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Is China a victim or a conqueror? Historian Timothy Brook on the past and future of the ‘Great State’

Podcast & Video

This episode of Hub Dialogues features host Sean Speer in conversation with Timothy Brook, a University of British Columbia history professor and leading thinker and scholar on China, about his fascinating book, Great State: China and the World.

They discuss how China’s history, particularly the Mongol conquests, has shaped its present, including its own self-conception. They also touch on the future of the country and whether China has already reached its peak as a global power.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, Spotify, or YouTube. A transcript of the episode is available below.

SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues. I’m your host, Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honoured to be joined today by Timothy Brook, who is a historian at the University of British Columbia, and a leading thinker and scholar on China, including, but hardly limited to, the Ming Dynasty between the 14th and 17th centuries. He’s also the author of several articles and books, including his most recent, Great State: China and the World, which is currently out in paperback. I’m grateful to speak to him about the book, its key findings, and their relevance to the present and future of China. Tim, thank you for joining us at Hub Dialogues, and congratulations on the book.

TIMOTHY BROOK: Sean, it’s a pleasure to be here. Thank you.

SEAN SPEER: As a young person, you were drawn to Chinese history, politics, and culture. I read somewhere that you first visited in 1974 and were essentially hooked. What drew you to the field? What has caused you to dedicate so much of your professional life to studying China?

TIMOTHY BROOK: Well, I think with that decision, as with most decisions in one’s lives, you make them as they come along, and you’re not really sure what you’re doing. I was at university, I was at the University of Toronto as an undergraduate, doing English literature and a range of other courses. And then I got interested in Zen philosophy, largely as the result of being in touch with other people who are interested in that sort of thing. This is the early 1970s. It was very popular, but there was no course on Zen Buddhism at the University of Toronto in the early 1970s. There was a course in Chinese Buddhism. I took that course, and while the subject interested me, the professor, Leonard Priestley, was charismatic, brilliant, delightful, so calm, so thoughtful, so engaged with his teaching. I was hooked.

As a result of that, I thought, “Alright, I’ll take some courses in Chinese philosophy.” And then I realized that if I took the courses on philosophy but had no idea what the words were saying, so that was kind of fruitless. So, I started taking first-year Chinese, I dropped it after about eight weeks; it was too difficult. I had other courses.

But the following summer, the University of Toronto offered an introductory Chinese language course. I signed up for that, took it, and really I’ve never turned back. I had a wonderful accord with the students. I got interested in the language. It’s so different from any European language. I love the calligraphy and so, as an undergraduate student, I just got drawn into Chinese culture and the questions it raised and then the questions that you could ask about it that were so different from the questions that I inherited as the child of a Brit and a Canadian who was steeped in European culture but knew very little about Asia.

SEAN SPEER: I mentioned in my introduction, your latest book, Great State: China and the World, which is widely regarded as a key contribution to the historiography of China. But we’re having this conversation days after President Xi’s election for a third term. Why is studying Chinese history important to understanding China’s present? 

TIMOTHY BROOK: I think it’s essential in two different ways, and it depends on who the audience is. It’s essential for people outside China to have a knowledge of China that isn’t just sort of the rote stuff you get in textbooks about the dynasties and so forth. But that’s going to give you a more intimate sense of what it means to be Chinese and to have Chinese history behind you, giving you the questions and answers that you apply to everyday life. 

If you’re Chinese, however, I also think knowing history is important because the Chinese are being deprived of their history. Under the current rulership of Xi Jinping, there’s a concerted attempt to impose a narrative in which China always has been on the side of the angels, Chinese have always been united as Chinese people with a common shared identity, and they’ve been doing this for 5,000 years as the cliche goes. When in fact, Chinese history is as fraught, as full of conflict, as global as everyone else’s history.

So, in a sense with Great State, I’m trying to reach two audiences. I’m not going to be able to reach the Chinese audience very well, because a couple of Chinese publishers approached me and then they quickly realized “Ooh, that’s not a book that’s going to pass the censors.” It’s coming out in Chinese, however, in Taiwan at the end of January, so I will get a Chinese readership, and I’ll be interested to see what they say. 

