Policy Papers


China, globalisation and the west: A British debate, 1890 - 1914

Peter Cain |

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Executive Summary

  • The recent economic and political rise of China and its possible outcomes is a matter of grave current concern in Europe and America.
  • The origins of the debate go back to at least the 1890s and one major contribution to it was C. H. Pearson's National Life and Character (1893). Pearson was a scholar as well as a politician and he was concerned with what he saw as the inevitable decline of western empires and western civilisation.
  • Pearson predicted that the western urge to civilise Africa and Asia would rebound upon western imperialist nations. The latter, especially China, would be galvanised and would industrialise and out-compete Europe. Chinese emigrants would dominate Asian development and China would become the foremost economic power in the world in a century or so.
  • By contrast, European peoples and powers would be driven back into their original heartlands and their empires would disappear. Since Pearson had a low opinion of non-European civilisation he predicted a new Dark Ages.
  • Pearson's book attracted much attention. A few agreed with his diagnosis but most were convinced that the British Empire and 'Anglo-Saxon' civilisation had the energy to survive, by warfare if necessary.
  • China was defeated by Japan in 1895 and thereafter it was usually assumed that China was weak and could only develop significantly under western tutelage. Fears were expressed that western-led industrial development in China would lead to European de-industrialisation and the dominance of financial capitalism there.
  • Pearson's views were largely forgotten after 1900. More positive views of Chinese civilisation began to appear and, by the time of the 1911 revolution, 'Orientalist' views of China were being questioned and the global benefits of western-led Chinese economic growth were emphasised.
  • Pearson's essential point - that China could become a great power without becoming fundamentally westernised - remains and has relevance now.
  • China's rapid growth since the 1980s is based on a much longer, albeit interrupted, history of economic strength which an earlier generation of commentators appreciated

The rise of China as an issue in the 1890s

At the present time one of our major preoccupations is the economic and political rise of China and India and there is much speculation about the impact that it will have on European and American civilisations and their standing in the world in the 21st century. However, an appreciation in the west of China's potential economic might is not a new perception. In fact there was a very vigorous public debate of precisely this issue during the decades either side of the turn of the last century. This debate was galvanised in Britain by a remarkable book, National Life and Character (1893), by Charles Henry Pearson (1830-94). Although Pearson never visited Asia, he had an unusual combination of intellectual and practical qualifications that gave him a special standing as a prophet. An academic historian of distinction, he had migrated to Australia and become a farmer and then a politician in Victoria, acting as Minister of Education there in the 1880s. His book is embarrassingly racist but is also deeply thought out and scholarly, and deserves attention not just because it touched a nerve in Britain when first published but in its own right and because it raises questions that are still relevant today.

Pearson's work - as the title indicates - is concerned with 'character', a widespread pre-occupation of Victorian elites. 'Character' was to some extent a contested term but there was broad agreement that it involved what we might call 'industrial' qualities (energy, self-discipline, honesty etc) and also more traditional virtues such as honour, duty and a commitment to public service, the latter coming through the public schools and the imperial elites they produced. (Pearson had attended Rugby school). Character was not just a set of moral qualities: it was thought to be the basis of Britain's material greatness and its scientific and technological leadership. Most of the Victorian elite considered that character was under threat in the late 19th from democracy because the great 'unwashed' would very likely turn out to be feckless, ill-disciplined and lacking in purposeful energy and public spirit. Character was also linked inextricably with empire in the elite's collective mind: the empire had been the creation of British character and the challenge of empire constantly renewed and improved character. If empire was lost, and Britain turned in on itself, character would atrophy and die.

Pearson's book is worth reading as an elegant expression of such philosophising about character. What adds to its significance is that, whereas most imperialists still thought that the fate of empire was in its own hands, Pearson argued that it was doomed, that European civilisation was in inevitable decline and that China would be the dominant force in the world in a century or so. Democracy - which Pearson, on the basis of his Australian experience, saw as inevitable - was privileging the average man, who was not a man of character. It would end in state socialism and snuff out the individualism that had made Britain great. That was a familiar argument amongst elites. What made Pearson interesting is that he argued that this trend towards socialism and character deformation would be quickened and intensified by massive changes in global development that he thought equally inevitable.

