CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 26, June 2011


China's Prosperous Age: A Century in the Making | China Heritage Quarterly

China's Prosperous Age: A Century in the Making

William C. Kirby
Harvard University

This essay is based on the author's presentation at the 'Shengshi Zhongguo 盛世中国 Flourishing China, myths and realities' forum at The Association for Asian Studies annual conference, 31 March 2011.—The Editor

I should like to thank Geremie Barmé for convening this stimulating roundtable. The concept of a 'prosperous age' has great historical, intellectual and cultural power. I should like here to address it in a more material sense: how did the China we know today come to 'flourish'?

Coming to terms with a shengshi Zhongguo is a challenge for all who grew up knowing a poor, fractured China that viewed 'prosperity' almost exclusively in terms of fuqiang 富强, or the wealth and power of the state, not in regard to popular welfare. This was a militarizing, industrializing, terrorizing state that presided over a China that seemed anything but prosperous or flourishing.

Yet the idea of a materially flourishing China must be less of a challenge for our students. They arrive in China at magnificent airports the likes of which they will never see in their home countries. They travel across the land by hexie 和谐, or 'harmonious' train lines at some three-hundred kilometers per hour. They study at new Chinese campuses, with facilities of which American and European universities can only dream. And they can shop anywhere from Huaihai Road in Shanghai to Liberation Square in Chongqing in a wealth of international and Chinese stores catering to an increasingly affluent Chinese middle class.

That middle class has visions of a prosperous country not unlike those widely held in the United States in the 1950s: a home that one owns (eighty percent of middle class families do, and mostly without mortgage); a car to drive (thirty percent do, and the rest will); a national network of modern highways on which to drive; and a college education for one's child.[1] This middle class lives in a country that seems strong, with a powerful government, appears respected in the world, and for the first extended time in its modern history faces no real external threats to its security. How can this not be a prosperous age?

Hence the rise of the 'Rise of China' books that can be found in libraries and airport kiosks around the world, with titles such as The Dragon Awakes; China's Rise; The Rise of China; China's Ascent; As China Goes, So Goes the World; and, most forcefully, When China Rules the World (!).[2] Yet to judge from books published many decades ago, China's 'rise' is perhaps not so recent. From the turn of the last century, there was a robust market for books with such titles as The Dragon Awakes; China Awakened; Sun Yat Sen and the Awakening of China; Rising China; and, my early favorite of this genre, New Forces in Old China: An Unwelcome but Inevitable Awakening.[3] Perhaps this is why being a China scholar is such easy work: all of the books written today were already written decades ago.

Fig.1 Strategic Plan for Building the Nation (Jianguo Fanglüe 建國方略) proposed in the 1920s

If we are now in an Age of Prosperity or, as President Hu Jintao has frequently remarked, an age of China's Restoration (fuxing 复兴), how do we understand it in historical terms? While many who study Chinese politics or economics today assume (as does the official government line) that China's 'rise' is but thirty years old, beginning with the re-ascent of Deng Xiaoping in 1978, we should know better. To understand this flourishing age, we must comprehend a century of a rising China. For if China's Age of Prosperity is to define in some measure the twenty-first century, it is because of its recovery and rise in the twentieth century.

China is home to an ancient civilization, but 'China' as a country and a project, is arguably but one hundred years old.[4] The Great Qing Empire fell and was replaced by the Republic of China, Asia's first republic. Early on, there was the prospect of democracy. That did not happen, as from President Yuan Shikai on, Chinese politics took a decidedly military turn. Yet China's militarization under the Republic allowed it to become, by 1945, what it was not in 1911: a great power, one that could not be defeated by any other power, be it Japan, in the Second World War, or the United States, shortly thereafter in Korea. (Just compare the length and outcomes of the first and second Sino-Japanese Wars.) As surely as China's current claims to Southeast Asian islands rest on Republican-era maps, China's comparative military strength has been a century in the making.

A century ago, China was also on the edge of a revolution in business. This is the story of the first 'golden age' of Chinese capitalism. (We are living in the second.) It was rooted in economic activity that spread outward from Shanghai, China's hub of international trade and investment, in an age when Shanghai—not Tokyo, not Hong Kong—was at the business and cultural crossroads of Asia, and when Shanghai gave birth to China's first modern middle class. Today's middle and business classes are perhaps not so much new as renewed.

I was reminded of this in January 2010, when I was in Manchuria, at a place called Yabuli, for the tenth anniversary of the Chinese Entrepreneurs' Forum (Zhongguo qiyejia luntan 中国企业家论坛), celebrating a 'golden decade' of private Chinese enterprise, from 2000 to 2010. It was attended by many of the most extraordinary and inventive entrepreneurs in the world—all of them Chinese. The Forum's leader, Mr. Chen Dongsheng 陈东升, Chairman of the Taikang Insurance Company 泰康人寿保险股份有限公司, devoted his keynote speech to the continuity of Chinese entrepreneurship over time. He focused on the first flourishing of modern Chinese business, in the 1910s, 20s and 30s, and especially on what he called the first 'golden decade' for business under Nationalist rule in Nanjing, from 1927 to 1937.

