Frank Dikötter


On his book The Age of Openness: China before Mao

Cover Interview of June 04, 2009

In a nutshell

The era between empire and communism is routinely portrayed as a catastrophic interlude in China’s modern history.  The Age of Openness argues instead that the first half of the twentieth century witnessed a qualitatively unprecedented trend towards openness in China.

Far from being in a state of decay that called for revolutionary action, China before Mao was a vibrant and cosmopolitan society.  From 1900 to 1949, all levels of Chinese society were seeking engagement with the rest of the world, and that pursuit of openness was particularly evident in governance (with advances made in civil liberties and the rule of law), in greater freedom of movement within the country and outside it, in the lively exchange of ideas in the humanities and sciences, and in the thriving and open markets (which resulted in sustained growth in the economy).

Seen in this light, China’s current leadership is not thriving to establish something bold and new, but rather struggling to rebuild a network of global connections that Mao and his followers had systematically helped to destroy.