrating. I feel like people who do though understand the contingency that’s inherent in history and who do have an appreciation for the massive gravitational force of history, and for the historical privilege that makes our careless ahistoricism even possible — these people just, they have a different approach when it comes to a non-Western country like China. I mean, and it’s like, so part of what’s so daunting to me is not getting them to understand the contours of China’s century of humiliation, but to understand something about their own privilege and to cure them of the Whiggish teleological bullshit.

Adam: I mean, it may help in that case that I grew up between England, which was at the time or Britain at the time of declining empire — an ex-empire — in a state of crisis. I mean, that was very shaped by the experience of Britain in the 1970s. And on the other hand, West Germany, which at the time was still the frontline and the Cold War. One fragment, one element of a formerly unified country that when I got there, it was only thirty years away from the end of World War II, less than thirty years away from the end of World War II. And the scars literally on the policies of the older folk, when you enter the swimming pools of which Germany has many in the summer, were literally just in front of your eyes. I mean, you could — old dudes in Speedos with huge chunks of their bodies missing from shrapnel and machine-gun bursts. And then in my lifetime, I’ve sort of — I mean, I think like everyone else but I mean, I think I’ve just been extremely conscious of the way in which those envelopes, as it were of what at the time appeared to be a frozen and stable world of continuously shifted German unification, Brexit most recently. I think we might very well witness the disintegration of the United Kingdom over the next ten to twenty years — de facto we already are. So that sense for me is very deeply intuitive. And I think working my way through German history as I started by doing professionally and thinking very hard about the way in which they too have had to, not so much shape a narrative of the centuries of humiliation, but sort of the century of aggression and disaster and understanding what that meant. The contingency also of the idea of the nation in the German case, which has come into its own even in my own lifetime. And when I go back and visit now, and like my friends at my age, I’m in my fifties, they’ll say to me, “Adam, we don’t talk about the Federal Republic anymore. It’s all Germany.” But growing up in West Germany, as I did in the ’70s and ’80s, no one certainly of a liberal disposition spoke of Germany. You spoke of the Bundesrepublik, the Federal Republic is the state that you were proud to be part of. So even though in these subtle ways, or even in the course of my lifetime, you were saying, of immense privilege and stability, basically, if you have your ear to the ground and you’re attuned to it, you can feel the shifting terrain.

Kaiser: It’s so frustrating here. I can not imagine an educated or reasonably liberal white American today saying to a Black Lives Matter activist or somebody pushing for reparations, “Hey, slavery ended 150 years ago, get over it.” Or that same person saying, “The memory of slavery is being kept alive through Democratic Party propaganda and the public school system that party dominates through critical race theory.” Or that Black Americans, you’re indulging the narrative of victimization. I mean, you don’t need to accept that China’s historical experiences are directly comparable to the trauma of enslaved Americans to understand that history matters and that whether you’re German and you have the whole trauma of both wars, history really matters and it lives beyond lifetimes. Granted, I think Americans today learn much more about the experience of their Black compatriots than they do say about China. But they learn, or at least my kids going to public schools in the American South, they learn about the lasting legacy of white supremacy in our institutions, in the property market, in education, in the job market. But is it such a leap to be able to extend that same kind of appreciation for historical experiences to a country like China or to Iran or to Russia, especially, given that, like I think we’ve argued and we both agree that the broad contours aren’t that difficult to grasp?

Adam: Well, I don’t think, I mean, it is clearly not too much to demand intellectually, but I think the problem presumably is politics. There is a substantial body of opinion in the United States, which would absolutely take the position that you and I think we both think was obnoxious.

Kaiser: Right. What I’m complaining about is that I don’t expect them to be able to grasp China’s experience, but I do expect them, the people on our side, the left liberal.

Adam: But I think generalizing is difficult. And we do have to reckon with, I would have thought, the continued force of communist history. I mean, this isn’t any old regime advocating —

Kaiser: That’s true.