I thought further of continuities in Chinese business when researching a Harvard Business School case on the Wanxiang Group 万向集团 and its chairman, Mr. Lu Guanqiu 鲁冠球. Mr. Lu was born in the Republican era, outside Hangzhou, in Zhejiang province, a place that, then as now, was an incubator of entrepreneurship. Mr. Lu was born to be a businessman. Unfortunately for him, he came of age in the worst decades of modern Chinese history to start a business. Yet after repeated efforts he and his family founded a 'commune and brigade enterprise' (shedui qiye 社队企业) in 1969 that has grown into China's largest automobile parts manufacturer and is now a global company with ownership of at least fifteen North American firms. Founded in a People's Commune, it is today a powerful, family-held conglomerate. What was the secret of Mr. Lu's success? In public, he credits the Chinese government. When less discrete, he gives a historical view: 'We joke that as long as there is a human race there will be Chinese. Well, as long as there is a market, then you will have people from Zhejiang.'[5]

A third area where China was on the cusp of a revolution a century ago was that of higher education. In the first half of the twentieth century, China developed one of the more dynamic systems of higher education in the world, with strong, state-run institutions (Peking University, Jiaotong University, National Central University, and at the apogee of research, the Academia Sinica), accompanied by a creative set of private colleges and universities (Tsinghua College, Yenching University, St. John's University and Peking Union Medical College, to name but a few). All this would be swept away in the late 1950s and 1960s, and China's educated human capital would be wasted for several decades. But not forever. The traditions and memories of excellence remained, and they have helped to fuel the recent, extraordinary growth, in size and quality, of Chinese universities, as the recent centenary celebrations at Tsinghua University have made clear.[6]

Fig.2 Jianguo Fanglüe 建國方略

Finally, let us recall that ninety years ago Sun Yat-sen set forth his vision of China's physical transformation through the 'international development of China,' including the building of 100,000 miles of railways; the construction of one million miles of highway; the manufacture of automobiles so inexpensively that every Chinese 'who wishes it, may have one'; the construction of enormous ports; the colonization of Mongolia, Xinjiang and Tibet; and the erection of a major dam in the Three Gorges of the Yangzi River. These dreams became plans under Guomindang and Communist rule. They are the foundation of the modern Chinese developmental state. Today, almost all members of China's political leadership are trained engineers, committed to the physical transformation of the country. Sun also bequeathed to his heirs a Leninist party (two, in fact). The combination of engineering ambition and Leninist control has helped to define today's China, with an infrastructure state unleashed and unchecked.[7]

Missing in this chronology of continuity is the name of the man who once claimed China had 'stood up'. The catastrophic misrule of Mao Zedong left remarkably little, in material terms, that endures today. He presided not over China's reemergence as a power, but over its dangerous isolation in global affairs. He inaugurated not an Age of Prosperity but a generation of self-destruction, terror, famine and impoverishment. As postwar East Asia prospered, China declined. When one marvels at China's development today, just think of where it might have been without Mao Zedong.

And yet one occasionally hears nostalgic yearnings for that less prosperous age, when shared suffering was the norm and inequality seemingly small—nostalgia for a time when life was simple and crime seemed low. (Perhaps that is what happens when the government is run by criminals.) Let us remember, however, that in Mao's China, inequality was less a measure of income than of status and privilege, and indeed, of life and death. To be alive, it seems, is a precondition for prosperity.

Related material in this issue of China Heritage Quarterly:


[1] For a stimulating set of papers, see Cheng Li, ed., China's Emerging Middle Class: Beyond Economic Transformation, Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 2010.

[2] See Lawrence E. Grinter, ed., The Dragon Awakes, United States Air Force Air University, 1999; C. Fred Bergsten, et al., China's Rise: Challenges and Opportunities, Washington: Peterson Institute, 2008; Minqi Li, The Rise of China and the Demise of the Capitalist World Economy, London: Pluton Press, 2008; Robert S. Ross and Zhu Feng, eds., China's Ascent, Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2008; Karl Gerth, As China Goes, So Goes the World: How Chinese Consumers are Transforming Everything, New York: Hill & Wang, 2010; and, Martin Jacques, When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order, New York: Penguin, 2009.

[3] Aage Krarup-Nielsen, The Dragon Awakes, London: J. Lane, 1928; Min-ch'ien T. A. Tyau, China Awakened, New York: Macmillan, 1922; James Cantlie, Sun Yat Sen and the Awakening of China, New York: F.H. Revell, 1912; William F. Burbidge, Rising China, London: J. Crowther, 1943; and, Arthur Judson Brown, New Forces in Old China: An Unwelcome but Inevitable Awakening, New York: F.H. Revell, 1904.

[4] See William C. Kirby, 'When Did China Become China? Thoughts on the Twentieth Century', in Joshua A. Fogel, ed., The Teleology of the Modern Nation-State, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005, pp.105-114.

[5] 'Wanxiang Group: A Chinese Company's Global Strategy,' Harvard Business School Case 308-058 (2008).

[6] For background see William C. Kirby, 'On Chinese, European and American Universities', Daedalus: Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 137, no. 3 (Summer 2008).

[7] Sun Yat-sen, The International Development of China, London, 1922, esp. pp.4-5, 66-67 & 192.