But really, what I’m trying to do is I’m trying to reach interested foreign people in the West. And I’m trying to tell stories that don’t require you to know anything about Chinese history. Just enter the situations that I present, meet the people I talk about, think about the things they think about, as a way to sort of try and bring you into China.

Now, if I can go on just a little bit more in relationship to Xi Jinping’s third election, it is that Chinese history, I think, helps us to understand what’s going on and what’s been going on over the last two centuries. 

As listeners will no doubt know that there was an important turning point in 1840, when Britain launched a war against China in order to open it up for trade purposes, the Opium War. Chinese history since then has been written as a history of victimization at the hands of the West. There is an element of that in the last two centuries of Chinese history. But China itself is an empire. You don’t grow to be the fourth largest country in the world, no country grows that big without absorbing, conquering, taking over parts of the world that were not part of the original experiment or culture that was China. 

And so, what I’m trying to do in the book is walk this fine line between China as having been imposed upon by external forces, and China as in turn imposing upon the world around it. I’m trying to find a balance between, if you like, China as a victim and China as a conqueror. It’s a bit of a challenge, but we’ll see what the readership thinks. It just came out in paperback, so I’m hopeful to reach a larger readership.

SEAN SPEER: That’s just a brilliant answer, Tim, and so many different strings that I’m keen to pull on. Let’s stick to the prospective Chinese reader for now. As you mentioned, Chinese history is complicated. In China, there’s only been a recent reckoning, for instance, of the role of Chinese nationalists in modern China’s conception. How much of your history would be familiar to the average Chinese person, and what parts of it may be controversial if tested against the country’s myths and narratives?

TIMOTHY BROOK: Most of it will be familiar, although the stories I tell are all slightly eccentric. So, for example, I deal with the Japanese occupation of China during World War Two through the trial of a collaborator and the lawyer who defended him after the war was over. And it’s my way of saying, “Okay, once the war was over, what was at stake?” At stake was how you are going to construct the memory of that war. Who are the good guys? Who are the bad guys? What side are we on? And how do we use that to demonize people we don’t like?

So, overall, the Chinese are going to recognize that I talked about the Han Dynasty, the Ming Dynasty, the Qing Dynasty, the Republic. I just briefly touch on the People’s Republic at the end of the book. But I think they’re going to be completely surprised by the stories I tell. 

And the most surprising thing in the book, and it’s even a really a challenge for my colleagues, for other Chinese historians, to completely take on board, I’m trying to suggest that rather than think of the last 2,000 years of Chinese history as the history of the Chinese Empire, founded in 221 BCE and then collapsing in 1911, I’m arguing that in the middle of that period, a little past the middle in the 13th century, when the Mongols occupied China, Chinese history was fundamentally ruptured so that it’s not just one dynasty after another repeating what the previous dynasties did. When the Mongols come in, they changed the political order in a fundamental way.

The Chinese emperor was always understood to be the son of heaven, kind of the only person who could ritually approach heaven. He was endowed with a certain amount of institutional charisma. But when the Mongols come in, they really changed that model and the person who changed the model is Genghis Khan. 

Now it’s Genghis Khan’s grandson Kublai who conquers China, but Genghis Khan, early in the 13th century, really reconceptualized what it meant to be the ruler of the Mongols. His first step was unifying the Mongols under his rule, and then he declared that the sovereignty he could exercise was potentially infinite. So, he started expanding. He expanded into East Turkistan, he expanded into Tibet, he expanded into, well, his grandson expanded into China, they expanded as far as Hungary and Poland. They understood that to be a great Khan was to have the authority of heaven to rule the world. The model in Mongol was called yeke ulus: ulus means country, yeke means large or great. And so, this concept of the yeke ulus which I translate as the “Great State”, this becomes the model for rulers. 