Pearson's thesis in 1893

Pearson's argument was a complex one. He claimed that the temperate lands of white settlement were filling up and that the openings for white emigration would soon disappear. These lands were also under threat from Asian immigration if that was not arrested. Meanwhile, the tropics would be taken over economically by Asians, especially the Chinese whose low wages and incredible industriousness would drive the white man out of even the most skilled jobs eventually. For Pearson this was an inevitable outcome of European imperialism and what we now know as the 'civilising mission'. That brought law and order, railways, better medicine; it created a new society in which Africans, Asians and the natives of Latin America could thrive and multiply, and learn 'our' techniques. The Chinese in particular would not only spread throughout Asia and Africa but would industrialise, using our instruction to learn and then throwing off our control. Our commitment to the civilising mission meant that we could not try to arrest this process. Pearson made no bones about the fact that empires had been brutally created but he thought that they could no longer be sustained in this way: Britons, along with other Europeans were now 'too fibreless, too weak and too good to contemplate or to carry out great changes which imply lamentable suffering'.

The United States might isolate itself and thrive: but the effects in Europe would be quietly catastrophic. Europeans would be slowly pushed back to their original borders. Their trade and growth would be stifled; to manage the masses governments would be increasingly forced into socialism; the state would come to dominate lives and individualism would be suppressed. Pearson expected that this would lead to protectionism, militarism (though he did not expect outright war with China) and, as the middle class suffered euthanasia through regulation and high taxation, a decline in the arts and sciences. Everything that had made for 'character' in previous times would be suppressed.

On the other side, Chinese, and to a lesser extent Indian, African and native Latin American, civilisations would prosper. Chinese fleets would soon be in western waters, its elites would marry into those of Europe and its culture would begin to permeate the west's. Edward Said has said that, put in its simplest terms, European imperialism was made possible by the fact that that Europeans had the brute power and the engineering techniques to 'be there' in Africa and Asia, whereas the latter could not make its presence felt in Europe. What depressed Pearson most was his vision of the Chinese 'being here' at no distant time and as the most powerful nation on the planet, for it was impossible for him to think of them as civilisational equals. His views on Chinese culture were as conventionally dismissive as those of the average Briton of the time. So 'our' civilisation would decline, theirs, whatever their future economic achievements, was inferior: all we had in prospect, he thought, was another Dark Ages- probably one as long as that which followed the collapse of Rome. A sick man when he wrote his book, Pearson ended it by saying that he was glad he would not be alive to see the events he prophesied.

The high profile public debate which Pearson stimulated

National Life and Character was widely reviewed and the debate about it revealed a sometimes surprising range of views that shows how complex was both Britons' understanding of the 'Orient' and their visions of their own destiny. A few critics agreed with Pearson's gloomy forecasts and one newspaper painted a lurid picture of the Chinese, who, besides being described as 'a people of marvellous ingenuity, industry and flexibility', were also said to 'live upon next to nothing; laugh at sanitation; and rather prefer squalor'. The result of civilising them and other races would be 'a black Manchester at Timbuctoo, a brown Liverpool at Rio de Janeiro, and a yellow New York at Hong Kong or Shanghai'. Others, most notably Henry Sidgwick the philosopher and a friend of Pearson's who was impressed by his learning, thought that Pearson might well be right but that the trends in society, such as the rise of democracy that he projected confidently into the future, might later be reversed or halted for reasons as yet unknown; and one friendly critic cautioned that Pearson might have generalised too much from his experience in Australia where he had been one of the intellectual godfathers of what was later called the White Australia policy.

Those who believed Pearson's forecasts were in a minority. Some thought of his despondency as a temperamental failing and one reviewer commented on his 'thinness of blood'. A rather shrewder comment came from The Spectator, which thought that Pearson's vision reflected a general middle-class pessimism about the future and pointed out that the masses were much more cheerful about it. Certainly, radical critics such as J. M. Robertson, later a Liberal MP, and the positivist, Frederic Harrison, were quite happy to accept that Asia and Africa might develop as Pearson suggested: but they welcomed the end of empire and looked forward to a democratic, egalitarian future in which Britons would cultivate their domestic garden, loosen their ties with the international economy and release a new creativity that would improve the character of the average man.