Adam: I mean, America has a checkered history of dealing with post-colonial or anti-colonial nationalism, including with the Chinese. I mean, the Americans did not exactly rally around Sun Yat-sen’s flag, did they? They were slow to move to the position of backing Chiang Kai-shek. The British as imperialists were much quicker to move to a recognition of the necessity of doing the deal with the Chinese. They had much more at stake as well. I mean, again America’s position in China in the ’20s is largely a matter of fantasy compared to the sorts of investments the British, the French, the Japanese have along the coast. So I do think actually America oscillates between a romantic affection for certain sorts of national republicanism around the world, including the Chinese project at various moments, but then a deep down difficulty in dealing with communism as a project, and its authoritarian sides and its unapologetic attachment to at least the ideological lineage of the communist project back to the Russian Revolution and before. And there’s an odd way in which a certain sort of American conservative of the Kissinger variety, who thinks of themselves as steeped in history and so on, can almost deal with this more easily than American liberals who very quickly go to universal values and insist on their relevance. And that is their creed and they stand by it and I’m as attached to it as any other liberal. But it’s difficult then to assimilate historical difference, particular differentiation within that frame. And that’s a notorious problem.

Kaiser: Yeah. You’re caught on the horns of, I mean, I think intellectually, most of us at one level, we are cultural relativists. We understand that historical forces shaped at least in a given time the possible choices.

Adam: This is a potent relativism. This goes back to this issue of whether Americans of any stripe can live with plurality except under —

Kaiser: That’s right.

Adam: — dominance. Because this isn’t just the pluralism for which you make space and out of the goodness of your hearts recognize. And the same is true in the United States. The Black Lives Matter movement is of course fostered by a certain sort of American liberalism at this point. But Black people remained a small minority relatively speaking within the United States and the disempowered one. And it’s quite different to deal with an absolute giant that dwarfs you that looks as though in the foreseeable future, it will be more potent. In fact, in certain dimensions, it was already vastly more potent than you are, and with regard to certain problems like climate is the problem. And you suddenly discover yourself, as it were, an accessory to a problem which you no longer govern. And that’s an even deeper challenge.

Kaiser: Last year I wrote an essay after the summer of Black Lives Matter and Trump’s sort of ratcheting up of the heat on China and finding parallels between these things. I saw the white American, especially male response to Black Lives Matter as having a lot in common with what the American national response to China was. I’ll send you that essay.

Adam: Absolutely. Yeah. In my forthcoming book, Shutdown, which is out in September, I make exactly that argument.

Kaiser: I can’t wait to read it. That’ll be great.

Adam: Because after all, just as historians, you have to ask yourself why the antagonism between China and the United States in its modern form of course doesn’t start with Trump. We agree that it goes back to 2009.

Kaiser: Or earlier.

Adam: So the question really is why does it explode in 2020? And part of the trigger is the pandemic as such.

Kaiser: Absolutely.

Adam: Part of the trigger is the escalating pressure that China is applying on its side. Notably Hong Kong is, I think, the thing which shifts in 2020. But then the question is why is that taken up by the American side at that moment? And I completely agree that the escalating tension of the American culture war, and if you get wrapped up with China, if you read people like Barr, like Attorney General, Barr, at the time it’s astonishing the extent to which we’re in a kind of McCarthyite double front: internal and external enemies with the two being quite confused, woke Hollywood supporting both Black Lives Matter and kowtowing to the Communist Party. That’s I think a fusion that happens within a structural configuration, which makes a struggle between the United States and China more and more likely. The fact that it happens at that particular moment, I think really does involve that fusion of different strands of anxiety and tension.

Kaiser: I can’t wait to read your book. So your paragraph, I mean, you mentioned that China today is not exporting revolution. While there’s still a fear of communism, we should we be clear that — And you write this, you say, it’s not the China of the past. It’s not sponsoring Maoist revolutions, it’s not Saudi Arabia, you say with its sponsorship of Wahhabism and its destabilizing support for all sorts of radical strains. It’s not Russia and its little green men in Ukraine. And I think most interestingly, it’s not the US. I mean, you wrote, I’m going to quote you here, “Nor is it a military hyperpower that dispatches drones to kill its enemies around the world.” You mentioned the killing by the Baghdad airfield two years ago. “Or engages in wars of choice and destabilizes fragile states in pursuit of responsibility to protect operations.” I imagine you must’ve caught a little bit of flack for that last bit. Some people might have called you, whataboutism or the both-sidesism?