It’s a model that when the Mongols are kicked out after centuries, the Chinese take over power, the Ming Dynasty starts. But the founding emperor was completely absorbed with this idea of being a great Khan. For him, Khublai was the greatest ruler in history, and he modeled himself on that. Now that model begins to weaken during the Ming era and then the Qing arrives, the Manchus arrived, they invade China in 1644, and they sort of reinvoke the Great State, reinvoked the status of the Great Khan. They sort of do it tenfold, and over the course of the 17th and 18th centuries, they expand across most of the Asian portion of Eurasia and they conquer enormous territories.

When China falls apart in 1911, the Chinese who pick up the pieces inherit this empire, and because the word “empire” is so loaded with global politics, it’s a European term, I prefer to use the term “Great State.” China in 1911 inherits this Great State, and they decide, “Well, we’re not going break it up and just take the Chinese portion. We’re keeping the whole thing.” And this is important.

I mean, this sounds a bit academic, but this is really important because I would argue that, aside from a few self-imposed famines and institutional cockups since 1949, most of China’s problems derived from the fact that it has inherited this Great State. So, they’ve had problems with the Mongols, problems with the Uyghurs, problems with the Tibetans. They’ve had problems on every border, problems with Russia, problems with India, recurring problems with India that they can’t seem to solve, problems with Vietnam. And the border that creates so much trouble for them is the border that was put into place by the Great State. 

For most Chinese to even raise this idea of a Great State is completely puzzling. It’s not a concept that means anything to them. It’s not a concept they’ve heard about. But if you go back and look carefully at the history of all of this, you realize that the world changed fundamentally, the Chinese world changed fundamentally. And I think as long as that’s not acknowledged, Chinese just think, “Oh, well, we’ve ruled the Uyghurs since time immemorial. We’ve ruled Tibet since time immemorial. All those nations in Southeast Asia that are competing with us over the South China Sea have no right to do that because we are China.” But I would rephrase that: “because we are the Great State, and they should defer to our power.” Now, I don’t want to offer this as an attack on China. What I’m trying to do is introduce some historical knowledge that will help both Chinese and non-Chinese have some kind of a grasp on what is going on at the moment. 

Now the Communist Party tried to break this sort of political style by imposing term limits on their leaders, but Xi Jinping has decided “no time limits on me.” And in fact, there are no time limits on a Great Khan. The Great Khan rules until he dies or is assassinated. That’s the course Xi Jinping has taken. Xi Jinping has no idea that this comes to him from the Mongols. To be fair enough, I mean, you only need to look at Putin and Russia. You could look at Trump in the United States. You could look at any number of world rulers at the moment who would like the idea of being permanent rulers. But I would say also that Putin’s idea of being a lifelong ruler comes to him as well from this Great State because Russia was a break-off from the Mongol state in the 14th century.

SEAN SPEER: You talk a bit there, Tim, about the geographic and political expressions of this Great State inheritance and some of the challenges that it has posed for China over the years. To what extent though does it also capture something of the country’s expansionary ambitions? How much of President Xi’s current vision should be understood as a modern expression of this historical impulse? In other words, how much does this history motivate him?

TIMOTHY BROOK: Well, Sean, I think you’ve come to the crux of the issue here. It motivates him a great deal. Now Chinese like to tell each other that China has never invaded another country, which is raving nonsense. But it’s one of those—every country has these sorts of precious things that they like to think about themselves, and that’s one thing the Chinese like. In fact, as I suggested earlier, China has only grown through a process of invasion and incorporation. 

Now, I think under earlier communist rulers there was a sense that they will defend their borders, as those borders existed in 1949, but that they will not seek to project power too much outside those borders. Now, I mean, even as I say that, I begin to think of exceptions. Chairman Mao Zedong was interested in supporting communist movements in the Third World. This wasn’t explicitly in order to establish Chinese supremacy over those areas, but you could argue that there is a certain kind of Chinese interest behind what Mao was doing by supporting them. In Xi Jinping’s case, the power that China is exerting to control other countries is really quite extraordinary. It’s not what the Mongols would have done; they would have gotten their horses and ridden off and taken control of an area. China isn’t quite doing that. 

