By Francesco Sisci
BEIJING - The momentous rise of China continues to lead many historians and political scientists to draw parallels with the rise of Germany in the late 19th century and beginning of the 20th. Anyone who underscores the differences and highlight the distance between those times and now seems doomed to be simply brushed off.
China's current development has no precedent in history, but we may simply need to compare it to something in the past in order to comprehend and handle this extraordinary phenomenon. So perhaps this very imperfect comparison can be used as a starting point for coping with China. If this is the case, we may see in today's Germany a small-scale projection of what we will see in China 100 years from today.
Now, Germany is dominating European politics and economics more than it was a century ago. Actually now the whole world wants Germany to step up to its European responsibilities, and contrary to the requests, Germany - scared of itself and of its past - is dragging its feet.
British Historian Niall Ferguson makes this point eloquently in trying to understand what went wrong with European and British history and how Britain lost its empire.
It would have been infinitely better if Germany could achieve its hegemonic position on the continent without two world wars. But it was not only Germany's fault that this did not happen. True, it was Germany that forced the continental war of 1914 upon an unwilling France (and a not so unwilling Russia).These conclusions are very interesting as they argue that it was useless to try to stop Germany then. In the end, as present history proves, Germany was not stopped: it still is the main political player in Europe, but British power came to a halt. Does this sound like a recipe for what the world - or Europe and America - should do with China today?
But it was - as the Kaiser rightly said - the British government which ultimately decided to turn the continental war into a world war, a conflict which lasted twice as long as and cost many more lives than Germany's first bid for European Union would have, if it had gone according to plan. By fighting Germany in 1914, Asquith, Grey and their colleagues helped ensure that, when Germany did finally achieve predominance on the continent, Britain was no longer strong enough to provide a check to it. ("The Kaiser's European Union". Virtual History. Ed: Niall Ferguson.)
Definitely, the combination of over 100 years of massacres, from those of the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864) to those of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), plus a sudden liberalization of the markets with Deng Xiaoping's reforms launched in the late 1970s, have released social and economic forces of unparalleled strength. The primeval drive for personal improvement in China managed to withstand many political and social tsunamis, from the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989 to the Falungong repression ten years later in 1999.
Any of these events would have broken the back of another country - but not China. This resilience, ingenuity, and endurance are elements drawing China and Germany together. The defeat in two world wars didn't subdue Germany's drive. Similarly, if the world were to take on China, would this manage to put down the Chinese?
Or the plan could be, as some advisers to former Taiwanese president Lee Teng-hui put it in the mid 1990s,  to break China in four or five independent states, as happened with the Germans, split into four German states until 1990 - West Germany, East Germany, Austria, and Switzerland - and which succeeded in partially withholding their European prominence.
Then, similarly to Germany, we can expect that even if America or the West were to take down China now, this force of nature would come back with a vengeance over and over again in the coming decades while the West would have exhausted its own energies. So, we might be better off coping with China now and avoiding sapping the West.
There is certainly some truth in all of this, and still differences are very important in drawing loose historical comparisons.
Firstly, China is in no way a dominant country in Asia or in the world in the way Germany was at the end of the 19th century. Besides its undoubted industrial and military might, Germany was a cultural and technological dynamo, with possibly the most democratic political system and the most comprehensive welfare system in Europe and the world. All of this is unrivalled by present China in Asia or in the world.
Moreover, the defeats in the wars left wounded Germany a changed nation. The first German defeat created the conditions for the rise of Nazism, and while there is debate about the possibility that Britain and Germany could have come to an agreement, or whether Wilhelmine Germany could have been accommodated one way or another, there is no debate surrounding the idea that Nazism had to be defeated.
Moreover, present Germany is very different from Wilhelmine Germany in a fundamental aspect: it does not want to take the lead, it does not want to take political initiative, and it now hides in France's shadow. Yet for this modesty, it is now pushed on to the forefront. Wilhelmine Germany, for all its successes in every field, was very arrogant, consciously or not claiming more living space, "lost" territories, and political equality (ie, primacy) in areas where it was still behind, such as colonies and the navy.
Then, at this point in history for China, a useful but counterfactual question about history could be, what if Germany at the turn of the century had not embarked on a policy of arrogance toward other countries? What if the Kaiser had stepped back? It would have been unnatural, against conventional wisdom: Germany was doing wonderfully in every field, and the Kaiser was the heart of the system. Why should the system be changed for some then-imaginary threats and dangers to Germany and the world?
The same could be said about China now. It is doing well in many fields. Despite its present problems, there is room to argue that China is faring better than Europe or America, which are both in the throes of a difficult economic and political transition. Then, what has China got to learn from the preaching of places unable to cope with their own situations? Yet, only the shadow of the history of Germany could be a severe warning for China now.
There is mounting internal criticism of China's doctrine of "Peaceful Evolution". There is strong resistance to projects of political reform and to the idea of cutting back on state-owned enterprises and giving more freedom to private companies. These actions are normal, and they follow the basic idea that China has been doing well so far with this model, so why should it change?
But this position ignores the fact that China's model, while working well until recently, is now creating a growing misalignment of interests between China and the rest of the world, and this is bringing mounting friction on a number of issues between China and many countries.
This in turn threatens the community of interests that China has created around the world with its economic and social development and that underpins a new theory promoted by Zheng Bijian, the inventor of the idea of Peaceful Development.
Here perhaps there is another lesson from German history. German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck is widely credited with creating a political network of alliances and pacts propping up every German expansionist move.
Moreover, conservative Bismarck promoted revolutionary political reforms that gave more freedom and democracy but ultimately buttressed the German monarchic system. Possibly, it was thanks to Bismarck's alliances and reforms that a concentration of forces against Germany didn't start earlier and that Kaiser Wilhelm II had enough power in his hands with the support of a parliament full of Marxist social-democrats, his potential enemies.
Bismarck was able to expand German power in Europe ultimately because every push was accompanied by a broad political initiative that first reestablished a new political order in the continent and at home. Some Bismarckian traits are visible in Chancellor Angela Merkel's hand, as she is actively pushing for political reforms in Europe while constantly moving restive domestic and global consensus in her direction without showing off.
Both domestic and international public opinion, for different reasons, are and could be very opposed to Merkel's political initiatives.
But Merkel, possibly inspired by Bismarck, has so far proved able to move ahead in very difficult waters, aligning German future broad interests with those of the world and its neighbors. She thus creates a vast consensus around her domestic and foreign thrust.
Maybe China should look more into this history and depart with the dangerous logic taking hold of the Western strategic minds. This is very difficult, as strategy mastermind Edward Luttwak believes, but it is necessary for the good of China and the world. China needs to save herself, but America and the West need it too, perhaps more, in order not to follow the destiny of the British Empire.
1. See interview with Taiwan's ambassador at the Holy See: La Cina un Giallo. Limes 1995. (In Italian).