Chinese Power, Interrupted

In the US, we’ve grown accustomed to hearing about China’s transformation into a ‘global superpower’ in the 21st century. But according to journalist and author Michael Schuman, that’s not the only way to see China’s economic and political resurgence.

On this episode, Watson’s Director Ed Steinfeld talks with Michael about his book 'Superpower Interrupted: The Chinese History of the World.' The book will be, to many, a fresh perspective on Chinese history. But it's more than a history lesson; it’s also a powerful example of how national narratives develop, and how they are used for political ends.

You can learn more about and purchase 'Superpower Interrupted: A Chinese History of the World,' here.

You can learn more about Watson’s other podcasts here.


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SARAH BALDWIN: From the Watson Institute at Brown University, this is Trending Globally. I'm Sarah Baldwin. In the US, we've grown accustomed to hearing about China's transformation into a, quote, "global superpower." But according to journalist and author Michael Schuman, we might be thinking about this transformation all wrong.


- We talk about China as an emerging market or a rising power. And, of course, that's true in the very current sense. But when you put what's going on in China's veins in this longer historical context, what it actually looks like is one of these restorations, or one of these periods where China is rebuilding all the pillars of its power.


SARAH BALDWIN: Michael's book is called Superpower Interrupted-- The Chinese History of the World, and it spells out for Western readers the value of seeing China's history in a new way. On this episode, Watson's director, Ed Steinfeld, talked with Michael about the book and how this reframing can inform our understanding of China today. They also explored the role narratives play in our national identities more broadly, and how narratives are used for political ends. It's a fascinating conversation. I'll let them take it from here. Here's Ed.

ED STEINFELD: Michael, you've written such a phenomenal and provocative book. It really made me think in all kinds of new ways. And I really like the title-- Superpower Interrupted. Can you explain what you meant by the title?

MICHAEL SCHUMAN: For long stretches of history, China was a great power. It was a major political force in Asia. It was one of the world's largest economies. It was a critical engine of global trade.

And it also had major civilizational power and influence, where its culture had a high degree of influence on its neighbors in Asia. I mean, when you think of East Asia, what is East Asia? East Asia is kind of a Chinese cultural zone. And not that China was such a great power every single year. But there were-- for long stretches of time over the last 2,000 years, China was a great power.

But then there was this interruption. And that happened, in my view, with this confrontation with the West. China has had, of course, other catastrophic periods where China was invaded, and the dynasties were weak and collapsed. And there were periods of chaos and civil wars.

But the confrontation with the West was a little bit different. Because in my view, this was the first time that China confronted another civilization that thought itself to be superior, and saw the Chinese as backward. And that was always-- that was kind of the opposite of the way the Chinese had always seen the world. They considered themselves to be a superior civilization. Everybody else was kind of inferior.

So what made this confrontation with the West so jarring is that it kind of knocked away all the pillars of Chinese power. China became politically weak. It lost its economic influence.

And then it also lost that civilizational influence where its neighbors, and of course, China itself, started to look not back to China's own traditions and history, but to the West for new ideas about politics and economics. The Chinese themselves came to see being modern as being Western, and so, in other words, being foreign.

So this was an incredibly jarring period in Chinese history, and that's where the interruption comes in. But of course, the use of the word interruption also implies that it's probably going to be temporary.

ED STEINFELD: When you refer to interruption and the temporary nature of that interruption, is the point that contemporary China, in its notion of power and its notion of superpower, is looking backward, or trying to recover particular attributes of what the Chinese empire was like?

MICHAEL SCHUMAN: We in the West, because we put China into our kind of the context of our own history, we talk about China as an emerging market or a rising power. And, of course, that's true in the very current sense. But you know, I think when you put what's going on in China's veins in this longer historical context, what it actually looks like is one of these restorations.

What makes Chinese history so remarkable is how often the political elite of China were able to rebuild China into a great power. They were able to kind of come out of these very, very dark periods and turn China once again into a great power over and over again. So when you put what's going on today into that kind of historical content, then it looks like another one of these periods where China is rebuilding all the pillars of its power.

ED STEINFELD: I think there is-- I mean, there's some, I guess, who would understand international relations as just the arena of power, and that states do what they do, and powerful states can behave predictably based on their power and et cetera-- that you don't really need to know anything about France to understand French behavior. You don't need to know anything about the United States to understand US behavior. It's just about power and the relationship of that power to other states in the system.

But if I understand your argument, it's that it's not just that China is striving for utilizing power as any nation would, but it's doing it in a distinctive Chinese way. Can you distill certain attributes or behaviors that are distinctively Chinese in terms of its superpower behavior?

