A sweeping, reasoned history portrays China as still caught in its age-old bind between authoritarianism and the need to join the world.
The nation’s economic transformation since the end of the 1970s under Deng Xiaoping has been “blinding and unprecedented,” notes journalist and China historian Fenby (Alliance: The Inside Story of How Roosevelt, Stalin & Churchill Won One War and Began Another, 2007, etc.). Moreover, it was achieved on the heels of a deeply flawed past not yet fully assessed and comprehended. The theory of the Mandate of Heaven—which gained its apotheosis during the Middle Kingdom and established a stratified master-servant relationship that ran from the court down to rural villages—is still reflected in the huge disparity of wealth between the top and bottom, the author avers. The arrival of Westerners eager for economic exploitation in the mid-19th century added to China’s instability. Fenby considers China’s booming present in terms of its convulsive recent history: the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911; the establishment of a republic; the election of revolutionary theorist Sun Yat-sen; anarchy of the warlords and aggression by the Japanese; debilitating civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists followed by the latter’s victory in 1949. The magisterial sections covering the “Rule of Mao” incorporate strands from China’s past to highlight the Great Helmsmen’s monstrously despotic policies, which used millions of lives as fodder for his increasingly irrational dreams. The author completes his thorough survey with an evaluation of the Deng era and the disastrous Beijing Spring of 1989, closing with a look at the recent regime’s efforts to maintain stability through a combination of ideology, reform and party loyalty.
Essential desk-side reference to help with the sifting and understanding of the enormous changes taking place in a China poised between the old and the new.