The implications for Britain and the west of the rise of China are debated intensely today. Yet
we can find a similarly intense version of this debate over a century ago.
As Professor Peter Cain of Sheffield Hallam University puts it, China has been viewed by many in the west as “a potential economic giant for a very long time”. His research has focused on the reception of a book published in 1893 by CH Pearson, entitled National Life and Character.
Pearson, a former education minister in Australia, discussed what he saw as the consequences of ever increasing western engagement with Asian and other societies. This, he believed, would transform the balance of global power and undermine British society. The west’s ‘civilising mission’, he claimed, contained the seeds of its own destruction.
Pearson’s views on growing Chinese economic success will sound familiar to anyone listening to current debates about globalisation. He believed, says Peter Cain, that China’s “low wages and incredible industriousness would drive the white man out of even the most skilled jobs eventually”.
One approving reviewer of Pearson’s book saw this as part of a pattern in which less developed societies would emulate and then overtake the west, creating a “black Manchester at Timbuctoo, a brown Liverpool at Rio de Janeiro, and a yellow New York at Hong Kong or Shanghai”.
Pearson saw Chinese power as cultural as well as economic. He was strongly opposed to Chinese migration to Australia because it might lead to Chinese dominance. He argued that, as China grew, its prestige would rise and intermarriage between British and Chinese elites might occur. Some commentators on his book argued that mass immigration of Chinese into Britain could have similar effects.
Pearson’s view of Chinese influence was fundamentally pessimistic, an inferior culture overwhelming British character he thought vulnerable due to increasing democracy. This was seen, argues Cain, as snuffing out “the individualism that had made Britain great”.
In the end, Pearson foresaw a new ‘Dark Age’ for the west, “probably one as long as that which followed the collapse of Rome”. Whereas today’s western China-watchers fret about the potential success of China’s model of economic prowess without democracy, in the 1890s Pearson saw western democracy as part of the problem.
While Pearson’s views had many enthusiastic admirers, there were significant critics too. Some pointed to China’s military weakness, exemplified by its defeat by Japan in 1895. Japan seemed to be the rising power in Asia, though too small to threaten broader global domination.
Others, such as the great British imperial figure Lord Curzon, thought China culturally incapable of absorbing ideas and technical knowledge necessary for economic progress without western dominance, and too fragmented to aspire to great power.
Another fascinating response to Pearson’s views was that of commentators Benjamin Kidd and William Clarke. They agreed that Chinese growth could devastate British industry, but believed, says Cain, that this would turn Britain “into a service economy dominated by financial capitalists who would control Chinese and world development”. Today’s London-based financiers busily opening branches in Shanghai might readily concur.
In the early 1900s, British attention moved from China as more pressing matters intervened. Germany, with its sudden increase in economic power, was a problem closer to home. But the question raised by Pearson – what would happen if China became a global power – has never disappeared.
Setting aside his racism and hostility towards democracy, concludes Peter Cain, it can be argued that Pearson was “on the right lines in his geopolitical thinking”. China’s rise was always going to be about much more than China itself. And debate about the future of the east has revealed too the often pessimistic mood of the west when contemplating its long term prospects.
Chris Bowlby is a presenter on BBC radio, specialising in history
This series is produced with History & Policy. You can find out more about them and read their papers at www.historyandpolicy.org