MICHAEL SCHUMAN: You know, I think that we all have a certain worldview based on who we are, how we see ourselves in the world, what kind of values we have, what's important to us. I mean, think about the United States, this idea of American exceptionalism, the city upon a hill. This is something that goes back to the founding of the nation, and it has a profound influence on American foreign policy and how Americans should see their role in the world.

When you go back to some of the earliest writings that we have from China, and the Chinese sort of talking about themselves versus other people, you start seeing these ideas form about how the Chinese saw the world. At a very, very early stage, the Chinese saw themselves as being the superior civilization.

And this goes back to basically in the age of Confucius, possibly even earlier. This factored into foreign affairs and how the Chinese related with other peoples, where the Chinese tended to see the world as a hierarchy. And not surprisingly, they were supposed to be on top of that hierarchy. And dealing with other peoples, other peoples were supposed to acknowledge that superiority in order to have diplomatic and economic relations with China.

I mean, in the West, we've come to term this the tribute system. It's a very controversial term. The Chinese actually never use it themselves. I don't use it in my book. But there's no denying that there is an actual Chinese version of foreign affairs and a Chinese form of diplomacy. And because China had so much power, they were able to kind of the rules of the game.

ED STEINFELD: What do you think the relationship is between the way China historically, the civilizational empire, was governed domestically versus how it behaved internationally?

MICHAEL SCHUMAN: The domestic political ideology and the Chinese foreign affairs are actually linked very, very closely. Because in Chinese political thinking, the emperor was not just some kind of ordinary ruler. He was actually the Son of Heaven and had the Mandate of Heaven. And that meant that basically he had divine sanction to rule.

And more than that, as the philosophy kind of advanced, the emperor was seen as basically a link between the divine and man. So the emperor had an incredibly vital role in basically bringing order to the universe. So that's how you think of your sovereign. You just can't kind of you know rub elbows with kind of the unwashed kings and chieftains of all these other people.

Added to that, in Confucian philosophy, of course, the rulership was based on virtue. The more virtuous you were, the more you would attract people to you. Confucian believed that if you were a virtuous ruler, you basically-- you kind of almost wouldn't even need laws, that people would follow you willingly because you were such a great guy.

So the more people who came from abroad to pay tribute to the emperor, in Chinese political thinking, the more virtuous the emperor was and the empire was. So all of these ideas about Chinese civilization, about Chinese political authority, and about China's role in the world all kind of become tied together.

ED STEINFELD: I wonder how deterministic some of those ideas or values are. I think about other-- I even hesitate to say Confucian societies, because there's so many different influences that play into any society or culture. But I will say Confucian societies-- places like Korea or Taiwan, in many respects, that over time have manifested many different types of governance approaches, from authoritarianism to vibrant democracy.

And so in the Chinese case, how much room for institutional change is there? Is China's power and its extent of its power, does that limit the political or institutional options that we've seen in other Confucian societies?

MICHAEL SCHUMAN: Well, I think the Chinese leadership would probably say that there is historical basis for the current kind of authoritarian system that you see in China. You're reminding me of kind of the Lee Kuan Yew Asian values argument, that societies have different histories that create different values. And therefore, people want different forms of government. And that means that democracy isn't universal, that it doesn't fit for certain societies.

I mean, there's an element of that with China, because we in the west go back, and we look at ancient Greece and the Roman Republic as kind of the basis for our modern democratic system. The Chinese don't have that kind of thing to look back on. Their form of perfect government was the idea kind of the Sage King, that you have this virtuous, benevolent ruler who kind of set the world right.

There isn't necessarily in the Western sense of democracy democratic roots in Chinese history. But at the same time, as you mentioned, I don't believe because of a society's certain history therefore prevents it from having certain political and societal change.

I mean, when you look at Korea, for example, is a great example of a society without that much of a democratic history, and is now a very, very, very stable vibrant democracy. You could say the same thing about Japan, Taiwan, of course.

So to be kind of cynical about it when you look at what Lee Kuan Yew was doing, and you look at the current Chinese leadership, to a certain extent they were using their history to justify the existence of the current form of government that the leadership themselves prefer, as opposed to perhaps the people themselves.

ED STEINFELD: It's really interesting. And I sense a tension in your book as well between your description objectively of history. This is what the Chinese system looked like. This is what the Chinese empire, or Chinese civilizational empire looked like, versus the history as being selectively interpreted by a particular leadership at a particular moment of time. And maybe you could talk a little bit about how those different notions of history interact in your book.

MICHAEL SCHUMAN: Well, that was actually the biggest challenge in writing this book. Because I pitched this book, and I sold the idea, and it was like, we're going to write a Chinese view of history, a Chinese view of world events.

And then you get into the sticky issue of, wait a second. What's the Chinese view? Because history is reinterpreted over time and rewritten and rewritten some more and reinterpreted some more. And especially the case with the current government likes rewriting history to serve its own political purposes.

