Skip to main content
Read page text

Page Text

C H I N A

I B U T O R / G E T T Y

/ C O N T R

B E T T M A N N

©

ers. Business boomed in the US thanks to shale oil. But what kind of business? Yergin applauds the US’s manufacturing revival. He counts the jobs oil generates and the stock market revenues. But – and this is the confusing bit – a good part of The New Map lays out the follies and violence of states that have relied on fossil fuels. Yet Yergin does not use the same discernment when considering how the oil economy has taken hold of the American landscape.

Drilling into shale is dirty and hazardous. Because shale wells are quickly depleted, companies need constantly to drill new horizontal underground networks, leaving a trail of ecological disturbances in their wake. Yergin fails to comment on the relaxed US regulatory environment that displaces the cost of clean-up operations on to the public. He doesn’t wonder about the wisdom of siphoning off massive quantities of fresh water from drought-prone plains in order to fuel it, and he pauses only briefly to dismiss fracking-induced earthquakes, methane emissions, or chemical toxins leaching into air and drinking water. Considering legal challenges to fracking, he mentions only one, failed criminal suit involving the death of twenty-eight migratory birds. He overlooks jury awards in the millions of dollars to people who have suffered health problems from fracking activity.

Shared sacrifice of war The Party is at last recognizing the role of its Nationalist rivals

JEREMY BROWN CHINA’S GOOD WAR How World War II is shaping a new nationalism

RANA MITTER 288pp. Harvard University Press. £22.95

(US $27.95).

“C

HINESE PEOPLE DO NOT attack Chinese people”, Xi Jinping said in 2019. Xi’s point was to imagine a peaceful takeover of Taiwan, but he missed the mark because people in Taiwan increasingly identify as Taiwanese rather than as Chinese. Beyond the immediate issue of Taiwan, Xi must have known that he was making a false statement. Chinese people have fought against Chinese people on many occasions during the twentieth century, most obviously during the civil war between Communists and Nationalists, and also during Mao Zedong’s war against rural people (the Great Leap Famine of the early 1960s), Mao’s war against the Communist Party itself (also known as the Cultural Revolution, 1966–76), and in June 1989, when the People’s Liberation Army used machine guns and tanks to kill unarmed civilians on the streets of Beijing.

The undeniable history of the Chinese Communist Party leading Chinese people to attack other Chinese people is not pretty. It undermines the Communist Party’s moral justifications for its rule. This is why, as Rana Mitter convincingly argues in China’s Good War, the Communist Party has embraced a reassessment of China’s role in the Second World War, moving from a pro-Communist, anti-Nationalist story to one that recognizes Nationalist soldiers’ and Chiang Kai-shek’s significant contributions. Narratives of fourteen years of shared

FEBRUARY 26, 2021

In the autumn of 2018 the US quietly surpassed Saudi Arabia to become the world’s largest exporter of crude oil. Between 2009 and 2019 oil and gas accounted for 40 per cent of cumulative growth in US industrial production and two-thirds of total net industrial investment. During this period the US showed signs of suffering from the “resource curse”. States that overly depend on resource extraction are victim to volatile prices. (And in the Covid spring when the oil price dropped to pennies for a barrel, the US stock market romped like a bronco.) Leaders come to rely on resource receipts over broad-based taxes. They genuflect before corporate executives, servicing oil and other resource interests over those of citizens. The cost of living rises, income inequality widens, and democratic institutions disintegrate. This framework explains a great deal about recent developments in the US. In the past two decades, as the US became the leading oil exporter, the proportion of wealth that the top 10 per cent controlled grew steadily; the bottom earners grew poorer. In 2016 a minority of American voters elected Donald Trump, who used executive control to clear the regulatory path for shale prospecting, oil refining and subsidiary industries.

