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Virtual Coffee with BS: Rana Mitter

Another China syndrome

Kanika Datta  |  New Delhi 

Rana Mitter
Rana Mitter

It’s a gloriously sunny late summer morning in Oxford the day I speak to Rana Mitter, Professor of the History and Politics of Modern at the Institute for Chinese Studies at the University of Oxford. I know this only because I have asked him from my office in unbearably muggy New Delhi, where it is mid-afternoon. We’ve leapt time and distance for this first-ever Virtual Coffee with BS thanks to Skype, though the advertised benefits of seamless connectivity prove less than optimum, writes Kanika Datta.

The halting video feed allows us to see each enough for me to note that Mitter, 44, does indeed look like his photograph on the backflap of his latest book (no “touching up”, which has become common these days). China’s War with Japan, 1937-1945: The Struggle for Survival is a splendid account of perhaps one of the more “forgotten” of the “forgotten wars” of Southeast Asia during World War II and particularly interesting in the current political context. He is armed with a cup of coffee — “rather nasty instant,” he tells me. I have tried to rise to the occasion by ordering a bowl of chicken sweet corn soup from a nearby eatery, reassuringly Punjabi-Chinese to taste and generously laced with monosodium glutamate and cornflour.

Mitter’s online CVs are sparing and I am parochially curious, since his name is obviously Bengali. But the links are tenuous at best. He has relatives in Calcutta, but was born and brought up in the UK, his father, Partha Mitter, being the extremely respected historian of Indian art. His own interest in began more than 20 years ago but was not, as he admits, “the result of a prophetic vision that this was the new power on the horizon”. “When I took the decision to learn Chinese in university, I knew it was a very important subject about which I knew absolutely nothing. In fact, nobody was talking about as the coming superpower then — if anything, everybody was talking about Japan. But here was a very large part of the world – this was post-Mao but before Tiananmen Square – of which few people had a take and that made it interesting.”

Was learning Chinese tough, I ask, remembering the complaints of friends who attempted it. “It’s difficult for anyone who learns an alphabetic language as a starting point since the writing system involves characters each of which had to be learnt”. Speaking it was easier because “the famous tones can be mastered in a short time”. He adds thoughtfully, “But it is one of the factors that makes China more impenetrable to the world. Even Mao Zedong, in one of his more iconoclastic moments, suggested doing away with Chinese characters, though he never got round to it.”

Which brings me to his book. Mao is still a cult figure in China, yet Mitter’s book talks about – and, indeed, is a result of – a noticeable revisionism in China towards recent Chinese history, and especially Mao’s biggest enemy, the Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek. “One misunderstanding about China is that though it is an authoritarian system that does not mean that there is no discussion of its own recent history. So, Mao still sits at the centre of modern Chinese identity, but there are areas of history that would have been taboo 20 years ago and are now discussed quite widely.”

That is partly a result of political expediency. Under Mao, Chiang was “a demonic figure because he was still on Taiwan, waiting to invade the mainland. But by the 1980s, Mao and Chiang were dead, and the new Chinese leadership wanted to press for reunification with Taiwan. They thought they might do this by projecting a more favourable view of Chiang in the mainland — and one easy way to do this was to stress Chiang’s contribution in resisting Japan during World War II.”

But he points to a “wider and more interesting reason”. One conclusion of the Chinese revisionism is that the old divisions of rich versus poor, communists versus nationalists and so on are no longer important. “Instead, there is a much more nationalistic mode of thinking of China engaging with the outside world. Whether it is in opposition with it or engagement, China sees itself as one society. So, to go back to the mid-20th century when Japan invaded, it didn’t matter if someone was Communist or Nationalist and so on but whether they opposed the Japanese. In that respect Chiang comes up much better — he could have surrendered many times but resisted to the end.” Even his implacable enemies in the Communist Party give Chiang credit for that, Mitter says, and that has opened the way for scholars and TV producers to write or talk about him.

Was this revisionism also an attempt by the leadership to stir up nationalistic fervour and mask the troublesome aspects of the regime? There are two sides to it, he replies. One is to present an image to China of the outside world, and the to project an image of national unity and identity within China. The current trial for former boss of Chongqing Bo Xilai, involving a “lurid case” of corruption and murder, is a case in point. “Bo Xilai was the kind of person who might once again encourage a local personality cult that could split China. One message is as much to leaders who may have such ideas and the other is to promote propaganda about the past being one of Chinese unity. So the policy and propaganda come together in quite an effective way.”

