Palgrave Macmillan Author Perspectives

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The European dimension of China’s great transition

Author of Britain, France, West Germany and the People's Republic of China, 1969–1982Martin Albers, discusses the influences behind his book.

While my new book on the history of Sino-European relations deals with the period between 1969 and 1982, I actually start with the biography of my wife, who was born ten years later. For on a micro-level her story illustrates the fundamental change that China has undergone in the past 40 years. When she was small, her family would grow vegetables and keep chickens in the backyard not as a sign of postmodernist, degrowth lifestyle but as essential compliment to their normal diet. Eating meat was a luxury. There was only one room in the house she shared with her parents and everybody in the neighbourhood had to use communal showers to wash. Transport was basically still dependent on muscular force and a bicycle was a highly valued piece of household equipment. This was the early 1990s in a small provincial town in Shandong province. 

Yet change had started to set in, even in a corner that seemed centuries away from the already bustling megacities of Shanghai and Shenzhen. When she was six years old, the combustion engine entered her family’s life as her father bought his first motorcycle, much admired by relatives and neighbours alike. By the time the family bought its first car, their living standards had essentially reached Western levels with a three-bedroom flat, and all electric household appliances from freezer to TV – including the obligatory rice cooker. Less than ten years later, the young Chinese student from a country town travelled to Europe for the first time, to begin her studies in the west of Germany. Though her grades were good the main reason for her being able to study along peers who had grown up under entirely different conditions was not so much a particular talent, gift or extraordinarily hard work. Rather it reflected, in one individual story the effects of three decades of break-neck economic growth and increasing international connections at nearly all social levels.

The underlying story of China’s radical transition and opening has been told many times. Yet it remains one of the most unlikely and incredible processes of the recent past, essential for making sense of today’s world and for grasping the future scenarios that seem possible. How this came about cannot be understood without looking at the historical and political context at the time. So far, the still brief international history of China’s rise has been mostly told from an American perspective. But while Sino-American relations have been and still are a crucial factor of China’s reform process, there is also a European dimension of this process that has been mostly overlooked and deserves more attention. This becomes clear if one considers that the European Union today is China’s most important overseas market, a crucial source of FDI and the number one destination of Chinese exchange students.

While researching for my book I wanted to shed new light on this European dimension of China’s transition and its origins. I therefore compare how the governments of Britain, France and West Germany reacted to the political changes in China during the 1970s and how they sought to influence the course of the beginning reforms under Deng Xiaoping. Owing to their distinct political situations and the different legacies of earlier periods of imperialism in Asia, the three governments developed very particular approaches in dealing with China. While Hong Kong always was a key factor for British China policy, for example, France concentrated on developing the People’s Republic as a market for its own strategic industries including nuclear and military technology. West Germany, finally, was bound by the imperatives of Cold War politics in Europe and was therefore prevented from playing an openly political role in East Asia. Instead the government in Bonn concentrated on a low-profile kind of cooperation with a strong economic edge and projects of small scale development aid.

Yet, despite these differences, all three governments made important contributions to the People’s Republic ending its self-imposed isolation and opening itself to the world. They did so by directly providing economic support, developing mutually beneficial trade relations and by working as stabilising factors in the international system. Given the current rise of tensions, nationalism and protectionism in Asia and elsewhere, this story of cross-cultural cooperation thus also holds various lessons to serve as inspiration for today.

 Martin's book, Britain, France, West Germany and the People's Republic of China, 1969–1982, is available now. 

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