This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. 

Quartz: What memories stand out about your time in China?

Mitter: I’ve been going to China for over 30 years, starting with the period when the reform era was beginning to get going, after the 1989 killings in Tiananmen Square. Those happened during the first year that I was a student in Cambridge. We were in Taiwan that summer, not in the mainland, for obvious reasons, and wondering whether this was the end of a story.

As it turned out, horrific and tragic though the killings were, they did not stop the upward economic trajectory of China. In the years since then, I’ve been able to see it go from this country that was really pushed on the back foot in 1989 to one that, for good or ill, is now this economic and military superpower, and one of the three main bodies with the US and the EU that is setting norms and standards around the world.

How do you research China without being there?

Mitter: I have not been physically in China since the autumn of 2019 because shortly after that it became difficult for outsiders to go. Fortunately, we do live in a world where China can come to us much more easily, whether it’s social media, whether it’s tremendously rich amounts of reporting in both English and Chinese from China, and even now from Hong Kong, where there’s still a lot of reporting about what’s going on in the mainland. And I’m regularly speaking on video calls to friends in China.

How did a younger Rana fall into Chinese history and politics?

Mitter: The one thing I can’t claim, and I wish that I could, is that this was something that [I] saw coming years ago when [I was] in high school, that China was going to be the next rising power and that it’d be good to get in on the ground floor. Actually, I had no idea of that whatsoever.

I’m of British Indian heritage. I grew up in the south coast of England, most of the time near Brighton. In the late 1980s, early 1990s, China was a tremendously remote place in terms of British perceptions. India has always, for imperial reasons, been the Asian connection that’s been stronger in Britain. So this was a combination of a very challenging but interesting language, but also a culture that perhaps had as little to do with the things that I’d grown up with as could possibly be imagined. And although in later decades China has come much closer to us, that was by no means obvious. So it was a leap in the dark, but one that I’ve not regretted at any point since.

Did you have an ‘aha’ moment in terms of realizing that this rather niche area of study was becoming a big deal in the UK? 

Mitter: There is a turning point taking place that we’re privileged to witness in the relationship between the UK and China. It’s driven by two things, one of which is the changing position of the UK in the world [after Brexit], and on the China side, under Xi Jinping, moving to a China that is clear about the fact that it is going to take a very global role.

Even three or four years ago, Britain still didn’t have any great awareness of China either for good or ill. If you were in universities, you would see that the numbers of Chinese students were growing. If you were involved in certain types of business or investment related to Hong Kong, you might have a connection there. But other than that, China was not in a very central place in people’s perceptions.

A whole variety of things have come together in the very recent past that put it on the radar screen in Britain, includ[ing] the controversy over Huawei 1, the pandemic, the changing tone of the Trump administration, but also the influence of that period which became nicknamed the golden era under prime minister [David] Cameron and chancellor George Osborne, in which there was an active attempt to look for investment from China.

The British Foreign Policy Group came out with a survey on what Britons think about China. Only 30% supported the idea of Chinese students attending UK universities. You’re an academic who built your career on understanding China. How does that make you feel?

Mitter: It is absolutely imperative that we continue to have Chinese students in our classrooms, for one reason that I’m very upfront about: It is possible for us to teach elements of Chinese history and politics in the UK—elements of the Mao era’s history, for instance—that are simply impossible to discuss in as free and frank a way within China as you can do in the UK. And many Chinese students value that. I think many Chinese officials and historians value it too, they just can’t say it, because it means that some aspects of China’s complexity in its past is preserved.

It’s very important to be talking to China’s next generation, particularly the students in their teens and 20s now are going to be the decision makers in their 30s, 40s, and beyond. And I think that the UK having a role in training those people is a fantastic opportunity.

It’s indicative that the Chinese middle classes know a great deal more about Britain than the middle classes of Britain know about China.

Overall, that survey makes for pretty grim reading for the Chinese, I’d imagine. Fifteen percent of Britons don’t want their government engaging with China at all.

Mitter: Let me give you another statistic from the British Council (pdf), which did surveys of the favorability rating of different countries in the eyes of the Chinese. Britain came second, slightly defeated by France. That may be partly because the French, some say, have better cooking than the British 2. But it’s not actually to do with the battle of the kitchens—it’s more to do with a variety of perception of values. So there’s a real imbalance in what the UK thinks of China and what China thinks about the UK.