Adam: No, actually. I mean, it has the merit of simply being a statement of fact. It really is simply, and it’s I think surprising how shocking it is to us when you just make that statement of fact. And I think without wanting to go down the rabbit hole of the critique of American power in the last 20 to 30 years, we should recognize how extraordinary it’s been, and we are witnessing after all in Afghanistan now in these weeks, as it were the pathetic kind of full stop on one part of that project. But also as a historian I thought for me, it was very important to remind folks that this isn’t the first time that the world has encountered Chinese power. I had the privilege of being in Tanzania at the beginning of 2020. And if you go to the national museum in Dar or somewhere like that, you see all these monuments, the Tanzania and Chinese cooperation in the 1960s building tunnels. If you look at the data for Chinese capital export that Carmen Reinhart and others put together, what’s really interesting is that before the big bulge of One Belt One Road, there’s actually a previous bulge of Chinese foreign investment in the 1960s. Which was tiny in absolute terms, but relative to Chinese GDP, it was already quite significant. So it’s worth reminding ourselves in the current moment, that in a sense, the challenge China poses now is far more conventional than the challenge that China posed in the ’60s when it was a full-on revolutionary force.

Kaiser: Right. It had no buy in whatsoever to the system.

Adam: Absolutely. If you talk about Black Lives Matter, I mean, it was bought in on a rhetoric of racially coded confrontation with Western power.

Kaiser: Absolutely.

Adam: My old buddy at Yale, Jeremy Friedman, who’s now at Harvard has a powerful new book coming out about precisely this.

Kaiser: So I mentioned that you view much of what China does as par for the course for a large and powerful nation-state. But does this concept of a nation-state really fit for what China is today? I mean, obviously China wasn’t present at Westphalia. I mean, you’ve probably heard that this famous, in my field anyway, very well-known political scientist named Lucian Pye. And he once said of China that China is a civilization masquerading as a nation-state now. And I had to be sure, I mean, China insists up and down that it is now absolutely a nation state, but it’s hard to ignore certain aspects of Chinese behavior that don’t quite conform to these ideas. I mean, the way, for example, the Party is never quite comfortable with the idea that emigre Chinese, overseas Chinese, whatever their citizenship are still somehow theirs. They are treated differently. I know this firsthand. I mean as somebody who, even though I was born in the United States, I am absolutely treated differently and I’m regarded as being civilizationally Chinese, irrespective of what my native language is. Whether it’s sometimes under the benign protection and sometimes it’s under the less benign jurisdiction, but they want to impose it. So is China not any other nation-state just because it’s bigger as maybe your piece suggests pot possibly, or do you think there’s anything to this civilization stuff? I mean, without getting all Samuel Huntington.

Adam: Oh, I’ve been thinking about this. I mean, again, it may have something to do with my background as a Germanist because who else wasn’t at Westphalia, it was the Germans. It was about Germany. It was made on the body of Germany.

Kaiser: There was the Palatinate.

Adam: So there’s no Germany present. Because the German solution is the Holy Roman Empire of German nations. And this is in no way to quibble with obviously the claims for the debts and the sophistication of Chinese culture as a realm. But I don’t think the incongruence between nation-state form and cultural sphere is unique to China. It may be particularly grandiose in the Chinese case, which would be unsurprising, but it’s not. It’s by no means unique. I mean, the same thing is often said about my country of birth. Like are the English really a nation or are they basically just imperialists? And in what case, what are they now since they don’t have an empire and they may lose the United Kingdom. And there isn’t really anyone who regards themselves as British. In fact, it’s often said that the only people who regard themselves as British are Caribbean migrants in the post-colonial period. You wouldn’t catch somebody like me describing themselves as British. It would seem presumptuous.

So I think that point is best made as one which applies to the many states. In a particular instance I was using it, I think it was to a degree a polemical edge. It goes back to this question of what exactly is it that irks us about China’s return to scale. And very often in American policy discourse, I don’t need to tell you right now it’s as though China was behaving in some astonishing, outrageous way and it all needs to be explained in terms of Xi and Xi’s rise and this huge and sudden and abrupt rupture that happens in 2012, which means that now where it set on this course, and if only China could go back to being, and that’s the question about what. About what would China have to do to calm the hawks in Washington. And I don’t think there’s an answer to that other than be utterly supplicant. There’s really no configuration and even truly willing players in America’s orbit like Japan, South Korea and Germany, if they ever show any genuine sense of autonomy, they get labeled as French. And then shortly after that you’re being labeled as a rogue state.

