Rana Mitter OBE is the Professor of the History and Politics of Modern China and Director of the University of Oxford China Centre. On the occasion of being awarded an OBE for his services to education, Rana spoke to DPIR DPhil Student and OxPol Blog Editor Jonas von Hoffmann about his research, public engagement and the importance of history for understanding contemporary China.
First of all, congratulations. You were recently recognised in the Queen's Birthday Honours for your services to education.
It was a great honour to receive the OBE, because in a sense it is also a recognition that the study of China is becoming more noticeable and recognisable as a field as a whole. So, I do hope that there's a sort of wider value than just the honour given to one individual.
We’re here in the building of the Oxford China Centre. What can you tell us about the Centre not just as a physical but also intellectual manifestation of the study of China in Oxford?
The Oxford China Centre is symbolic of the fact that the University of Oxford has now developed a very productive relationship with China and that, more broadly, UK higher education is engaging with China in a serious, equal-minded and very productive fashion. This is the single biggest centre for the study of China anywhere in Europe: we have over fifty academic staff, dozens of visiting scholars and hundreds of students. The subjects studied also range widely: colleagues upstairs are working on ancient Chinese philosophy or literature, but we also have a significant number of social scientists. This interdisciplinarity shows why the Centre benefits so much from being its own institution but also from engaging with many departments.
As a historian, how has the study of China changed during your career?
The study of China has changed immeasurably. And, the reason for this change can summed up in one word: access. Previously it was much harder for historians to go to archives to find documents in China itself. It's still not easy. There are a lot of barriers - political and otherwise, but it is feasible and indeed mandatory for social scientists and humanists to do fieldwork. It’s vital to have that ability to go to China and have conversations, which, yes, can be constrained and often do run up against political sensitivities, but nonetheless give you some level of inside understanding of what's going on.
In your research you focus on China’s modern history. What is the importance of recovering and writing that history?
Modern China – compared perhaps with any other major society – is very aware of its own history when it makes contemporary decisions. Whether it's the current turmoil in Hong Kong or the Sino-American trade war, understanding the historical background and what shapes China's attitudes and sensitivities is really important. For instance, awareness of the way in which China was forced during the Opium Wars of the 1830-1840s to open up its markets to so-called free trade regardless whether it wanted to or not is important in understanding the mindsets even today about not responding to demands from the outside world about trade, as opposed to negotiations.
You wrote 'Modern China: A Very Short Introduction' with Oxford University Press, the first edition in 2008 followed by the second in 2016. If you were to write a third edition now, how would it change?
If I were to look at the book again, the story that was less obvious in the previous two is about technology. China's contemporary society is changing very fast and its political system interacts with technology in distinctive way when it comes to using big data, artificial intelligence, virtual reality and the ability to create highly efficient and effective digital surveillance systems. I think by the time we come to the mid-2020s, the impact of technology on Chinese society and politics will be one of the big stories not just for China but actually as a comparator with other societies around the world.
You do a lot of public engagement, whether in your newspaper column, radio show, or documentaries. Why?
I think public engagement is essential. The changing status and rise of China in the world is one of those stories that everyone knows about but is seriously underexamined in its wider context. People know patchy facts, but they don't really see the picture as a whole. Some of the fault could be placed with the experts who have spent years studying the subject but maybe aren't doing enough to get it out into the public sphere. So, I've always considered it to be a really important part of who I want to be as a scholar to do very in-depth and sometimes abstruse academic research, but also try and make it relevant to a wider audience – as I did in my BBC Radio 4 series Chinese Characters.
What do you think are the biggest misconceptions that are out there about China?
We have been working very hard as a body of scholars to overcome the failure at large to understand what kind of society and state China is and what it isn't. China is a one-party state. It is a classic example of an authoritarian state. It doesn't operate liberal democratic politics. But that does not mean that China is a monolithic society or a univocal society that simply has one propaganda-driven voice. Instead you'll see that a country of 1.3 billion people clearly has a tremendous number of angles through which you can understand it: China is a plural noun.
Rana Mitter OBE is Professor of the History and Politics of Modern China and Director of the University of Oxford China Centre