In the end, Yergin argues, the big winners in the first decades of the twenty-first century have been

“The Belt and Road Initiative has metastasized to incorporate one-fourth of the global economy (131 countries), plus the Arctic and the Moon the oil and gas interests. In 2020, just as thirty years ago, 80 per cent of the world’s energy derives from these two resources. Freighted with the shale revolution, the global energy portfolio petrified, and so too did visions of alternatives. Yergin believes that oil and gas will continue to be integral to the postviral landscape, meaning that China will depend on imports for many decades to come. But he underestimates the country’s very tangible domestic green revolution.

While the US pumps out retrograde fossil fuels, China leads the world in producing solar systems that light up not just green cities in Europe but villages in India, South America and Africa. Cheap, portable solar panels, which do not require expensive webs of power lines, make it possible for village children to study at night, for small businesses to launch, and for remote hospitals to carry out basic services; decentralized solar and wind power lead to small-scale autonomy, localized production, and more flexible, resilient micro-economies. The vessels that deliver them may be authoritarian but the people who use them do not have to be. China may still be a net polluter but the remaining decades of the twenty-first century belong to renewable energy. And that is why China will get the prize. n sacrifice against a foreign enemy (beginning with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931 and ending in August 1945) and earning a seat at the table of global superpowers – literally in Cairo in 1943, when Chiang negotiated as an equal with Churchill and Roosevelt – have all combined to make China’s Second World War experience politically useful for a variety of people in the People’s Republic, from researchers to leaders to clever critics.

During the Mao years, propaganda depicted Japan and the Nationalist Party as equally nefarious imperialist or reactionary enemies of “the people,” while playing up the Communist Party’s role as the only legitimate source of resistance against Japan. Beginning in the 1980s and continuing in recent decades, government grants have funded specialized journals and collections of historical materials related to China’s war against Japan. The goal of these projects has been to depict China as strong, victorious, moral and just. The result has been to broaden the scope of acceptable commemoration by treating Nationalist soldiers and leaders as brothers in arms.

Mitter’s most penetrating observations relate to how ordinary people have used contested memories of China’s good war to implicitly critique the Communist Party’s attacks on Chinese people. Mitter analyses the online phenomenon of Guofen (Nationalist Party fans), who not only argue that the

TLS

Chiang Kai-shek, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Soong Mei-ling (Madame Chiang Kaishek), at the Cairo Confererence, 1943

Jeremy Brown is Associate Professor of History at Simon Fraser University. His most recent book, coedited with Matthew D. Johnson, is Maoism at the Grassroots: Everyday life in China’s era of high socialism, 2015

Nationalist Army was the leading resistance force during the war, but who also want the Nationalists’ constitution and founding ideology to rule over mainland China today. Earlier this year, an ardent Guofen from Shandong Province took my class about modern China at Simon Fraser University in Canada. His weekly statements about the superiority of Sun Yat-sen’s Three Principles of the People arose from his profound dissatisfaction with censorship and repression in China under Xi Jinping. For Guofen, celebrating Nationalist rule is less absurd than it seems because their imagined alternative world once had a basis in reality in mainland China. And the same Nationalist Party still lingers on in a multiparty democracy in Taiwan.

The story of the property developer Fan Jianchuan, who established the Jianchuan Museum Cluster in Sichuan Province, is one of the most illuminating parts of Mitter’s book. On the surface, the Jianchuan Museum Cluster’s exhibits about the Second World War adhere to messages about shared sacrifice and national victory, garnering favourable coverage in China’s official press and allowing Fan’s private museums to survive in the Xi Jinping era. But Fan’s project pushes against boundaries, portraying Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek as being on the same side, musing about the motivations of the hundreds of thousands of Chinese people who collaborated with the Japanese occupiers, and critiquing how Nationalist soldiers were demonized and persecuted during the Cultural Revolution.

Looking at recent memories of China’s good war is a natural progression for Mitter, whose previous books have focused on the history of the war itself. Mitter shows how conversations about one proud part of China’s history are in fact conversations about more recent traumas. n

23

Skip to main content