So for a regime like China, I just think it’s impossible. What would they have to do to their defense budget? They would have to continuously reduce it as a share of GDP so as to keep the Pentagon happy with a ratio of like six to one or whatever it is would make the Pentagon happy. So that’s the polemical edge.

I think you could also say in defense of the argument that there has been at times a project of making China into a nation-state, whatever it was before, and that’s obviously a contested question. The current regime is quite attached to that construction though, as you say, it’s around the edges. And then I think as a third element, I would just have to admit that no one’s ever going to mistake me for a specialist in Chinese civilization. It’s the thing I understand. When the Chinese are acting like a nation-state, it registers on my radar.

Kaiser: Right, right, right. And whether or not it may escape you. But the more interesting question is what we were just talking about, what you had already drifted into, which was really the last thing that I wanted to bring up with you, which is of course, is there a possible scenario and you’ve already sort of answered that, in which the Americans can accept a multipolar reality in which China is a peer state? And I mean, I think that the anxiety just seems to stem from that. I mean, it is sort of a psychological difficulty on the part of the Americans to accept China as a near-peer competitor. There may be, as I’ve talked about before, a racial element in it. They may not exist, but I mean, I think we’d have to answer a counterfactual question: if Poland were suddenly to become a near-peer competitor, would its being white somehow diminish American anxiety over its rise? And I’m inclined to think that yes, it would diminish it.

Adam: Yeah, no. I mean, it’s very difficult. It’s very difficult to — I don’t know the answer to that question. That is, I think the huge challenge for American politics, it’s the project. And creating the basis on which one could at least have that conversation is I imagine one of the things that unites folks like you and me in wanting to push this conversation and push the conversation in the way in which we do. And the only hope for that presumably is on the basis of mutual comprehension. And the current situation is truly alarming because it seems to be shutting the doors to that. And to be retreating in sentience, I mean, and I do think there is a degree of parallelism here, though I don’t want to push it too far into sort of mutual stereotyping of various types, which is profoundly unproductive.

But to be honest, I don’t have a clear idea. We don’t. I mean, after all, we certainly both of you and I have lived our entire lives and indeed at least one or two generations before us under the sign of American dominance, and it is very difficult to imagine a world which isn’t like that. I mean, I don’t think the future, I don’t think sensible money bets on the future of Chinese dominance, but multipolarity is already our reality. And the question is really how tense it’s going to be.

Kaiser: It’s even more worrisome for me now that nationalism in China itself has changed. I read an excellent essay just yesterday in The Wire China, by Alec Ash, who happens to be Timothy Garton Ash’s son, who’s lived in China since 2008. He wrote this essay talking about how the old reactive nationalism that used to define China that was defensive, it was mostly just about China not getting a fair shake, about being misrepresented in the media. It’s completely changed. It is now much more — it’s not just defiant, it comes from confidence and not from a place of inferiority complex. It now says I have something to tell you. And that’s what changed beginning in 2009. I mean, I used to write about Chinese nationalism being more or less of the garden variety, reactive nationalists. So I said, look, it lacks the kind of viciousness of a Hindutva or a Russian nationalism, because it doesn’t have a religious core around which its core for one thing. And I feel like that’s — I have to revisit my thinking on this and in light of Alec’s excellent essay. I mean, he really talks about a new form of nationalism that’s taken over. He also writes quite a bit about the performative aspects of it, but how the performance actually becomes the belief. Vaclav Havel’s essay about the greengrocer and the sign that says “workers of the world unite.” It’s a very good essay, and I highly recommend it.

Speaking of recommendations, we should get on to recommendations. But first, let me thank you, Adam. This was just such a pleasure to talk to you. Before we do I want you to plug Chartbook, your excellent Substack, and talk about what the conceit of this latest endeavor is. Tell them where they can find it.

Adam: Yeah. So I’ve joined the folks on Substack. I’ve been doing it for about nine months now and —

Kaiser: Yeah. It’s great.

