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Very Short Introductions: Modern China

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A couple of weeks ago I brought you the Meet the Author film of Dr Rana Mitter talking about his new book Modern China: A Very Short Introduction. Today, I bring you a short interview I did with him for OUPblog. Rana Mitter is an Oxford University lecturer in Modern Chinese History and Politics.

OUP: Given China’s alleged performance on human rights and environmental care, was it right to award them this year’s Olympics?

RANA MITTER: Yes. China is a growing power, and is here to stay. If we want to change it, we have to engage with it. Furthermore, more open-minded forces in China are given strength if it appears that China’s attempts to change are met by friendly response from the outside world. This does not mean covering up our disagreements with China – but discussing them in a mutually understanding way.

As my VSI shows, China has rarely been closed to the world – it is much more “normal” that is it part of the world system.

OUP: Obviously hosting the Olympics means that the world’s media will be converging on China this year. With their media being notoriously restricted, how do you think China will handle the media of the Western world? Do you think the country will open itself up to the cameras?

MITTER: The recent openness after the terrible earthquake of May 2008 shows that the Chinese government understands it needs to be more open about what goes on in China. There are still many areas where China should be more open in its media – but it has a lively media scene and is a long way from places like North Korea or Burma.

OUP: We can see that cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong are booming, modern places where the people and commerce are thriving. Is this improving the quality of life outside the major cities?

MITTER: As my VSI shows, rural incomes are growing more slowly than urban ones – yet they are growing. China’s growth has made everyone richer, but it is also true that China is much more unequal than it was under Mao.

OUP: Can we expect China to displace the USA as the world’s superpower?

MITTER: Not for a long time. China still needs to work out what kind of state, culture and society it is. Until it is confident in that identity, as the US became, it will not be able to export that sense of self to the rest of the world. That, not nuclear weapons, is why the US has been so successful.

OUP: Once people have read your VSI, which five books would you point them towards next?

MITTER: Well, I hope they might go on and try my other books! But turning to great books by others, among those that they might find powerful are:

History: Robert Bickers, Empire Made Me
History: Henrietta Harrison, The Man Awakened from Dreams
Politics: Joseph Fewsmith, China Since Tiananmen
Politics: John Gittings, The Changing Face of China
Society: Jeffrey Wasserstrom, China’s Brave New World

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