China is doing it differently through debt diplomacy. This was a tactic that Britain used in 19th century and that the United States used in the 20th century. The Soviet Union as well, when it was still the Soviet Union. You set up trading relationships that create debt, and that debt then allows you to control local politics in whatever place you happen to be involved in. Well, China has been doing this consistently now for the last 10 years: extending huge loans, infrastructure loans, that when the country receiving it can’t pay it off, they write off and then they extend another level. Through debt dependency, they are creating these pockets of dependency on China and from South America, all the way around the Indian Ocean to countries in Eastern Europe. 

So, this is not quite the Great State as the Mongols invented it, but there is a sense of maybe it’s a conflation here. It’s both a Great State idea combined with a kind of 19th-century great power notion that if you can do something, you go ahead and do it. You act unilaterally and you pursue the needs and desires of your state before you take account of the needs of the regions into which you are going. China is in a disturbingly expansionary mood at the moment, and it’s got everyone on every border around China anxious about what the future holds.

SEAN SPEER: You raised in a previous answer the subject of historical grievance. It’s something I want to take up. One thing that struck me both about your book and some of your accompanying commentary is the role that historical grievances have played in Chinese nationalism, which in turn has provided something of a permission structure to President Xi’s crackdowns and illiberalism—a sense that, in effect, that foreign invasion interference has stood in the way as you say, of Chinese greatness. What are some of the key sources of grievance in China’s national history or national story?

TIMOTHY BROOK: The chief source of grievance are the Opium Wars in the 1840s and 1850s. This is when Britain pushed its way in, forced China to allow it to eventually establish an embassy in China, establish consular officials, allow its traders to come in and trade with relatively little interference in trade. The grievance story is rooted in that story.

It’s very much a retrospective story, because China in the 1840s they had just come through a bad period of environmental collapse. Temperatures got very cold in the 19th century by the 1840s and 1850s. There’s a huge internal rebellion that the government has to suppress. They’re not really in a very strong position to negotiate with outsiders who are trying to push their way in. 

In the 1870s and the 1880s, China begins to rebuild itself, often trying to use the technology and the ideas coming in from the West; to marry those ideas with Chinese ideas and try and rebuild China. Japan was very successful in this process and China was coming along quite nicely. But in a sense, Japan overtook China so that when China and Japan came into conflict in 1894, Japan won. This was a deep humiliation. This would then be repeated in World War Two when Japan invades China. The atrocities that Japan committed during World War Two in China are a shocking record. I think the Chinese have every reason to remember those atrocities and feel that they were not adequately recognized and compensated for. 

On the other hand, when Chinese tell this story of grievance, they don’t much refer to Japan, and it seems to me there’s a kind of interesting displacement that’s gone on here. Somehow, it’s safer to blame Britain and France and Germany because it’s a long way in the past and it has no immediate consequences. It’s just this kind of sense of grievance that you can tell. China’s greatest economic competitor at the moment is the United States. Japan is close behind. I would say on Japan’s part that they have apologized, perhaps compensations should have been more than they were, but that got compensated by the Communist revolution.

The grievance story was starting to thin out, I would say, in the 1980s. Then in the early 1990s, it came back with a vengeance post-Tiananmen. Tiananmen in 1989 really knocked China’s reputation badly. And one of the ways in which it started to try and rebuild that reputation was to link with Chinese communities overseas and start telling the grievance story again. So, the Chinese overseas then became activists in saying China has suffered at the hands of the West and so forth. That story then started to fade out again in the 2000s. But in the 2010s, it’s come back, because as you point out, Sean, it gives Xi Jinping kind of carte blanche to do what he wants because he is righting grievances, righting the wrongs in some sense that China have suffered. 

Now the problem with grievance stories—well, grievance stories: everybody loves to feel sorry for themselves. But the problem with grievance stories is it’s usually an incomplete account of the past. China has had great success over the last few centuries. China has industrialized, China has inserted itself into supply chains worldwide, China has amassed the largest holding of foreign currency of any country in the world. So, in another sense, China has been very successful, and there was perhaps some hope on the part of many people, Chinese included, that as China kind of righted itself in the early 2000s, it would move forward and become a full and competing member of the global community. Now, I say global community. Of course, it’s the big countries that get to call the shots. 