What about the level of access and censorship to documents? He admits that there are some areas of the central archives that are off limits, as are, say, detailed investigations of Mao and his flaws (hardly unique, I think, since some critical Nehru papers are still sealed in India). “So if there are documents that they don’t want you to have they simply won’t give them to you.” But equally, they do not impose any censorship — “even if what you are writing what the Communist Party would not advocate, and that is certainly the case quite often!”

That, too, appears to be a thought-through position. “It’s clear that the authorities think it’s useful to get certain facts about Chinese history out into the wider world in a way that might be embarrassing for them but comes more easily from an outsider.” His own book is an example because it “gives a much more positive picture of China’s government before the Communist revolution, which would never have been authorised 20 years ago.”

In fact, his book has received favourable reviews from English-language papers in the mainland and he is especially excited that a Chinese-language edition has been commissioned and is expected in a year or two. His own modest assessment of this reception is that the story highlights a major Chinese contribution to world history so the Chinese are unlikely to be embarrassed by it.

Maybe I have been influenced by western assessments of Chiang and I suggest to Mitter that he has been kinder to him than warranted. After all, he made the almost suicidal decision to fight the Japanese in Shanghai rather than in the north where campaigning would have been easier…

Mitter has clearly heard this before but he explains it patiently all the same — that is, when we resume our discussion after an abrupt disconnection. Six years before Chiang made the decision to fight in 1937, he points out, Manchuria, essentially the size of France and Germany combined, had been lost almost overnight in a coup and in the intervening years larger parts of north China began to be captured.

So when it looked as though Beijing would fall (and with it, the major railway lines), Chiang had the choice of confronting the Japanese or seeing the continuous slicing away of territory. Though he was not a democratically elected leader, he knew that continuing to appease the Japanese would have dented his popular standing. And he did debate the decision with other top leaders, Mitter says — “There’s this wonderful entry in his diary in which he asks himself, ‘is this the time for confrontation?’” Hindsight also shows that this was the period when momentum was building up against the traditional empires, and Chiang’s decision could be seen as part of that wider movement.

So I ask for a counterfactual scenario: what if Chiang had surrendered? “Then the history of World War II in Asia would have been different,” he replies promptly. “The Japanese would have been free to concentrate their forces against the Soviet Union, and that’s one reason Stalin was keen for Chiang to continue the war. And the British were equally worried that a pacified China would mean Japan could turn its attention to Burma and India. So the alternative scenario would have had the Japanese being more powerful in Asia and being able to launch attacks without a Western ally fighting back and without having to worry about one million troops tied down fighting Chiang.” For that reason, he says he always found it strange that China and Chiang did not get more credit for essentially changing the path of World War II.

My soup congeals as we chat about his accounts of Chiang’s meetings with Nehru and Gandhi, relations the British were loath to encourage. Chiang hit it off with Nehru — “because they were both secular and anti-imperialist, though Nehru was a democrat and Chiang wasn’t and Chiang was probably more anti-British than Nehru.” With Gandhi, relations were edgy. Well, “Gandhi was hard even for his Congress colleagues to follow — he was a unique character in so many ways! And Chiang had grown up in the era of warlordism, where parliamentary democracy had very little purchase, so he could not see Gandhi’s non-violent philosophy or democracy as applicable to China.”

China alone is a huge and complex subject to study but Mitter seems to find the time to regularly present shows for Radio 3, BBC’s classical music station in the UK, his particular favourites being Shostakovich, Mahler and Janacek. His next project, in fact, will be no less challenging: to examine the shared history of India and China. It springs from a conviction that the two “have a greater role to play in the region but they really don’t talk to each other as much as they ought to.”

Deflatingly (for Indians, that is), he talks of an “imbalance, where India fears China but China doesn’t pay as much attention to India relative to Japan, US or even Russia”. He predicts that this situation could “provoke greater instability in the coming decades”. So his next book intends to use history to demonstrate a “useful connection to remind people that the relationship is of a much longer standing than we sometimes realise”.

There’s always the legacy of 1962, I murmur as I spoon up three tiny pieces of boiled chicken resting apologetically at the bottom of the bowl. He points out that that particular debacle looms large in popular memory in India but in China it is not as big a deal, though a small team at the Chinese Academy of Social Science is researching the subject. He adds the interesting point that the year coincides with Mao’s Great Leap Forward that caused the famine that killed 20 million people whereas a war that killed relatively few people in India is still a source of angst — “a sign perhaps that India’s system is stable”. “Maybe there’s a lesson in all of this in getting to the next stage of discussion beyond the border excursions,” he concludes.

First Published: Fri, August 30 2013. 22:42 IST