Adam: It’s a space for me to explore things actually, to just answer the questions that I’m interested in. I’ve done a couple on Afghanistan, and again, no one’s going to mistake me for an Afghanistan specialist, but it’s just on my mind right now. I can’t watch what’s happening without having a bunch of questions. But it’s also a space for meta reflection for thinking about theory. I’ve in my academic life, pursued a lot of different avenues simultaneously, and that’s left me with a huge number of questions about how to tie things together. And I’m spoiled. I publish all over the place, but much of that is too personal in a sense. Just a little bit too amateurish, even for my self-confidence, to put it, to foist it on a proper publication. So this has been a really great space. And it’s a good community to be in. I get a lot of great conversations that spiral out a bit. So, yes, if folks are interested in this, it’s Chartbook, at Substack. Come along I’m posting once a week, basically. And those who subscribe get links two or three times a week. So it’s really fun.

Kaiser: It is really great stuff. I’ve really been enjoying it. All right. Before we go on to recommendations, I just want to do a quick reminder that the Sinica Podcast is powered by SupChina. If you like what we’re doing with this show and with the other shows in our network, please remember that the best way to support us is with a subscription to SupChina Access, our daily email newsletter, which is really, really just full of all the important news from China, from an unimaginably vast array of new sources. So subscribe to us, show your support, we work very, very hard on this. So recommendations Adam, whatcha got for us?

Adam: So it’s something weighty but it is perhaps the most impressive thing I’ve read in years. It’s Vasily Grossman’s double novel about Stalingrad. I wrote about this on the Chartbook, but because I just had to somehow work it out in my mind emotionally. It’s this monumental two-volume historical novel that’s explicitly based on Tolstoy’s War and Peace about Stalingrad. The buildup to the Stalingrad battle, and then the battle itself. It runs to over 2000 pages, but I mean, I wanted more at the end of it all. The volume that’s well known in the West has been for decades. It’s a sort of dissident classic is Life and Fate. But actually to understand Life and Fate, I would strongly recommend everyone to start with the book, which has been translated quite recently simply as Stalingrad, which is the precursor. And the two together are about as epic a piece of — I think of them as incredibly serious history writing, to be honest. Thinking and reflection on what it means to this history. This is not something that he did as a potboiler. He was one of the bravest war correspondents of the Red Army. He put his life at risk continuously. Was reprimanded in fact, for the risks that he took. He was in the city itself at the time of the fighting. So it’s as a vivid and dramatic account of the war in all its complexity. Grossman was Jewish. His mother was killed in a death pit in the Ukraine in 1941. So it’s a shattering account of the violence of the mid-20th century on the Eastern Front.

Kaiser: Adam, when you say that it’s inspired explicitly by Tolstoy, do you mean that in its historiography, because Tolstoy has those wonderful appendices — is that what you mean?

Adam: It is. It’s simultaneously a novel, a history, and also a matter of reflection on what history is. And for a professional academic history, humbling in its sophistication and plasticity, and the multivocal way in which Grossman is able to summon this question, including the question that everyone at the time, in his clique, they were all reading. The only book he read throughout the war was Tolstoy. So Tolstoy inserts himself into Grossman’s thinking of the war. It’s dizzying as a book, unforgettable.

Kaiser: I think that I’m going to put the podcast on pause for a couple of weeks, just spend time reading this. I had not heard a more compelling pitch for a book in quite some time. And I’m ready to read something like that right now. And my recommendation is going to sound so utterly frivolous by comparison, which is just a show that I’ve been watching on Amazon Prime called the Legend of El Cid, which is a Spanish language series. It’s the second season. The first season was really short and not entirely satisfying, but it’s a real improvement on the old 1961 Charlton Heston movie, which I loved as a kid. But if you can get past the title character’s mullet which he sports for much of the first season, I think you’re going to love it. It’s just all sorts of bloody battles and gratuitous nude scenes, and of course, lots and lots of court intrigue and betrayal and noble Moors. The whole thing you get with the El Cid package, but it’s great. I mean, I love how fight choreography has gotten to the point right now, where you’re never embarrassed watching these epic medieval battles on premium cable. So check it out, El Cid, enjoy that. A very sorry follow-up to your excellent recommendation, Adam.

Adam, thanks once again. It’s just been such a hoot. Real pleasure. I’m looking forward to publishing this one enormously.

Adam: Great. Look forward to the next time.

Kaiser: Okay, great. The Sinica Podcast is powered by SupChina and is a proud part of the Sinica Network. Our show is produced and edited by me, Kaiser Kuo. Drop us an email at Follow us on Twitter or on Facebook at @supchinanews and make sure to check out all shows in the Sinica Network. Thanks for listening. And we’ll see you next week. Take care.