China Beat Archive



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November 17, 2009 in The China Beat


Copyright November 17, 2009. Used by permission.


Prominent Qing specialist Pamela Crossley of Dartmouth College has a new book coming out in February, The Wobbling Pivot, China Since 1800: An Interpretive History, which is aimed at general readers and is designed to be suitable as well for classes devoted to modern Chinese history. One theme in the book that is likely to be of special interest to those who follow this blog is her frequent discussion of similarities and differences over time in patterns of unrest and the way that the state and its representatives respond to challenges from below. Focusing largely on tensions and modes of accommodation between central authorities and local communities, Crossley offers an intriguing new way of thinking about many of the big upheavals of the recent past, from the White Lotus Rebellion to the recent unrest in Tibet and Xinjiang. In this excerpt, however, which gives a good sense of the liveliness of the book’s prose as well as the kinds of subjects it addresses, we see how her approach can also be used to shed light on minor fracases of the sort that anyone who has spent time in China is likely to have witnessed at some point during their stay.

It is unusual for the contents of a semi-confidential email to become universally known on the Internet. But in March of 2009, after the nomination of Charles W. Freeman Jr. as chair of the American government’s National Intelligence Council, his email to the ChinaSec listserv group of May 26, 2006 drew attention for this comment about the Tiananmen incidents of 1989: “I find the dominant view in China about this very plausible, i.e. that the truly unforgivable mistake of the Chinese authorities was the failure to intervene on a timely basis to nip the demonstrations in the bud, rather than – as would have been both wise and efficacious – to intervene with force when all other measures had failed to restore domestic tranquility to Beijing and other major urban centers in China. In this optic, the Politburo’s response to the mob scene at ‘Tian’anmen’ stands as a monument to overly cautious behavior on the part of the leadership, not as an example of rash action.”