But under Xi Jinping, he’s decided to go back to grievance, go back to this sense that China is owed something. He will not stand down any conflict anywhere at the point that China can get what it wants. And so, the way I put it in my book is that China, in the last few years, has gone from Great State in the Asian tradition to great power in the 19th-century sense. It now sees itself as a great power. Of course, it’s facing off against Russia and the United States, and they, to some extent, see themselves as great powers. So, you can’t blame the Chinese entirely for this, but it lends an edge and a tension that I don’t think, in the long run, will serve China’s interests.

SEAN SPEER: I want to shift for the remainder of our conversation to some of the contemporary implications of your historical analysis. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t raise one of the most fascinating findings in the book, which is that you make the case based on historical evidence that like the coronavirus, China may have been the underlying source of the bubonic plague centuries ago. Do you want to talk a bit about the evidence that you brought to bear to reach that conclusion? And what, if any implications there may be?

TIMOTHY BROOK: Well, I’m going to revise your comment a little bit, because the point I make in the book is that the Great Plague when it arrives from Europe arrives from the western zone of the Mongol Empire, the Mongol Great State. So, in fact, and I’ve had to learn to read scientific articles in order to pull this off, which has been an interesting experience—scientists and historians write very differently—but I’m fairly confident that Kyrgyzstan was the initial reservoir of the strains of the plague that infected Europe. They infected Europe because they were traveling along local trade routes and also traveling with Mongol armies. 

Armies are a problem. Armies cause destruction wherever they go, but they also cause ecological destruction, and that sometimes favours certain pathogens. The bubonic plague survived in marmot and rat populations and the disturbances that the Mongol armies created in the landscapes they cross tended to exacerbate the problem of the plague pathogen. Or it strengthened the possibility of the plague pathogen growing in those rodent populations and then also traveling with human populations. The theory was originally put forward some decades ago that China was the source of the plague. And this was all part of the old story of demonizing China as “The Sick Man of Asia,” and so forth. In fact, it comes from Kyrgyzstan. 

What’s interesting about those findings is that China suffered the plague the way that Europe did as well. And for the history of the plague that you can write about Europe, you can write much the same history about China. So, China suffered in the Great Plague. I use this story because one of the themes of the book is that China and the world have always been interconnected. Chinese often like to tell the story of China kind of being closing its borders behind the Great Wall, sufficient unto itself, it doesn’t need to involve itself with the rest of the world. But China has been involved with the world all the time. And so, I use the movement of the plague pathogen around Eurasia as a way of saying, “No, China is not cut off from the rest of the world. China is part of that world. And what happens in China affects Europe and what happens in Europe affects China.”

SEAN SPEER: We’ve been talking so far about your masterful history of China. I want to shift a bit to China’s own conception of history and how that may relate to its current political economy. The Chinese regime is still known as the Communist Party, even though China has come to reconcile itself to something like capitalism. 

A previous Hub Dialogues guest said that the Chinese model is rooted in part by its historic understanding of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Chinese government has sought, according to this line of thinking, to introduce market reform without undermining its non-democratic structure and political system. I guess a two-part question. One, do you agree? And. second, if so, how much should we understand contemporary Chinese domestic and geopolitical actions as an historic interpretation of how to avoid the fate of the Soviet Union?

TIMOTHY BROOK: Well, I think your previous guest has a good point to make. The collapse of that— well, the Soviet Union has always been ahead of China in terms of its internal reforms, and the collapse of the Soviet Union was a wake-up call to Chinese that they should not reform the Communist Party’s control of the country. At the same time, however, China may be the most marketized and most capitalistic country in the world. Whether you call it socialism, well, that’s just a nice word. I mean, it really is state-directed capitalism in which a tiny oligarchy controls most of the financial and physical resources in our country. 

