Rana Mitter on postwar reconstruction in China

Our final week of CSMCH activities had a decidedly Chinese tinge to them. In the first of two China-related events, the renowned historian and broadcaster Rana Mitter (Oxford) discussed the postwar reconstruction of mainland China – and why it did not lead to the economic modernisation and democratic politics of postwar Europe, as some hoped it might. Rosalind Parr, who gives us this report, was part of a very large and curious audience.

As the world considers what role China might play in the twenty-first century, Rana Mitter’s paper on post-war reconstruction explored how Chinese nationalists responded to this question in the war-ravaged 1940s. In Chinese history, the post-war/pre-Communist moment is usually associated with Nationalist failure, while the global history of world governance tends to overlook the East Asian story. But Rana suggested that it was time to revisit this period. In his talk, he argued for a new narrative that reinstates Chinese agency and depicts 1945-47 as a dry run for the Asian developmentalism of the 1950s.

Rana draws parallels between present-day dilemmas and the postwar moment

He approached this history through the figure of Jiang Tingfu, the leftist scholar-turned-diplomat who represented China at the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) from 1943 and headed up the national parallel organisation, the China National Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, in 1945/46. In exploring Jiang’s thought, he argued, we may gain insight into Chinese international relations in the present day.

He began by sketching the post-war context, drawing our attention to China’s position as the only autonomous non-Western actor involved with the new international organisations that emerged in the 1940s. At the same time, Chinese nationalists contributed to constitutional and political debates about social welfarism and liberalism in both the global and national contexts.  Although we now tend to view the 1945-49 moment in China as one of civil war and failure, the assumption at the time was that the Nationalist government would remain a significant player for some time to come.

He then moved to the figure of Jiang Tingfu himself. In his early career, he was a historian who completed a PhD in the United States before returning to China. A liberal and a social democrat, Jiang variously expressed admiration for the USSR, for the Tennessee Valley Authority, and for the Attlee government in Britain. He was also a critic of Chiang Kaishek yet, despite this, was appointed by Chiang to UNRRA and as Director of the China National Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. The levels of destruction faced in China in the 1940s brought comparisons with the Belsen concentration camp and famine-decimated Bengal – one UNRRA report stating that ‘people need everything’. Jiang’s response to this massive crisis combined short term relief measures with longer term reconstruction and rehabilitation planning.

The victory of the Communist Party in China in 1949 has obscured the brief history of this nationalist-led reconstruction.  Rana argued that we should reinstate this period as a means of accessing alternative Chinese post-war visions of progress and of China’s role in the new regional and global order. In the 1940s, Nationalist visions existed in conversation with Communist ideology and, although Maoism triumphed, Jiang Tingfu’s pro-liberal, anti-imperial stance holds contemporary relevance. In particular, the history of ideas relating to modernisation, China’s role in the world, and her anti-imperialist legacy speaks to current, unresolved issues that play into international relations in the present day.

The thoughtful comment by Konrad Lawson (St Andrews) emphasised the great significance of Rana’s paper for historical scholarship. Not only does it suggest an otherwise obscured narrative, but it opens up areas for further study. In particular, studies of Chinese intellectual history and of relief and rehabilitation in a global context, as well as those located at the intersection of the two, may productively draw on this research and, in doing so, further inform wider debates about China and the world.

Rosalind Parr is a PhD student in History. Her research interests are located in transnational and global histories of the twentieth century, particularly through the lenses of South Asian and gender history. Her thesis examines the international activities of Indian nationalist women in the period from the 1920s to the 1950s.