Harrison and Robertson were both harsh critics of the existing capitalist system. But Pearson was also attacked by liberal optimists who had no quarrel with it. Some denied any lost vigour, pointing to our recent imperial adventures in Africa as proof, and extolled the energy and commitment derived from Christianity which Pearson had disparaged. Even Pearson's strongest supporters found it difficult to believe that the transition he prophesied could take place peacefully; and several reviewers made it plain that they were willing to envisage any amount of suffering to preserve Christian civilisation and European dominance. National Life and Character was also attacked for its pessimism about future technical and scientific progress in the west. The liberal historian, Spencer Walpole pointed to the invention of the telephone to refute Pearson. He was also much more optimistic about the economic possibilities for Europe and America, denying Pearson's claim that the temperate lands were filling up and predicting a rapid rise in population in the 'Anglo-Saxon' world that would stimulate both growth and technical improvement, and give the strength to maintain the British Empire. Walpole also predicted that high productivity in the west would limit Chinese industrial competition. Only a single critic, an Anglican cleric, declared that the development of Asian and African economies would stimulate Europe by providing it with new markets.

Interestingly, some commentators thought that Chinese civilisation could be transformed for the better by the civilising mission. The Spectator believed that if Christianity took root in China it would produce new 'crystallisations' of culture that would bring not only material but moral progress there and to the world. The Pall Mall Gazette went further, tentatively questioning the value of what the west had to offer: despite its reviewer's fears about the effects of Chinese industrialisation on Europe, he nonetheless had the imagination to suggest that the 'white race has not made such a very brilliant success in life that we should grudge nature a fresh start with a new breed'. This was a rare thought at the time, as was Robertson's comment that the rise of Africa and Asia would be good for Europe because there was much to be learned from their civilisations.

Pearson published his book in 1893 when China, although perceived as stagnant and technically backward, was generally thought too strong to be conquered or dismembered. After the defeat by Japan in 1895 China appeared as weak, disorganised and vulnerable to occupation. It was also much more difficult after 1895 to believe in its spontaneous development as an economic and military power. Many more now sided with the Quarterly Review who, in assessing National Life and Character, had denied emphatically that China was capable of development except under western tutelage. In a direct attack on Pearson, Lord Curzon, who had travelled across the Far East in 1892-3 and was to become Viceroy of India in 1898, took up that line of argument. He denied Pearson's assumptions about China's self-modernisation, arguing that Chinese elites were too contemptuous of western ideas, science and technology to advance without firm Western control. There was, he admitted, much Chinese emigration but it was forced by poor internal policies and was not an inevitable overspill of rising population or Chinese imperial ambition. China was very fragmented, had no real national unity and lacked the sense of the common purpose necessary for economic modernisation, military efficiency or overseas empire.

The big question for Curzon was whether, in the scramble for Chinese territory and spheres of influence after the Japanese defeat, Britain would retain enough authority there to be able to take its share of the vast market that would spring up as China was westernised. That question lay at the heart of a great deal of the British literature on China over the next few years. The main fear expressed was that if Britain was excluded from China it would suffer a huge relative decline as a result. Obsessive hostility to Russia was in evidence, with many arguing that if Russia controlled China then it would acquire the economic and military power sufficient to overturn the British Empire in India and the rest of Asia. In that literature there were only a few, rather dismissive, references to Pearson. During and after the Boxer rebellion of 1900, when the Chinese attempted to throw out the 'foreign devils', there was some talk of a 'Yellow Peril' variety- predicting that China would soon develop a military force that would make it possible for her to strike at the west. Sir Robert Hart, Inspector-General of the Chinese Maritime Customs, was amongst those who believed that possible, though he thought that it might take 50 years or more for China to prepare itself. Such views implied a more general modernisation of China but that was not spelled out. Hart's views did not spring from any obvious knowledge or interest in Pearson's writings, nor did they dislodge the Curzon view of China's future as the majority opinion.

