Eighty years after the Long March, Professor Rana Mitter of Oxford’s China Centre considers what lies ahead for a nation Mao would barely recognise.

China's new long marchBy John Garth

Eighty years ago Chinese communists embarked on what became known as the Long March — a 6,000-mile trek that established Mao Zedong’s leadership and laid the foundations for Communist rule in China. Now it is an economic superpower Mao would barely have recognised. What lies ahead? Where will China’s long march take it over the coming decades? This is one of the questions that Oxford’s China Centre was set up to examine. Its director Rana Mitter, Professor of the History and Politics of Modern China, considers the evidence.

He is speaking from the Dickson Poon Building, set up as a collaboration between the University and St Hugh’s College, sponsored by a Hong Kong philanthropist and opened last month by the Duke of Cambridge. Housed within, the six-year-old China Centre offers Oxford’s characteristic depth and breadth of study and a vital alternative to what is on offer in the United States and East Asia.

‘In the West, North America has probably had the most extensive tradition of studying China since the 20th century, but the geopolitics of two major powers sometimes bump up against one another,’ he says. ‘In China itself, closeness can create difficulty in seeing the wider view — and there are still restrictions on how you can examine it. One of the things you have to do to understand Chinese politics is to step outside China. We provide a third way.’

China's new long march

Barriers to understanding extend beyond language, distance and cultural difference, he says. ‘China doesn’t always do itself any favours. Its ability to present itself in a positive way to the outside world has been hampered by lack of experience and because it’s still hidebound by a political culture more inclined to tell people what to think rather than persuade them.’

That is despite making a volte face on economics. ‘China today is ruled by something that calls itself the Chinese Communist Party but looks like no communist party in the classic sense that anyone has seen on earth,’ says Professor Mitter (pictured right). ‘It’s possibly one of the most capitalist places on the planet.’

He cites achievements including 95 per cent literacy rates and the lifting of millions of people out of absolute poverty, but says traditional social values have been left so far behind that China now struggles to build a ‘comprehensive narrative of where they are and where they are going’. Within living memory it has seen communist revolution; the Cultural Revolution that overturned the communist establishment; Deng Xiaoping’s reintroduction of capitalism; a liberal era smashed in Tiananmen Square in 1989; then an unexpected rise to global power. Pride in this rise is tinged with uncertainty. ‘People tend to be very fearful of the idea of luan, chaos or disorder. Many of the things that ought to be stable points of reference in China have simply disappeared without trace over the years.’

It is this economic rise that should ensure a Soviet-style collapse is not on the cards for China – it can satisfy basic and other consumer needs. Despite the ‘Great Firewall of China’ that censors elements of the internet, there is no barrier to Chinese people travelling the world. Their choices are vastly wider than those available a generation ago and many feel their political position is ‘an acceptable bargain’, says Professor Mitter.

Hong Kong’s democracy protests are unlikely to persuade Beijing into a U-turn over electoral changes, he says, though he thinks behind-the-scenes compromise very possible. On the other hand, any progress on democratic rights there will have scant impact on what happens in the rest of China because both the mainland and Hong Kong see themselves as involved in separate conversations.

On aspects of the justice system, such as penal reform, Professor Mitter can picture ‘relatively slow but real change’. But he rules out a systemic change which would lead to an independent judiciary with oversight over government. ‘That is a red line for the Chinese Communist Party who make it clear the party has to sit above any other entity within society.’

Prospects of positive outcomes for ethnic minorities such as the Uighur Muslims look slight. The official line against terrorism is actually often directed, very successfully, at shaping public opinion against non-violent separatism. ‘Different ethnic groups with alternative visions of their political future are not likely to get a very sympathetic hearing either from the Chinese government or the wider public.’

Labour issues arising from Chinese involvement in Africa are more complex, says Professor Mitter. ‘There is not one story of China in Africa — there are 50 or more, because in different countries China has had to adapt in different ways. Where China is the only player in town, they’ve had more leeway to do what they want.’ Chinese investors have a very different yardstick for labour conditions. ‘Factories in China are often very unsafe, there’s a great deal of environmental pollution, many workers die young of lung disease. What’s happening to the workers in African mines doesn’t look that different to Chinese investors from what happens at home.’

If this and so much else about China seems reminiscent of Victorian Britain, that is a comparison not lost on China’s own historians and policy-makers. Eric Hobsbawm’s Marxist histories of the era are read widely in academe there. Professor Mitter keeps an open mind on what this may augur. ‘It’s not in any sense clear that the short-term direction of development in China is in a liberal direction. That said, you might have been hard-pressed to go to Manchester in 1852 and argue that Britain would look as it did at the end of World War 2, with the emergence of a liberal welfare state.’ China looks ‘monumentally different’ to what it did forty years ago. ‘Another 20 years might lead to a similarly spectacular set of changes which we haven’t yet foreseen.’

China is at a fascinating and fragile juncture, urgently pushing its economic growth while aware that its bonds are brittle. The world cannot afford to ignore it, but Professor Mitter urges that conflicting interests can be mediated much more skilfully than in the past. ‘It is important to have some understanding of where Chinese viewpoints and attitudes are coming from — an informed debate rather than two sides simply shouting past each other. By setting up the China Centre, we’re hoping we’ll be one of those hubs where people can draw on detailed, rigorous knowledge to use as part of those wider conversations with China.’

Images: Nights in Shanghai by Mariusz Kluzniak under Creative Commons licence. Portrait of Professor Rana Mitter by John Cairns.