Considering what might have been in history may seem idle speculation, but it can provide some perspective of turning points. Fourteen hundred and seventy years ago, the Tang dynasty’s rapid march westward was halted by defeat at the Battle of Talas (pictured above), now on the Kazakh-Kyrgyz border, by the army of the Arab Abbasid empire – though composed mostly of Persians and Turks and with help from Tibet.
Thus, the Tang failed to conquer a region (southern central Asia) which then might reasonably have been considered the intellectual capital of the world. Its cities – Samarkand, Khiva, Bukhara, Merv, Balkh, etc. – were rich from trade and irrigated land and where literacy and numeracy were unexceptional, where Budddhism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and other religions co-existed and where ideas from Persia, Greece, India, and China had long melded.
This was the land which, among other things, gave us that now most modern word algorithm, a corruption of its 9th century inventor’s name Khwarezmi (after the region of Khwarezm now in Uzbekistan) and other sciences from astronomy to trigonometry and medicine.
It was to be another thousand years before the Qing dynasty emperor Qianlong sought to emulate the Tang, conquering Xinjiang and bringing his frontier to within about 500 kilometers of Talas. Afterwards, he conducted a genocide of the Mongol population of Jungaria, the area of Xinjiang north of the Tianshan mountains, their land being taken over by Kazakh, Uighur and a few Han settlers who remained a small minority until after 1949.
Ebb and flow of peoples and empires, borders, religions, and languages seem endemic to Central Asia. The Qing itself of course met its end 110 years ago, frustration with the lack of royal reform leading to the Wu Chang uprising and the dynasty’s overthrow.
But it would be a mistake to assume what followed was simply a period of warlordism, corruption, and frustration not brought to end until 1949. In fact several pieces of the system which could enable rapid economic development were coming into place. Local capital generation expanded dramatically, foreign capital and expertise arrived in droves, schools and universities blossomed.
Of course, this was largely confined to a few big, mostly coastal cities, but given time could have brought roads, railways and change to inland areas, enabled the Kuomintang to establish peace, a bourgeois-led government, and respect for China in the world.
The “What Might Have Been” was ended by the Japanese. The 1931 invasion of Manchuria cost the government one of its richest, most developed regions. The 1937 invasion led to years of war, which not only killed vast numbers of Chinese but disrupted the whole nation and made economic and social progress almost impossible. Without the chaos and cost of the Japanese war, it is hard to imagine that Communist power could have developed as it did.
Nor did the Communist victory in 1949 necessarily have to lead to events which made China’s modernization all the more difficult. Sweeping away feudalism and Confucian ideas was all very well but initial tolerance of private capital and bourgeois thinking soon gave way to a mix of vengeance and paranoia about counter-revolutionary threats.
Much big local capital was driven out to Hong Kong and Taiwan, the movable industrial symbols of modern China, its textile factories and ships. How would China have developed had it not also been for the 1951 purges, when Mao issued death quotas of one per thousand or more, ostensibly to stamp out counter-revolutionaries but actually to create a climate of fear and blind obedience to himself and the party. Rates varied from province to province but the admitted death toll was at least 700,000. Xenophobia was encouraged, almost all foreigners expelled or jailed.
Poorer peasants benefited from land redistribution which followed the killing of richer ones but what could have sparked peasant initiatives was gradually smothered by cooperatives and then in 1958 the commune system. How rich might China have become but for the so-called Great Leap Forward, an exercise in Communist Party arrogance and idiocy which led to famine and the deaths of many more Chinese than the 10 million or so who had died from the Japanese invasion. Nor should the party need reminding of the chaos and deaths a few years later from the so-called Cultural Revolution, nor the unnecessary bullying of the One Child policy – Thailand achieved a similar reduction in its birth rate with some amusing propaganda and free condoms – and now has what it now admits is an alarming, gender-biased demographics. Yet the party is still always right.
Given these disasters, it is all the more important to realize why China today would be very different (and worse) if the Gang of Four had not been ousted or Deng Xiaoping had died after 1989 but before his southern tour in 1992 which revived reform. So much depends on the outcome of party infighting.
Yet China could also be a lot richer and freer but for some of the above events, might even be as prosperous and open as South Korea, or have thrown off patriarchy and gender bias as well as Taiwan. Yes, China has made unprecedented strides in the past 30 years but the longer perspective is less exceptional in a world where almost all are vastly richer, longer-lived and better educated than in 1921 or 1949.