Pearson's prophecies were still occasionally considered sympathetically after 1895. Sir Alfred Lyall, who had been a leading member of the Indian Civil Service in the 1880s, thought that British occupation and control had ensured that one day India would be westernised but he agreed with Pearson that China might develop autonomously and he was one of the few who thought that defeat by Japan could galvanise China into action. At the time of the Boxer revolution, Pearson was also cited by writers who feared that Britain and other western nations would soon be overwhelmed by Chinese immigration, with catastrophic effects on the living standards of the masses, unless that was prevented, as in Australia, by legislation. The social Darwinist, Benjamin Kidd, in his best selling The Principles of Western Civilisation (1900) and William Clarke, one of the original Fabian essayists, also considered Pearson's ideas seriously. They rejected the idea of any spontaneous Chinese industrialisation: but they did believe that unfettered, western-directed Chinese growth would bring a Pearsonian denouement in the west, destroying industry and agriculture in the west to a large extent and turning Britain into a service economy dominated by financial capitalists who would control Chinese and world development. Clarke, who was probably also influenced by J. A. Hobson, who in 1891 had had associated western development of China with British de-industrialisation, accepted Pearson's prophecies as inevitable. Kidd, who felt that the financial heart of this new west would be in the United States rather than Britain, resisted them- arguing that a new united, protected British Empire with minimum standards for labour, could avoid the fate Pearson predicted, retain its industrial structure and challenge the USA for global hegemony in the 20th century. Not surprisingly, he vigorously supported Joseph Chamberlain's campaign for white imperial unity when it began in 1903.

The early twentieth-century debate

After 1900 Pearson's ideas were largely forgotten. Although a debate continued about Chinese development and what its consequences might be for the west, his concerns were not addressed directly. Much of the comment before 1914 fitted neatly into Curzon's frame of reference even when in 1911 a revolution in China led to the overthrow of the Manchu dynasty that had ruled China for 250 years and to the installation of a republic led by western-educated Chinese. J. O. P. Bland, who had worked for the Chinese Maritime Customs service for many years and was an acknowledged expert on China, felt that the revolutionaries had only a shallow hold on Western thinking and that, beneath them, life would go on as before and that it would still take a very long time to change the society fundamentally. His view was typical of many in Britain who, while supportive of the idea of a civilising mission, could not bring themselves to acknowledge that the mission could succeed without the passing of centuries. Other critics were apprehensive that, in removing the emperor, the Chinese revolutionaries were taking away the main unifying force in the country and that it might disintegrate and become divided up amongst the European powers and the United States.

Nonetheless, the Revolution of 1911 met with a very enthusiastic response from many China watchers who were building on a more positive view of Chinese civilisation that had begun to emerge in Britain. In his Letters from John Chinaman (1900) written in response to Europe's brutal actions in the Boxer Rebellions, the Cambridge academic Lowes Dickinson argued that the east was much closer to nature than the west and therefore retained something the west had lost and needed to recover. Western progress meant materialist over-activity whereas true civilisation had qualities of rest and spiritual contemplation. Dickinson was particularly taken by Chinese civilisation which he saw as highly moral, essentially peaceable and more democratic in essentials than that of the west; though he also believed that, regrettably, China would soon industrialise on western lines. H. A. Giles, Professor of Chinese at Cambridge, echoed many of these sentiments a few years later in his The Civilisation of China (1911).

For some in Britain the 1911 Revolution was a dramatic sign that China was learning from the west. China was now 'awake' and on the move, a new spirit of patriotism based upon western education and the press was taking shape, and, with its orderly and industrious population, China would soon be ready to take its place as one of the progressive races on the globe. Fears of Chinese economic power also receded. Bland, like many of his predecessors, worried that, as western capital began to develop China, British industry would be drastically undermined: but J. A. Hobson, abandoning the stance he had taken up in 1891 and repeated in his famous book Imperialism: A Study (1902), claimed in 1911 that the world was on the verge of an epic transformation as the foreign capital poured into China would propel global growth, making nations more interdependent, and support world peace.

That the average Chinaman was the equal of the average Briton and that China was not mired in Oriental stagnation were ideas struggling to be born in pre-1914 Britain. The most imaginative and dramatic intervention came from the classical scholar Edwyn Bevan. Writing in 1913, he dismissed the idea of Oriental inferiority, implicit in so many British discussions of China, by showing how much western civilisation owed to its predecessors, especially Arabic cultures. He acknowledged that the east now needed to learn Enlightenment values from the west but he was sure that the east would soon absorb the necessary lessons and that, as a result, the centre of gravity of world civilisation might well gravitate back to there eventually.

Edward Said's argument that it was impossible for European nations to escape from Orientalist discourse before the shock of 1914 certainly seems questionable in the light of the above. Nonetheless, nearly all the commentators on China assumed that China would have to go through a long period of western tutelage before emerging as a modern nation and most thought that Chinese civilisation would become much like the west's in the long run. So, Pearson's key prediction - that China and India, retaining their own civilisations, would develop independently of the west as economic powers and that, although that would not destroy Western civilisation, it would emasculate it and end its career as the great force making for global change - ceased to exercise British minds.

