Westad’s book, along with “Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom,” an authoritative history of arguably the word’s bloodiest rebellion, by Stephen Platt, and a new biography of Mao Zedong, by Alexander V. Pantsov and Stephen I. Levine, give us in different ways a China that we haven’t known before. Platt places China in the middle of the world during a huge 19th-century uprising called the Taiping Rebellion that left 40 million dead. The Mao book reveals a chairman who was part of the world as well, not some Oriental “agrarian reformer” but an ardent student of Joseph Stalin.
Westad’s book goes them one further, showing that the foreigners’ story in China is not the monochromatic account of malevolent imperialism that has dominated the discourse in U.S. universities but a much richer and more important tale. The brilliance of “Restless Empire” is that while acknowledging the threat to China inherent in its contacts with the West and Japan, Westad also shows that they inspired and amazed the Chinese and played the critical role in the opening of the Chinese mind.
Westad challenges the idea — repeated so many times in Beijing and by “friends of China” overseas — that China was never an expansionist power and that its last dynasty, the Qing, was “insular and inward looking.” Wrong, he argues: “The Qing was continuously expanding outward.” Indeed, at one point in the 18th century it carried out what Westad calls the first modern genocide against a Central Asian tribe while adding a massive province, Xinjiang, to the empire. In addition, he notes, despite misinformation to the contrary, the Qing loved to trade. More broadly, our image of the old China as timeless and unchanging just does not comport with the facts. “Chinese who embraced the new — when given the chance to do so — always far outnumbered those who did not,” he writes, an observation that makes absolute sense to anyone who has traveled to China in the past 20 years.
Central to Westad’s thesis is the idea that, despite claims by communist historians, foreigners were key to China’s modernization. British, Americans, Japanese, Germans and Russians played enormously important roles as advisers, models, teachers, guides and enlighteners of the Chinese. While Westad does not underplay the depredations meted out by the imperialist powers, he also tells the other side of that story — that American missionaries brought education, science and modern medicine to China, that the British imported modern administrative techniques, that the Germans taught the Chinese a significant amount about warfare. Heck, the French even created China’s postal service.