What the UK thinks about China is mostly shaped by the fact that there is not that much information about China in the wider public sphere. And to some extent that is the fault of the Chinese authorities because they are very reluctant to let reporting on China actually take place. Journalists, who are the best conduit for actually educating people about a society, placed in China, find there are huge restrictions in terms of what it is that they can actually report 3.

Where does that leave the UK and where does that leave China?

Mitter: I think it leaves us with a challenge for each side. So let me start with the UK. [The government must] equip its business, academics, teachers, media, with an understanding of what China is and what it isn’t and how it’s of relevance to the UK. Too often [China] has been regarded either as a massive market which somehow people can sell into and that’s its only purpose, or as the new Soviet Union, essentially an ideological enemy which has nothing but malign intentions and which we must keep away from at all costs.

On the Chinese side, I would say that the greatest obstacle to China’s rise in the world is not the Americans, it’s China itself, because China is a strong country, which is acting as if it were a weak country. And because I’m a historian, I understand that not that long ago, China was constantly invaded, bombed, and attacked. All sorts of things would go on to shape the mindset of a political elite which felt itself to be under siege.

But today, China is not under siege. China is prosperous, it’s got a party state system, which I personally think is quite embedded and relatively stable. It has a great deal of influence in the world. It’s no longer a country which has to be defensive about absolutely everything. And the only thing that is getting in the way of China being able to tell [its] story is its authoritarian system of government, which it clings to when it has, I think, no real need to.

So you think that China could loosen some of those controls and still achieve the economic growth it needs?

Mitter: Absolutely. I am not saying that China has to become—well, I’m not saying that China has to do anything because I’m not in a position to tell China to do anything, I’m just a guy who writes books about the 1940s. It doesn’t seem to me necessary for China to turn into an electoral democracy to achieve any of its goals, and the last decade in particular has shown that having an electoral democracy is not necessarily proof against authoritarian politics.

Ten years ago let’s say, under the same Communist Party system, there was an authoritarianism which had a bit more room to breathe. I would have liked more, but the late 2000s to early 2010s were a relatively open period in China in terms of discussion of certain issues. Since then, most observers would say that it’s been much more difficult to speak out.

If you look at political systems not just in terms of, are they full liberal democracies or authoritarian societies, with nothing in between, instead of looking at the types of hybridity which do exist in the spectrum across the world, and supposing China fitted into one of these, could the world live with that? That, I think, is a question worth asking, within China as well as of China from outside.

You said that China is aiming for a larger role in the world. Can you paint a picture of what that world, one where China is in the place that the US, let’s say, is in now, would look like?

Mitter: I don’t think it is possible for China to take the exact role that the US has, because you would need a coordinated ideological position about what you think the world ought to look like. China’s primary goal is to try and make sure that the world is friendly to China’s interests, which is not the same as want[ing] to impose its system.

If China had, as it would like to have, a greater role in global governance, we would probably see a world [in which] strong norms of territorial sovereignty would be much more fiercely enforced—basically whatever goes on within the country’s borders are its own business. Democracy, fine. Dictatorship, fine. Coup, fine. There would be a much greater emphasis on collective economic development. There would be no barrier to much greater levels of top down and quite monolithic state control of a variety of areas, and cyberspace would be the obvious example of that.

China is very keen that individual nation states should have rights over their own cyberspace, but also that countries should be able to police how other people use their cyberspace.

The possibility of that world seems to worry a lot of people in Britain—does it worry you?

Mitter: It doesn’t worry me as long as we in Britain are fully aware of what the rise of China means and think clearly about how to preserve our own interests as that rise happens. I think that the likelihood of China being able to subvert our liberal values and institutions, assuming they wish to do it, is very low as long as we have confidence in those institutions.

In Britain, we have spent too much time subverting some of our own institutions, whether they are an independent judiciary or our broadcasting media. That has got absolutely nothing to do with China. That is what we do to ourselves.

There are many things that we ought to pay attention to, just as China pays attention to threats from outside. But becoming consumed by them to the effect that we put ourselves into a geopolitically impossible situation of having no engagement with this hugely influential growing power would be entirely counterproductive.

Even if we decided we weren’t going to deal with China, if we can even manage that, the rest of the world is certainly going to be dealing with China one way or another. And I would rather have a significant outward looking liberal power that takes part in that engagement rather than being out of that conversation.

📬 Sign up for the Daily Brief

Our free, fast, and fun briefing on the global economy, delivered every weekday morning.