A highly readable history of modern China that will answer many questions about the country's development and its current political challenges.
Jonathan Fenby's sweeping history of China covers the modern period from 1850 right up to today, finishing with Xi Jinping (updated in 2019 for the third edition). The book starts by chronicling the last days of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), which featured prominent figures such as the Empress Dowager Cixi who was the power behind the throne for close to five decades.
Upon the collapse of the Qing Dynasty, the country was run by a disparate group of warlords until civil war broke out between the Nationalists, led by Chiang Kai-Shek, and Mao Zedong's Communists. In 1949, the People's Republic of China was declared. Mao's rule, from 1949 to 1976, would see some of the worst crimes against humanity, with millions killed due to unnecessary famine and ideological warfare. Mao's Cultural Revolution tipped China into a veritable state of madness. Mao's successor Deng Xiaoping would start to open up the country's economy and herald a new era of rising wealth. Despite liberalising trade and lifting living standards, politically China remains authoritarian. Many Western thinkers have presumed that China would follow the West into democratic government due to its embrace of capitalism, but this hasn't happened.
China's last 170 years have been turbulent, violent and full of terrible suffering for its people. The humiliations it suffered at the hands of the Japanese and Western powers has left its indelible mark on the nation's psyche. Descriptions of the Nanking Massacre are beyond horrific. Yet despite many decades of tragedy, China has managed to rise and become a formidable global power.
One of the main questions the book raises is the contradiction between China's liberalised economy, which has brought much wealth, and it's autocratic government, with more and more power concentrated in the hands of Xi Jinping. This contradiction is causing much tension in Chinese society and it remains to be seen whether this is sustainable. Will public unrest breakout and destablise the country, or will China retain its repressive government?
For anyone looking for a bracing recent history of China, Jonathan Fenby's brilliant book won't disappoint.
The Penguin History of Modern China, by Jonathan Fenby. Published by Penguin. $35
Review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books