Today is the 120th anniversary of the eruption of the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-95). The war is generally viewed as a turning point in modern Chinese history. The illusion of a strong navy of the then-Qing government and limited hopes brought by the Self-Strengthening Movement ended with the war's coming. China not only lost to the West, but also was defeated by an East Asian country—Japan. China's long-held sense of superiority came to an abrupt end.
The complete defeat in the war, and cession of territories and indemnities brought with it, caused Chinese society to realize that only reform could reverse China's backwardness. Yet all reform measures failed to save the Qing regime.
The war also completely remade East Asian geopolitics, with Japan assuming a role as the leading country in the region. Only in recent years has this arrangement changed to some extent.
Drawing lessons from the war is not an easy job. Neither China nor Japan has set an example in this. China was convulsed by half a century of war and other disturbances following its defeat, before it gradually found its path forward. Japan became increasingly self-centered and paranoid due to its victory in the war and began to follow an expansionist path. It would only begin to restrain itself following its defeat by other world powers in the World War II.
China's experiences during the past 120 years are fodder for significant reflection. China and Japan once again find themselves in a confrontational stance. How should we look at China's geopolitical status, both then and now? What's the most significant lesson for us? There has been much discussion throughout China on this subject, but no consensus has yet been reached.
Will China find itself in a new war, similar to the one 120 years ago? History will not repeat itself, but China still face a number of uncertainties. What are these uncertainties? From where can the Chinese people derive our strategic confidence?
It is naïve to compare the historical context of the First Sino-Japanese War or World War I with China's current circumstances. Both international politics and China's internal social structure have experienced profound changes.
China is rising, even as there are many factors countervailing this process, both internal and external. The momentum of China's development has empowered the country, while at the same time exposing problems. Opinions remain divided as to whether Chinese society as a whole can bear the pressure.
There are those who would compare the Sino-Japanese relationship of 120 years ago with today. It is a confusing comparison. China 120 years ago lacked national strength, social unity, and effective government. It proved unable to reform itself in the face of serious setbacks.
China's task of reform was thrown into sharp relief following the First Sino-Japanese War. Even now, the country must continue to push reforms, and curb its social ills.
We should continue to crack down on corruption, and protect the democracy advocated by generations of revolutionaries. All this, however, should not come at the cost of social chaos.