Contemporary resonances? A Chinese capitalism succeeding the American century?

Pearson's work obviously has historiographical significance: but is it still worth thinking about in our present context? His anti-democratic animus is out of tune with our age and his racism is repellent. Still, a case can be made that Pearson was on the right track in his geopolitical thinking. Historically, invasions of China led to the absorption of the invader into Chinese culture. European invasion in the 19th and 20th centuries certainly helped to force China to adapt but it now appears that China has developed as a capitalist power, and one that clearly threatens western predominance in many areas of life, without becoming essentially westernised. Most past commentators, from Marx, through Weber and on to Fukuyama, have assumed that Asia would have to be radically westernised to develop: Fukuyama's 'last man' might be unheroic, even boring, but he was still a western man. However, as Pearson expected, in just over a century China has absorbed capitalism into its very different cultural context, one that has far longer roots than the western one (even if 'western' is stretched as far back as ancient Greece). Also, given that China will become an even greater presence in the world over the next century, its material culture and its moral and intellectual heritage is bound to become a much more pervasive global presence. 'We' in the west now have to face that, as Pearson did in the 1890s, though we do not have to be depressed about it as he was.

One concern arising here must be that, given China's continuing 'otherness', the West may in future respond to its growth in ways that emphasise difference and promote fear. Sir James Goldsmith's mid-1990s prophecy of mass unemployment in Europe as Asia industrialised, and his call for protection, went largely unheeded in the long boom then unfolding. It could take on a new force now that the boom is over and unemployment is rising steeply, and might easily be tainted by the racism that is so evident in Pearson's writings. On the other side, it is refreshing to see that, even when imperial sentiment was at its height before 1914, Orientalism, at least in relation to China, was put in question. In our time, when empire has vanished, it may be reasonable to hope that a more positive view of 'otherness' will triumph.

Pearson's prediction that China would learn from Europe how to emancipate itself from European control has interesting echoes in the work of 20th century sages like Spengler, who in his Man and Technics (1933) predicted that Asian industrialisation would be a key factor in precipitating the decline of western civilisation. It also has affinities with much more recent arguments about the end of empires such as those put forward by Peter Heather in his monumental book on the fall of Rome. Heather rejects Gibbon's claims that Rome collapsed because of internal failings and points instead to the fact that the 'barbarians' won because they learned a great deal from Rome over the centuries and finally absorbed enough to be able to create institutional and military structures capable of overcoming the empire. Pearson, of course, thought that Europe was declining internally because of democracy but his arguments about the rise of China have strong parallels with Heather's about the empowerment of Rome's enemies. If, as Heather tentatively suggests, great empires tend to be brought down because their subjects, while retaining their own distinct culture, learn eventually how to turn their masters' own weapons against them, then National Life and Character was indeed a prophetic book.

In thinking about China's rapid recent rise to economic prominence since the 1980s it is important, in order to fully understand the causes and implications of this, to recognise that China's has been viewed by some of its keenest observers in the west as a potential economic giant for a very long time. We now know that parts of China were probably as advanced as western Europe in the late 18th century, although China subsequently experienced economic and political difficulties during the nineteenth century and again in the mid-twentieth centuries. Its current position of relative economic strength is based on a much longer and deeper history of economic development, albeit much interrupted during the last two centuries, than that which followed the market reforms of the late 1970s.

Further Reading


C. H. Pearson, National Life and Character (London, 1893).

S. Collini, Public Minds: Political Thought and Intellectual Life in Britain, 1850-1930 Oxford, 1991).

C. Mackerras, Western Images of China (Oxford, 1991).

R. Bickers, Britain in China: Community, Culture and Colonialism (Manchester, 1999).

P. J. Cain, Hobson and Imperialism: Radicalism, New Liberalism and Finance, 1887-1938 (Oxford, 1991).

P. J. Cain, 'Empire and the Languages of Character and Virtue in Later Victorian and Edwardian Britain', Modern Intellectual History 4 (2007), pp. 249-73.

M. Lake and H. Reynolds, Drawing the Global Colour Line (Cambridge, 2008).

K.Pomeranz, The Great Divergence: Europe, China and the Making of the Modern World Economy (Princeton, N. J. 2000).

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