We usually talk about Russia in terms of an oligarchy, I think partly because Russian oligarchs have gotten themselves a bad name by being active in dubious ways around the world. The Chinese oligarchy is much more subtle, but I think if you were to take the members of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party and look at their families, they are the oligarchy that is protecting its power by keeping close party control over the country. But that rhetoric of socialism was the force that saved China from collapse, that rhetoric has been so powerful that most Chinese can’t imagine their way around it. 

China is probably less socialist than Canada. If you were to look at social programs, social welfare, the ability of citizens to interact with the state, China is really a free for all for those with capital. But while there was some loosening of direct party control through the 2000s and the 2010s, that’s been reversed. Xi Jinping realizes that for him and his cohort to stay in power they need an infrastructure of cadres who will make sure that their orders are carried out and understood right down at the lowest neighbourhood level. So, the Chinese Communist Party is alive and well. 

If want to get ahead, if you want to get into law school, if you want to open a drug store, if you want to do anything, you have to join the Communist Party. It would be foolish not to do so because if you don’t join the party, you will be seen as resisting the control of the party. If you do control the party, then you’ll get access to permits, to personnel networks, to tax breaks.

So, I don’t want to sound as cynical as perhaps this is sounding but the Communist Party has a good thing going. It has an enormous surveillance apparatus in operation. The movements of every Chinese is being watched to a level that we can’t even begin to imagine. And as long as everyone’s being watched, anyone who steps out of line can be silenced and the people at the top can continue to rule.

SEAN SPEER: Let me stay on the topic of political economy. China’s economic model, as you said earlier, Tim, has produced tremendous economic gains by mostly copying technology and industrial processes from the Western world. It has effectively caught up by becoming a major manufacturing nation. There’s a view that that model has maxed out and that the test will be if the Chinese model of state-directed capitalism will be able to compete with the liberal capitalist model of innovation, and technology. What’s your take? Is the Chinese model capable of that kind of transition?

TIMOTHY BROOK: Well, this is an interesting problem. China, yes, it’s kind of maxed ou what it’s learned from the West. One of the arrangements in the early joint enterprises between China and foreign countries was that China should have access to all the technology and it then, I would think it’s fair to say, denied any kind of copyright recognition and absorbed that technology and put it to its own use. But China is now starting to reach the point at which its population is aging. The poorer rural surplus labour force that drove China’s economic expansion over the last 20 years is starting to dwindle.

How China’s going to resolve this is a puzzle. I’m not an economist, so I’m not very good at predicting any of this, but China is going to need two things. It’s going to need to continue to have cheap labour because that’s how it’s been able to insert itself in supply chains around the world. Western companies face labour and environmental constraints, which, for the most part, serve the interests of Western countries quite well. And so, Western countries just then go off to China and have it done there because they don’t have the same labour and environmental regulations. So, China has got this problem of dwindling supply of cheap labour. 

And as you point out, there is then the question of where is technology going. Technology is constantly evolving at a rapid rate. Chinese engineers and computer scientists are among the best in the world, but they work within a system in which the sort of—I don’t want to romanticize this—but the kind of individual initiative that often leads to breakthroughs in technologies that are sort of blocked, this is less likely to happen. We shouldn’t say China can’t adapt to this, but China does face these two problems going into the future. So, the prices of Chinese goods are going to rise, and in fact, although we all tend to blame COVID for the current price rise, part of those price rises, I think, are tied to the increasing cost of producing things within the Chinese economy. Those chickens are coming home to roost as it were, and we’re now starting to pay for the real cost of things. Whereas for the last 20 to 30 years, we’ve lived under this sort of cushion of Chinese cheap labour that has allowed us to consume at a certain rate. So, there are going to be many problems to sort out. 

I guess the hope of a historian is that if we can look back and think about how its history has shaped the present, we can all sort of come into conversation with each other about what are the reasonable solutions to the problems we face. Now, China has attempted to make big inroads into environmental degradation, but the fact is, a couple of months every year, the Yellow River, which runs through North China, simply runs dry. There’s no water going into the ocean at the end of the river, and this is a problem that is not soluble within the industrial system that we currently operate. Until and unless it becomes so, China is going to face the constraints that everyone else in this game is facing.

