I’ve been reading Frank Dikötter’s excellent The Age of Openness, a short introduction to the history of the pre-1949 republican period in Chinese history. I strongly recommend it. Dikötter’s central argument is that after centuries of relative isolation, post-Qing China was tremendously receptive to ideas and institutions drawn from the West. He also argues that our understanding of that era has been dominated by self-serving myths about “warlordism,” a pejorative term that reduces lively debates about provincial autonomy and liberalism to polemical abstractions invented by communist ideologues. There was civil strife during the republican period, including a sharp conflict between north and south. While the number of dead was appallingly large – Dikötter cites Thomas Rawski’s cumulative total of 400,000 — it was a far cry from the tens of millions who died during the imperial rebellions of the mid-nineteenth century.
Before the 1937 Sino-Japanese War, the famines and dislocations that occurred were, as Amartya Sen might argue, mitigated by an active free press and representative institutions that, while far from perfect, were far ahead of any other country outside of Europe and North America. Moreover, the economy and calorie consumption grew steadily throughout the republican period. These advances were reversed by the massive economic and nutritional setback of the Second World War and the long Maoist era that only ended in 1978.
China’s administrative state also improved dramatically during the republican years, thanks in part to the diffusion of knowledge from agencies largely staffed by European civil servants. Rightly seen as a blow to Chinese sovereignty, these agencies eventually trained a large cadre of Chinese personnel in the art of managing a modern state.
Perhaps the most impressive strides were intellectual and economic. Dikötter is too careful a historian to draw any sweeping conclusions, so I’ll do it for him: China’s experience during the first era of globalization demonstrates the extent to which the rise of the CCP represented a devastating blow to human progress. The fact that the CCP loosened its grip in the last decades of the 20th century doesn’t change the fact that it has caused more death and destruction than almost any other modern political movement. Incredibly, our understanding of republican China has nevertheless been largely shaped by the CCP and its admirers.