On first encounter, Beijing appears rather as one would imagine Victorian London would have looked to the unfamiliar eye — its population bursting at the seams, abject poverty uncomfortably close to excessive wealth and the state-of-the-art squeezing out a bygone age. A dense blanket of smog hovers above, while at street level the city overflows with the mixture of buzz and havoc that comes with fast-paced industrialisation. Welcome to the new “workshop of the world”.
Beijing is not a beautiful place. It is a chaotic mess, but a romantic one nonetheless. The immense imperial palace, the Forbidden City, lies in the centre encircled by the labyrinth of overcrowded hutong dwellings that still house Beijing’s poor. On the outer ring is 21st-century Beijing: those vast and bloated skyscrapers which make one feel like an ant. They trounce anything in New York in scale, if not in elegance. Beijingers talk of how their city has become a playground for Western architects and it is a fair criticism: some buildings do look as if a child has been let loose with Lego.
One of the greatest architectural demonstrations of China’s rise is the Olympic Park. The hosting of the Games in 2008 was to China what the Great Exhibition was to Victorian Britain in terms of national pride. Five years on, its main function is as a pit-stop for tourists: no talk of legacy here.
Signs of the new affluence are everywhere. You rarely see a car that is more than a couple of years old. There is nothing quite like a Chinese traffic jam, crawling at a snail’s pace in 40-degree heat with no junction turnings. They have been known to last days.
I arrived last summer to teach at Renmin University with absolutely no knowledge of Chinese. Frankly, I was naive: it would not be much of an exaggeration to say that the furthest east I had ever travelled was Bethnal Green in the East End. I was there for a month to teach a course on British history at the university’s summer school. The aim was to trace the evolution of British society from 1850 to the present day, charting its development as the first industrialised nation.
My students were final-year undergraduates — representatives, then, of the so-called “me generation”. In China, there is a perception that rising materialism and Western influence has created a generation who are disconnected from traditional culture and solely concerned with their trainers and smartphones. The latter I can certainly verify: never have I had to tell so many students off for using their mobiles in class.
Many talk of the new culture of openness in China and this was certainly my experience. The students were familiar with events in Tiananmen Square and agreed that Hong Kong-style democracy was the way forward. When it came to politics, though, they seemed apathetic; certainly, they did not display those “post-materialist” values associated with present-day capitalism in the West. They equated the market with progress and aspiration; disillusionment has not yet set in.
My task was a difficult one. While their English was impeccable, they knew very little about contemporary Britain. In China, the Beckhams are more widely recognised than the royal family, with young Romeo modelling for Burberry, an airbrushed Posh on the cover of Vogue and Becks the face of their beleaguered Super League. Their knowledge of British history was patchy but positive: they had heard of Magna Carta and the Glorious Revolution, recognising the value of what one student termed the “British rule of law”. The Whig version of our history may have died out in Britain, but it is very much alive in Beijing.
Adam Smith was as familiar to them as Karl Marx, although Friedrich Engels was new to them. On reading his Condition of the Working Class in England, they pointed to the parallels between his analysis of the Irish poor and the rural peasants now inhabiting China’s cities. But they seemed unconvinced by Engel’s critique of laissez-faire capitalism or even that from the Christian socialists. Victorian workhouses did not come as a great shock. Given that the poverty rate in China has declined from 85 per cent to 13 per cent since the liberalisation of its economy, it is little wonder that this generation perceives the market as the route out of poverty rather than the cause of it.
Explaining the British class system to anyone outside it is a challenge, but its shift from a pyramid to a diamond shape with the expansion of the middle class was a phenomenon my students recognised. Only one identified himself as working-class — he was also the only Communist Party member among the group. I was, however, surprised to see a copy of Roger Scruton’s Meaning of Conservatism bulging out of his satchel.
Very few knew anything specific about Christianity, and even fewer had been inside a church; I counted only one Christian out of a class of 35. The Church of England, with the Queen as its Supreme Governor and its bishops in the Lords, thus required much explanation. Indeed, only when you are called upon to justify Britain’s unwritten constitution do you realise how bizarre it actually is. I let a video of Richard Dimbleby and the 1953 Coronation ceremony do the job for me.