SEAN SPEER: Let me ask a penultimate question that picks up on some of your comments. There’s been a lot of thinking and writing in recent years about whether China can ultimately compete with the West in general, and the U.S. in particular, to become the dominant economic and geopolitical force in the world. If you were creating a pros and cons table, you could probably fill out both sides. But what’s interesting is, as you just outlined, one finds a growing pessimism about China in a lot of Western commentary. Its COVID-19 response, aging demographics, etc., may mean that it maxes out before it finds itself in a position of global dominance. What’s your sense, Tim? Are you long or short China?

TIMOTHY BROOK: Well, one of the basic tools of the historian is the recognition that events can derail what seems to be going in a certain direction and send it in another. So, it’s very difficult for me to say. I would say China faces several problems. We’ve discussed already some of the economic problems. I’ve touched briefly on environmental problems. But there is also a political problem, that as the country gets wealthier, as the middle class reaches a population of a billion, the narrowness of the political control of the system is going to chafe people; there’s going to be an increasing sense of the need to open up the political process. And Xi has been very good at sort of moving Chinese to focus on their history and what they have now. 

But I would say that in the long run, that, and environmental constraints, are going to threaten the Chinese system. It’s inevitable. If we were having this conversation a century from now, I suspect there would be no People’s Republic of China. There will be something else. Who knows what it is? Who knows what the world will look like in a century from now? But I think that if you control something with this kind of intensity, there’s going to be a break somewhere. There’s going to be a rupture, and Jinping’s rulership appears to be secure, but I think it is maybe creating the conditions for its own collapse. 

SEAN SPEER: That leads me to my final question. We’ve had former Canadian ambassador to China, David Mulroney, on the podcast before, and he argues that there’s a lack of Chinese competency in Canadian business, government, and politics. Again, this a two-part question: first, would you agree with his assessment? And, second, if so, besides reading your book, what if anything can be done to address it?

TIMOTHY BROOK: Well, this is an interesting issue, it’s become difficult for me to reflect on what Chinese know or understand about Canada. After the two Michaels were seized as hostages and held for two years and finally released last year, I’m afraid that put me in a rather sour mood, and it put a lot of Canadians in a sour mood. And I think it showed the extent to which China did not understand how to win friends and influence enemies, or whatever that expression is. That doing this, taking citizens of another country hostage in order to solve a diplomatic or business problem, is not a way to go. With that, I think the Xi Jinping regime showed itself to be insensitive to the way in which the world order, or some members of the world order, think the world order should work. 

So, China has really closed itself. Not just for COVID, but for the years leading up to it. Before then, I visited China, Chinese scholars were coming out into the world. But the government really has used COVID as a way of disrupting the open communication between, in this case, Canadians and Chinese. There is almost no conversation going on between the two. Occasionally, we get together on some kind of Zoom platform for a conference. But there is really no candid exchange of ideas because those conferences are being watched very carefully by the Chinese security apparatus. So, the loss for China is that it’s not going to keep up with what’s going on in the world, or it’s going to listen to those it trusts out around the world, and those it trusts are, by and large, overseas Chinese who stand to benefit by maintaining good relations, good political relations, with the People’s Republic of China.

China’s closing in on itself in a way that is not good for China, not good for the world. There is no sign that that’s going to change over the next five years with Xi Jinping continuing his control of the Communist Party. And I worry about that. 

In fact, that was one of the problems in the 19th century, one of China’s failures to respond effectively to the arrival of European capitalism, was its limited amount of knowledge it had about what was going on with the world. You could say the same thing in the 17th century when Europeans first started arriving and the Japanese started arriving in China and the Chinese didn’t have the knowledge base to be able to respond to the new things that were happening around the world. So, I’m concerned that China is closing in on itself and becoming the kind of hermit kingdom that it likes to think it always has been for 5,000 years, and that, my book argues, has not been the case.

SEAN SPEER: That book is Great State: China and the World. University of British Columbia historian, Tim Brook, thank you so much for joining us at Hub Dialogues.

TIMOTHY BROOK: Thank you, Sean. It’s been a pleasure.