So I did not want to write a Communist Party history of China. That would have all kinds of distortions in it. And though that, to a certain extent, is valid, because it gets at how the leadership views its own history today and what that means in current affairs, I thought that it would create too many difficult inaccuracies and other things that were difficult for a kind of non-Chinese audience, very difficult to work out.

So what I decide to do is go back through time and see what Chinese writers and scholars, poets, historians, whoever was writing, what they were saying about the events of their own time, or as close to it as I could possibly get, how they were writing about themselves in the world, and China's role in the world, and how they saw it.

And when I did it that way, then you could start to kind of trace-- to end up thinking about China saw itself in the world, and Chinese saw themself in the world, and how it developed over time, and how many things were actually, in that thinking, were consistent over time, and carry it over through the different centuries and through the different dynasties.

Not that people at the time were necessarily seeing their events clearly either, but at least you were able to get almost a sense of how different ideas developed and changed or didn't change throughout Chinese history.

ED STEINFELD: As I was reading, I kept trying to see whether I could do a similar exercise, say, for the United States. And it's challenging. In the introduction to the book, you mention that we shouldn't expect China or Chinese people to just instinctively embrace Western values, or embrace a similar kind of historical sense. They have their own history, their own interpretation of history, their own notion of legacies. And I think that completely makes sense.

On the other hand, I was thinking about how many of us understand the tradition of the West, and you just articulated it-- tracing back to Rome in ancient Greece and republicanism and democracy. But that-- it's also a very modern notion of history, at best, maybe an enlightenment or post-enlightenment 18th century-- late 18th century-- sense of what the West is about.

I mean, we could look at other aspects of the West, the religious tradition, the role of the church, and all kinds of ways to understand where we're from. And I think you acknowledge this in the book-- there's so many different behaviors. And we could reinterpret American history as one primarily driven by slavery and racial oppression. There's so many different aspects.

And I wonder, how much agency is there in China or anywhere in selecting the lessons to learn from history, or even in conjuring up certain aspects of history to reinforce an identity that may be changing quite rapidly over time?

MICHAEL SCHUMAN: Well, you know, I think one of the issues that you have in dealing with Chinese history is that the writings that of course we have preserved from all the different centuries over time are of kind of, to a certain extent, a similar group of people. They weren't, obviously, identical.

whole lot like the Chinese of:

I mean, what makes China, again, especially interesting is when you look at education. The basis of education that formed around the Han Dynasty, more or less stayed in place to a great degree through the entire imperial period, where everybody was reading the same books.

ED STEINFELD: Presumably a very thin slice of society reading those works written in classical Chinese, not written in the vernacular.

MICHAEL SCHUMAN: Right. You were basically looking at-- education was still steeped in the Chinese classics called the Confucian classics. That's what people sat around and memorized and studied. So the people who studied all this stuff, they're the ones who ran the government. They're the ones who ran the education system. Anyone educated in any field would have basically the same background.

In that sense, the writings that you have from them about the world, the writings you have from about what was going on, is kind of-- has a certain foundation to it and a certain type of literature and philosophy. And that created these kind of consistencies throughout Chinese history and the way that they saw their politics, and the way they saw the world around them.

ED STEINFELD: As you describe in the book in the late 19th century, and really, especially in the early 20th century, a series of modernizers in China-- explicitly, self-identified as modernizers, felt, whether they were on the right or the left, that they had to create this national identity of China and being Chinese, and that it almost had to be created out of whole cloth, or at least in the sense of creating an individual identity that's linked to a state, and with all the symbols of a state, a flag.

And so in this trajectory of this purposeful creation of a modern nation-state and the citizenry that identifies with the state, how do you think that translates today into-- and does it translate into particular kinds of state behavior?

MICHAEL SCHUMAN: I think that the Chinese somewhat project backwards in a sense. When we were talking earlier about how this current government I think tries to present itself as the successor state to the old dynasties, I think that they think-- and I think a lot of societies, modern societies, do the same thing, where they're taking their current political context, and they're projecting it backwards where they kind of see the old Chinese dynasties as somehow connected to the current political environment, even though they were very, very different.

In China it's somewhat easier, because China, as kind of a political identity, has maintained certain aspects for a very long period of time. When you go back to the unification of China under the Qin dynasty in 221 BC, which was the first sign that China was really put together to a unified centralized empire, one from a capital through a bureaucracy, the current political system is how much different is it today in it's kind of basic form.

I mean, it's not-- technically, it's not an imperial dynasty with an emperor. But it is still a centralized bureaucratic state occupying more or less the same geographic region as the old Qin dynasty did. So in that sense, if you want to look at it that way, there's a remarkable amount of political consistency in China in a way that other societies don't really have that kind of same thing. So I think from the Chinese perspective, it's easier to kind of think of modern China as basically almost a form of all these other Chinas in a way that kind of makes sense.

