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Historical Analogies and the China Debate

by Jeffery N. Wasserstrom on Sep 9, 1997

Jeffery N. Wasserstrom

A good historical analogy can be a wonderful thing. It helps place a contemporary problem in a new light and can even aid the construction of sensible public policy.  Misconceived or misapplied analogies, on the other hand, are a very different matter.

Unfortunately, bad analogies have come to dominate discussions of China in the American press. A disturbing number of commentators have been implying or stating outright that Beijing’s current leaders are best understood as similar to the heads of China’s pre-revolutionary dynasties or of the German Nazi regime. The proliferation of these kinds of misleading analogies, at a crucial point in the history of China and of Sino-American relations, is a troubling and dangerous phenomenon.

What’s so wrong with describing China as a place run by Emperors or Nazis? It depends on the goal of the writer.  If one’s purpose is to discredit Beijing’s current leaders, then it makes sense. The regime bases its legitimacy on the notion that there’s a sharp disjuncture between the imperial and revolutionary eras, and official histories point with pride to the role that Chinese Communists played in helping defeat the Axis powers. Therefore, to employ such analogies is certainly to hit Beijing’s leaders where it hurts.

Chinese dissidents have long been aware of this. They demonstrated it during the protests of 1989 by integrating both imperial and fascist metaphors, as well as other critical historical analogies, into wall posters designed to mock the authorities.

The problem with such analogies comes when they’re used to illuminate, not just undermine the regime in Beijing. In the immediate aftermath of Deng Xiaoping’s death, commentators mused on what China would do now that its second Communist “Emperor” had died. As the debate over the so-called “China threat” to U.S. interests has heated up in recent months others, such as A.M. Rosenthal of The New York Times and the syndicated columnist George Will, have jumped on the rhetorical bandwagon of likening the current Beijing regime to that of the Nazis.

Such historical analogies may carry a sting. But they fail to do justice to past and present realities. Of course, it is possible with these analogies to highlight some very specific similarities between cases: For example, there are similarities between China today and China of pre-revolutionary times when it comes to the severity of official corruption as a serious problem and major source of discontent. In the case of both imperial and Nazi analogies, however, dramatic contrasts ultimately undermine the validity of comparisons.

When it comes to Deng being an “Emperor,” for example, it is worth noting that he derived his power from being part of the bureaucracy he led. By contrast, heads of dynasties always saw themselves and were treated as figures who were completely separate from and stood above such institutions.  In addition, imperial dynasties were based on the principle of succession through bloodlines. There was never any serious thought that this would happen after Deng — nor for that matter after Mao.

When it comes to the Nazi analogy, the holes in the comparison are even more gaping. After all, the Beijing regime is not attempting to exterminate any racial group; its international ambitions are very different from Hitler’s; and no current Chinese leader is nearly as popular with ordinary citizens of China as Hitler was with Germans in the 1930s.

The problem is not simply that the use of these analogies does a disservice to the contemporary situation and the historical record. Each encourages Americans to fall into a familiar trap — that of treating China as either a static land incapable of experiencing real change (where even revolutionary leaders turn out to be just old emperors in new clothes) or a blank slate onto which we can project dark nightmares (such as that of a resurgence of Hitler-like leaders).

In fact, China today is a country in flux. It is undergoing complex changes that are making it a very different place from what it was a decade (not to mention a century) ago. These changes could lead it in any one of several new directions, some of which would be worrisome indeed, but it is too early to tell which path it will take. Moreover, the political and social changes that have taken place in China in recent years make it different in important ways from any of the one-party states with which we have dealt in the past.

This is an unsettling situation, since novelty and change always create uncertainty, both among the people it affects directly and onlookers in other lands. It’s tempting to grab at familiar historical analogies to help us understand these changes, but the temptation should be avoided. It makes for bad history. More than that, it makes it harder to understand and act sensibly toward China here and now.


Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom is a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine, a writer for the History News Service and the author of "China's Brave New World -- And Other Tales for Global Times" (2007).