Register Tuesday | June 18 | 2019

China's Dangerous Opportunity

Fifteen statements from Jonathan Spence

Jonathan Spence, acclaimed for his scholarly yet accessible works on China, was first drawn to the country after reading the eighteenth-century classic The Dream of the Red Chamber, a multi-generational epic by Cao Xueqin. Through it, he came to recognize that one could draw “a connection between literary imagination, individual lives and grand societal features.” The Sterling Professor of History at Yale University, Spence has since devoted fourteen books and forty-plus years to the study of Chinese history and culture. Perhaps his best-known work is The Search for Modern China, which sweeps over the past four hundred turbulent years of that country’s life in grand, panoramic style. After speaking with Spence and exploring his works, Maisonneuve contributor Tod Hoffman assembled the following statements on China, the idea of history and the contemporary geopolitical situation.


1. “The effort to know China is a process that implies some final epiphany—a process Spence rejects. “There have been so many twists and turns along the way to depicting China during the last four hundred years that no such broad generalizations can hold. And that is as it should be. . . . the more blurred and multifaceted our perceptions of China become, the closer we may be to that most elusive thing: the truth.” (Spence, Chinese Roundabout)


2. History is best served by plucking out succinct episodes. “Perhaps I’m a frustrated playwright, but my approach is to narrow the focus of the action to a relatively few primary characters and use these people as agents of the . . . period.”


3. One should exhibit great humility in the face of the daunting sprawl that is China.


4. “One aspect of a country’s greatness is surely its capacity to attract and retain the attention of others.” (Spence, The Chan’s Great Continent: China in Western Minds) By that inexact, yet suggestive, measure, China has known greatness since at least the late thirteenth century, when Marco Polo first related the fantastical tales of his travels through Asia.


5. “What gets in the way of Chinese history being read is the density with which it’s so often written.”


6. Historians are able to study China in great depth because its rulers have long been obsessive about record keeping, requiring reports on everything from rainfall and agricultural yields to taxation and expenditures to matters of public mood and state security.


7. In 1728, opponents of Yongzheng, the third Manchu emperor, attempted to instigate an uprising. Instead of executing the ringleader, the emperor initiated a lengthy correspondence and ultimately convinced the rebel leader to recant. “The emperor devoted a considerable amount of attention to the affair . . . it was really his interest in the matter that made it possible for me to tell the story [in Treason by the Book].”


8. The Chinese written character corresponding to the English word “crisis” translates literally as “dangerous opportunity.”


9. The West’s attitude toward China in the imperialist days of the treaty ports can best be characterized as contemptuous. During World War II, hatred of Japan conjured up sympathy for China, but this goodwill didn’t survive the Korean War, which spawned hostility toward Mao Zedong’s newly established regime. Today the West positively salivates at the prospect of China’s huge inexpensive labour force and customer base of more than a billion people.


10. “China became a nuclear power without sparking the same intense fear [as the Soviet Union], nor the same presumption that it was intent on destroying the world. It never engaged in the same degree of sabre-rattling as the Russians . . . never assumed an equal place in the collective psyche of our fictions. Spy novels and movies were always more concerned with the Soviets.”


11. When totalitarian rulers see doubt, they immediately fear defiance. When a dissatisfied citizenry senses fear, it sometimes seizes an opportunity. “China is less stable than it appears. But it’s hard to guess where the fault lines lie . . . There is great uncertainty about what China’s values are. What is apparent is that the Communist Party no longer has a stranglehold over its belief system.”


12. “Tiananmen’s impact wasn’t enduring because the government survived. China in 1990 was not overwhelmingly different from China in 1988.”


13. Communist Party membership remains high, but that is a reflection of practicality more than conviction. It is a useful passport for advancing professionally—or simply for demonstrating one’s innocuousness.


14. After witnessing the collapse of the Soviet Union, China’s rulers concluded that prosperity and growth could appease political discontent. However, “economic change can have a distinct effect on politics; political criticism can begin in the realm of the economy.”

15. The American approach to foreign policy has been one-dimensional for the past two years, best characterized by Bush’s “with us or with the terrorists” world view. As the only superpower with global reach, though, the US is going to have to take a more sophisticated approach toward other states. “Relations with China need not be adversarial. It could just as well become a difficult, but interesting ally.”



“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

—Sun Tzu, The Art of War, fifth century BC