I felt nervous as I sat down in Professor Lowell Dittmer’s office at UC Berkeley with my pad of paper and pen. It wasn’t his thick rimmed glasses or the fake owl that stared down at me from his computer screen that made me feel this way, though the books that lined his wall, and the maps and pictures beside his window were perhaps a little intimidating. My nervousness instead sprung from the knowledge that sitting in front of me sat a man who had studied and written about China for a few decades, and his experience showed clearly just how much of an amateur I am.
I first met Professor Dittmer a few days earlier at the SHKCA sponsored discussion on China and the Two Koreas. He had impressed me then with how easily he discussed the topic. He spoke in a clear, concise manner, and dates and names were mentioned without any hesitation or need of consideration. When asked about colonialism in East Asia he mentioned that North Korea had been greatly influenced by their colonial past and that for North Korea, WWII might as well have happened yesterday.
It was this comment that had led me to meet with him again, as I was curious to hear about his perspective on colonialism in China. “China had never been a complete colony,” he said, quickly pointing out the differences in each country’s colonial past. Indeed unlike Korea which completely fell under Japanese control, China had never been forced to give up more than a handful of regions over to other countries. Indeed even some of these regions continued to be under the influence of China’s central government even after they had been claimed by outside powers.
However, the fact that only a few areas were directly under the control of colonial powers should not lead one to believe that China as a whole was not affected by the colonial era. Although the continued influence of colonialism is harder to find in China as a whole, Professor Dittmer agreed that the colonial period for Chinese people represented “one hundred years of humiliation” and that this history has given Chinese people a greater sense of nationalism. This feeling continues to resonate with Chinese people today.
Our discussion ended with a look towards the future. A few years ago he had written, “If recent growth rates continue, China will rival the US as the key driver of the world economy within two decades.” However he admitted that their success was not guaranteed and offered the opinion that the odds of this growth continuing were “perhaps no better than even.” This year China’s growth had indeed begun to slow and I asked what his thoughts about China were in light of this recent development. “It is hard to know how bad the decline will be,” he replied, and spoke for a few moments about China’s economic options, concluding that China is in a key period. (For a more in-depth look at his views I would recommend reading his concluding remarks in Challenges to Chinese Foreign Policy).
As I picked up my bag to go, I took note of a stand on his desk with both a Chinese and American flag. I wondered if several decades ago I would have been able to find such a stand on a respected professor’s desk, and it reminded me just how far China’s relationship with the west has come since their colonial past. It also begs questions as to the future of those Sino-Western relationships.