Introducing Dr Pete Millwood, Lecturer in East Asian History

We are delighted to welcome Dr Pete Millwood, who recently joined SHAPS as our newly appointed Lecturer in East Asian History. Dr Millwood is a historian of the Chinese world’s international and transnational relations, especially with the United States. He obtained his doctorate in History at St Antony’s College, Oxford, in 2018, and has held fellowships at Tsinghua and Oxford Universities, the London School of Economics, and the University of Hong Kong.

Pete Millwood’s first book, Improbable Diplomats: How Ping-Pong Players, Musicians, and Scientists Remade US-China Relations, published by Cambridge University Press in 2022, explores the thawing of this crucial Cold War relationship in the early 1970s from a transnational perspective. The book emphasises how travel and cross-cultural exchange between Chinese and American citizens – for example, scientists and ping-pong teams – played a crucial role in the rapprochement between the two nations. Particularly unique to his work is how Pete Millwood explores these dynamics ‘from below’, analysing the relationship between China and the world at the level of civil society.

Pete Millwood sat down with History PhD candidate and SHAPS Graduate Research Teaching Fellow James Hogg to discuss Chinese-world relations, both past and present; what he’s excited for this year at SHAPS; and the complexities of historical research.

Could you tell us what drove you to the study of history and particularly the study of China’s relationship to the world?

I came to studying history the same way that so many of us do: by reading. I found reading history books to be endlessly rewarding, constantly revealing new facets of the origins of the world around us. I also liked how history was in a way multidisciplinary, including every aspect of society — only, in the past.

My interest in China began as an undergraduate. In the second year of my undergraduate degree at the London School of Economics I was fortunate to be taught by one of the pioneers of Chinese international history, Arne Westad. Arne was a wonderful seminar teacher. His deep learning and his continuing fascination with the subject really came through in our class discussions. He also offered to supervise my final-year undergraduate dissertation — but he added the condition that I should only begin researching Chinese history if I was prepared to start learning Chinese straight away, which I did. I really enjoyed writing that dissertation, which looked at the impact of Mao’s death on China’s relations with the United States (and which, many years later, become some of the basis for my first journal article).

I then went to China for the first time the following summer and began intensive study of Chinese. That was also at a time when China was very open to the world and when the country was prioritising its international and global connections. I wasn’t explicitly thinking about that larger context as I planned my research projects, but probably there was some connection between wanting to understand the China of a decade or so ago and my choice to research the history of the country’s relations with the outside.

How are you hoping to further your research at the University of Melbourne? What research projects are you currently working on, and what would you like to undertake in the future?

I’m currently working on a short project, a journal article, that examines how Maoists in English-speaking countries – the US, UK, Australia – reacted when China stopped being Maoist. How did leftists who had been inspired by Mao’s China react when Deng Xiaoping and his colleagues jettisoned much of Mao’s most radical policies so soon after his death in 1976?

My tentative answer is that some very quickly broke with China, even calling for the death of Deng, who they denounced as a counter revolutionary (a charge that Deng was pretty used to hearing by that point). But others did not, instead staying loyal to China and continuing to explain China’s political changes of the late 1970s and 1980s as a continuation of the policies that had first drawn them to the PRC as an example of revolutionary praxis. I think that this provides an interesting case study for thinking about transnational political loyalty: what’s more important, loyalty to ideas or to a party or state? And what role do transnational adherents to a political ideology get to play in its continuation or termination?

Another, larger project looks at a different part of the Sinophone world – Taiwan – but continues my thematic interest in transnational connections. For this second project I’m trying to think about Taiwan’s democratic transition in transnational context: how many of the key actors – both Taiwanese and non-Taiwanese – often exercised their influence on political reform from beyond Taiwan, and how the Kuomintang regime, too, attempted to counter demands for political reform not just through authoritarianism at home but also through what today we call transnational repression.

Many Taiwanese and non-Taiwanese scholars have deeply researched Taiwan’s democratisation, especially in the domestic space; what I am hoping to be able to do is connect those existing histories with new scholarship on global political change in the 1970s through 1990s by using a global source body to trace Taiwan’s democratisation movement. I just got back from Taiwan, where I found a real wealth of sources on this topic that I’m excited to be working with.

Your book deals with a crucial moment in US-China relations, that is, the period leading to ‘normalisation’ between the two countries in 1979. What lessons from that period do you think are most pertinent today?

Sadly, I think that today Sino-American relations are more like they were in the early 1970s than they have been for a very long time. My book’s narrative begins in a period of mutual isolation between China and the United States: for two decades after the founding of Communist China in 1949, only a very small number of citizens from each side had travelled to the other country, numbering in the hundreds or fewer – miniscule numbers by today’s standards. We’re not there yet, but the years of strict Covid border controls were the closest either side has come to that level of isolation since that period; as recently as a few months ago, the US Ambassador to China, Nicholas Burns, said that by the State Department’s count there were only 350 American students studying in China, down from more than 11,000 before the pandemic. So, the first lesson of the 1970s is a positive one: that we can reverse the trend we’ve seen since 2020 and resume the active societal connections with China that existed before Covid.

The breakthroughs in Sino-American relations took a lot of work by people on both sides, so it won’t necessarily be easy to re-build societal contacts – but it is possible. Indeed, in the past, say, six months I think we’ve started to see this happen: many in China, in the US, and in Australia, too, have argued that, even if we are in a new era of competition, there is still value in maintaining ties between China and the Western world. A lot divides democratic societies and China, but that was true in the 1970s, too, when Mao’s regime was highly authoritarian. Nonetheless, I think contacts then, as they are now, are a net benefit to both sides.