ED STEINFELD: How much tension do you think there is, if any, between these notions of greatness, these notions of civilizational achievement, these notions of kind of a right to rule? How much tension is there between that and these other aspects of China's modern identity-- anti-imperialist, the communist revolution's rejection of much of the past, this idea that China as a modern revolutionary state is explicitly rejecting the expansionist behaviors of past empires-- how do you think Chinese make sense of that tension?

MICHAEL SCHUMAN: Well, this is one of the kind of ideological aerobics that the government is going through here in China today. And it's because the Chinese, for much of the last 100, 125 years, have been rejecting their history, and the Communist Party was kind of the ultimate form of that. The whole idea of communism is to wipe away the old and create the new-- the cultural revolution, the Red Guards were hunting to root out the four olds and create a new revolutionary society.

So now you have a government that's looking to find new forms of legitimacy, to chart a new future for the country. And they're trying to reconnect current modern-day politics to Chinese traditions in a way that we have not seen in China in a very, very long time.

It's a new element. It's something that's becoming much more intense when you look at Xi Jinping versus other people who have been governing China under communism. And he's much more forthright and open about Chinese tradition, how much he respects it.

He quotes the old philosophers all the time. He talks about Chinese history all the time. He's trying to revive a lot of this stuff, and I think he's trying to revive it to connect his government to the old powerful superpower, China.

But on a public level, this stuff is still new. You have a society that basically has not to a great extent been educated in its own traditions and its own history. So to a certain extent, the Chinese government today is almost reintroducing some of this stuff to people who really haven't had a real education in it.

And this is, to a certain extent, a problem for Chinese power as well, because a big part of Chinese power was that civilizational power, that what we call soft power today. Even when the Chinese were politically weakened and militarily not very strong, they were able to maintain a certain amount of influence in East Asia because of the connections that other peoples had the China through these bonds of culture and civilization.

And I think current leadership realizes that if they're going to be a great power again, a superpower again, they have to get some of this soft power back-- again, something Xi Jinping talks about all the time.

ED STEINFELD: How do you think China's neighbors or other powers globally, including the United States, how do you think that in the years to come they're going to react to this renewed sense of state power and imperial power? How concerned are you?

What are the implications for peace, for war? Even in your own descriptions, you've opened the door, I think, accurately and appropriately to lots of different options-- soft power, hard power. Are you feeling optimistic or pessimistic?

MICHAEL SCHUMAN: Well, I'm actually pessimistic. When you see what's going on today and how an increasingly assertive and aggressive China seems to be alienating a tremendous number of people in the world, and Chinese foreign policy is not winning hearts and minds in the way that I think the leadership kind of intended. But that's one of the great challenges for them is that the world's changed.

When the Chinese rebuilt themselves into a great power over and over again, they maintained these connections of culture and history with their neighbors. And now that's no longer true. The West has basically remade the world.

So when you look at societies that were traditionally very close to China-- Korea, most of all, Vietnam. Korea is now a very close ally of the United States. It's a Western style democracy. Vietnam increasingly wants to have closer relationships with the West as well. The world around China has been completely blown up and rebuilt.

So here, the Chinese are trying to rebuild their power in an environment in which they never have before. How does that play out when a lot of your neighbors are tied to a country, the United States, that is increasingly seeing China as a strategic threat, rather than a partner? Can China rebuild these cultural connections with it's neighbors around them. They're trying. They have not really succeeded so far.

And right now, the signs are unfortunately towards increasing conflict. It's very, very hard to see, unless there is a significant change in the direction of Chinese policy right now, how China and the US repair their relations. And hopefully, they can find some way of at least creating a stabilization.

But it's hard to see that we go back to anything where we were maybe 10 or 15 years ago in terms of US/China relations. So unfortunately, I'm becoming more and more pessimistic about what China's rise in the world kind of means in terms of global peace and prosperity.


ED STEINFELD: Michael Schuman, thank you so much for talking with us today, for stimulating so many interesting ideas and different kinds of perspectives. And thank you for writing Superpower Interrupted.

MICHAEL SCHUMAN: Thanks a lot for having me on. I really appreciate it. Thank you.


SARAH BALDWIN: This episode was produced by Dan Richards and Alina Coleman. Our theme music is by Henry Bloomfield. I'm Sarah Baldwin. You can subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, Google Play, or wherever you listen to podcasts. And if you like the show, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts. It really helps others find us.

For more information about this and other shows, go to watson.brown.edu. Thanks for listening, and tune in in two weeks for another episode of Trending Globally.


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About your hosts

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Sarah Baldwin '87

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Dan Richards

Producer and Co-Host, Trending Globally.