In China, morality may be distinct from religion, but as in the West there is a concern about declining traditional values, as demonstrated by rising divorce rates and increasingly liberalised attitudes towards sex. Some aspects of Britain’s 1960s sexual revolution they understood (such as the legalisation of homosexuality), but feminism as an ideology or even a cause was lost on them, though they were equally bemused by the bare-breasted models on Page Three of the Sun.
As I described the changing development of the British family in the postwar years, one student inquired why was it that in Britain the state rather than the family was expected to care for the elderly. I’m not sure I gave him a satisfactory answer, yet his question had pointed to contrasting attitudes towards the family and indeed old age. The campus itself was an illustration of this. Of an evening, you were more likely to see children and grandmothers playing badminton than tanked-up students in fancy dress.
Their knowledge of the British education system seemed to be based entirely on Harry Potter’s Hogwarts. I made them take the 11-plus exam, which most found impossible — only four of them gained the necessary 80 per cent to make it to grammar school.
Chinese schools may teach a somewhat sanitised version of the nation’s recent past, but memories are long and the oral tradition lives on in China. Mao worship (in Beijing at least) is something only indulged in by Western tourists on the hunt for Communist tat. Chinese national identity is founded on its history as a victim at the hands of successive invaders and its subsequent path towards national unity and prosperity. This is quite different from the British historical consciousness, which is dominated by its economic and imperial decline, only somewhat mitigated by victories in two world wars. I figured the best way to demonstrate this was to get them to sing both national anthems. “God Save the Queen” and the “March of the Volunteers” (of which the first line is “Arise! All those who don’t want to be slaves!”) could not project more contrasting notions of the relationship between the nation-state and its people.
In a country that has next to no immigration and a certified nationalism, my students found the British concept of multiculturalism quite baffling. In China, you are either Chinese or you are called a “foreigner”; they do not go in for nuanced classifications or politically correct language.
Their knowledge of Margaret Thatcher owed much to her Hollywood portrayal by Meryl Streep, although they could not understand what all the fuss was about when it came to her battles of the 1980s. When viewed in the context of China’s tumultuous postwar history, this was something I was prepared to concede. One aspect did shock them however: the “Thatcher, milk snatcher” episode. For a nation obsessed with calcium (evident if you visit any Chinese supermarket), taking away free milk from children was considered much more reprehensible than sending the police to quash the miners.
For their final task, I asked them to prepare a talk on a “Great Briton” from the 20th century. I entreated them to go beyond the obvious, and this they did. One student selected the ethical socialist R.H. Tawney, not only for his contribution to English socialism but also for his 1920s account of Chinese feudalism. Another chose the sociologist Anthony Giddens, explaining why his beloved “middle way” was the only way for China. More movingly, one student nominated Bobby Charlton, recounting how in times of trouble his father always extolled the example of Charlton for the way he survived the Munich air crash and became England’s greatest footballer.
The outstanding presentation was on D.H. Lawrence, in which the student talked about the writer’s depiction of the dehumanising effects of industrialisation and offered the class a rather explicit retelling of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
In our final session, I posed the question: was Britain’s story one of progress or decline? They voted overwhelmingly for the latter. But it was not as simple as that. Britain may have lost an empire but had found a role as a global cultural force.
In justifying this, one student referenced London’s Olympic opening ceremony. He was right. The chief reason why Danny Boyle’s spectacle was a success was that it put the nation’s split personality on show, projecting an image of Britain that the world recognised and one that Britons themselves could actually stomach.
Martin Jacques is, of course, correct in stating that, with 56 different ethnic groups and a population of 1.3 billion, China is “more like a continent than a nation”. My experience of teaching 35 students in Beijing was admittedly limited. Universities tend to operate as mini-globalised enclaves, attracting those of ample means and atypically liberal views. But my experience should not be entirely discounted.
The fact is that most Western reporting of China tends to revolve around a mixture of fear and misrepresentation. I could have told you about the airbrushed history on display at the Museum of China, the propaganda-filled newspapers, or the fact that I was advised to travel everywhere with my passport. All would have been true, but not a faithful depiction of the country. While it is important to recognise China’s poor human rights record, its censorship and lack of democracy, it is equally important not to confuse the state with its people.
The world has nothing to fear and everything to gain from China’s rise. To quote Jacques again: “For the Chinese, what matters is civilisation. For Westerners it is nation.” In teaching my students about the British nation, I had learnt much about Chinese civilisation. Indeed, I fear, they had taught me much more than I had taught them.