The other lesson from the 1970s, though, is perhaps less encouraging: my book shows that more transnational contacts between China and the United States did not automatically generate more accurate understanding, or even necessarily goodwill. Most Chinese and Americans that visited the other country or met visitors from the other country were glad to have done so, but direct experience of the other country sometimes also increased confidence in mis-readings of the other society, or led to political squabbles. I really believe that there is value in China reconnecting with the outside world after Covid and in us re-establishing many of the links that frayed during those years. But doing so won’t automatically arrest some of the mutual suspicion and hostility that has grown in the past years, or by itself guarantee that we can avoid conflict.

One thing I think is particularly interesting about your work is how it recaptures a sense of agency and contingency in the historical process, by emphasising how smaller, civil actors shaped monumental diplomatic outcomes. Could you touch on some ways that actors on the ground, or in civil society more broadly, influenced the relationship between what are now the world’s two greatest superpowers?

Thanks, I’m glad to hear you say that as that’s really at the heart of my approach.

One of the episodes in my book that is probably familiar to many is the first leg of ping-pong diplomacy, when the US table tennis team travelled to China in April 1971 in a major breakthrough in relations, before Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, or any other official had visited China. But what I found when I began my research on US-China relations in the 1970s more broadly was that this was by no means the final time that civil society actors had a significant impact on the relationship. It wasn’t even the last time that ping-pong players did: there was also a second ping-pong visit in the other direction a year later, the first official delegation from the People’s Republic of China to the US since the former’s founding in 1949.

But there were also dozens of other important visits. The Philadelphia Orchestra visited China in 1973, in a visit that many of the orchestra, including its director Eugene Ormandy, called the most important and exciting visit of their whole lives. That visit helped revive interest in classical Western music in China in the twilight of the Cultural Revolution and was also the basis for American musicians becoming interested in Chinese musical traditions.

Scientists were another important set of visitors, whether left-leaning American scientists interested in Chinese revolutionary science such as new applications for acupuncture – which became a bit of a craze in 1970s America – or Chinese scientists who had earlier studied in the US and embraced the chance to rebuild intellectual links with scientists they knew in that country.

Together, these many different types of visits had a cumulative effect of rebuilding deep, diverse connections between the two societies, and also helped encourage the further development of the diplomatic relationship between the two governments. For example, the book tries to show how Chinese interest in access to US science was a key motivation for the final agreement for mutual diplomatic recognition that was reached in 1978 – not coincidentally, just as China started sending large numbers of scholars and students for long-term stays in the United States.

For these initial travellers, expectations and pre-conceptions of their destinations were of course moulded by the regimes of their respective countries – so that in a recent talk I think you mentioned the Chinese government was trepidatious about sending their ping-pong team to a previously hostile and certainly anti-communist country. To what extent did the experience of travel challenge these preconceptions, both for the actors themselves and the diplomats they represented?

The experience of travel certainly did a lot to change preconceived ideas of the other country. Right up until the first American delegations were sent to China in 1971 and vice versa in 1972 each government had demonised the other and this earlier message still lingered for early visitors. So, as you say, China’s table tennis team was very concerned about the reaction they’d get when they went to the US in April 1972, and whether they’d be safe. And they did face protests: anti-communists and supporters of the rival, Republic of China government on Taiwan organised hundreds of people to protest these representatives of Mao’s China, and to encourage them to defect.

But what I think struck the Chinese visitors more was how many more Americans – tens of thousands – warmly welcomed them, asking them about Communist China, in a respectful and open way. Likewise, many of the first American visitors to China were bowled over by the friendliness of their hosts, the curiosity of ordinary Chinese towards foreign visitors, and the safety they enjoyed wherever they went in China.

Both sets of visitors were also surprised at how successful and dynamic they found the other society. Chinese visitors had been told of a predatory, ineffective capitalist American society, where the majority suffered so a few could get rich. Internal Chinese documents include candid reflections that you couldn’t build cities like New York or have such high levels of car ownership if only a small minority were rich, even if they also noted homeless beggars and crime.

Americans, too, often concluded that Communist China was a far more effective society than they had been led to believe before the 1970s. Many even offered adulatory praise for Mao’s China that went far beyond the reality. This was in part because their visits were closely controlled by their hosts. But it was also, I think, because experiencing the reality of China jarred with two decades of propaganda in which they’d been told that Chinese Communism was on the brink of collapse.

Great! And would you like to run us through the subjects you were hoping to teach next year, and perhaps what you’d like to bring to them?

Next year I’ll continue to teach China in Global History since 1945 (HIST20086) and Cold War Cultures in Asia (HIST30066).

I’ve just finished my first semester of teaching China in Global History and I really enjoyed discussing the content with my students. The subject examines many of the best-known events of China’s post-war history and does so in a way that emphasises the connections between domestic history and relations with the outside world. So, we look at, say, the Cultural Revolution, but focus more on how that political movement influenced China’s foreign relations in the 1960s and 1970s, and how Mao’s ideas were an inspiration to many people around the world, from Cambodian Communists to Black Panthers in California.

I’m excited to teach Cold War Cultures in Asia in semester 1. The subject will take a broad definition of ‘culture’. In some weeks, we’ll examine cultural production, from books through films to dance. But the subject will also consider cultures of protest, of consumption, and military cultures. In all cases, the subject will take a comparative perspective, trying to unpick the similarities and differences in how the global Cold War was experienced in diverse societies across Asia. I’m already enjoying preparing the subject!

More information about Pete Millwood’s research and teaching can be found here

James Hogg is a PhD candidate and commencing Graduate Research Teaching Fellow. His research focuses on Australian anti-fascism in the 20th Century, with an emphasis on the role of migrants and the Communist Party of Australia. In 2024, he will be a member of the teaching teams for The French Revolution (HIST20068) and Dictators and Democrats: The Modern World (HIST10015).



Feature image: Pete Millwood, 2023. Photographer: Nicole Davis.