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China Also Rises

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Piers Brendon   
петак, 22. октобар 2010.

(The National Interest, October 20, 2010)

From the Nov-Dec 2010 issue

Will China seek revenge for its century of humiliation at the hands of the West?

AMONG THE gifts brought by Lord Macartney, who came to Beijing in 1793 on a historic embassy intended to open China to British merchants, was a map of the world, which the Emperor Ch’ien-lung found unacceptable because the Middle Kingdom was represented on it as too small and not in the middle. As it happened, Macartney’s compatriots had already established their own cartographical supremacy. During the eighteenth century Greenwich was adopted as the prime meridian of longitude, a convention internationally ratified in 1884, and imperial maps using Mercator’s projection made Britain seem greater than it really was. Toward the end of the Second World War, American writers such as Nicholas John Spykman and Neil MacNeil urged that their country’s dominant geopolitical power should be recognized by redrawing maps of the world to put the United States at the center.

Today, the question arises with increasing urgency: Is China set to occupy pride of place in the global picture as it had famously done in the time of Marco Polo? 

THE WAKING of the Asian giant, which was dormant for so long but has just overtaken Japan as the second-largest economy on the planet, is one of the most astonishing developments of the modern age. Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward in 1958, an attempt to collectivize agriculture which resulted in a famine that killed some 25 million people, appeared to show what might be expected from a Marxist dictatorship. Yet twenty years later, then–leader of China Deng Xiaoping initiated a “second revolution” which realized the vast potential of what was, at the time, one of the poorest and most undeveloped countries in the world.

Deng moved carefully, “crossing the river by feeling for the stones.” In an extraordinary balancing act, which Mikhail Gorbachev was quite unable to emulate in Russia, he permitted capitalist free enterprise while keeping a Communist grip on political power. The result was annual growth rates of nearly 10 percent over the next three decades. China’s share of global exports rose from 1.8 percent in 1980 to about 9 percent in 2010, usurping Germany’s top position in this league. It is projected to reach 12 percent by 2014, making the most populous country on earth the new workshop of the world.

The figures boggle the mind: The Chinese make nearly three-fifths of the world’s clothing, two-thirds of its shoes and four-fifths of its toys. China produces more cars than any other country, 13.79 million in 2009, as compared with Japan’s 7.93 million and America’s 5.7 million. Using more steel and cement than anyone else, China also has more miles of high-speed railway line. It makes nearly 70 percent of the world’s photocopiers, DVD players and microwave ovens. And it has leapfrogged the United States as the largest exporter of information technology—computers, mobile phones, digital cameras and so on. Not only have the Chinese just become the greatest consumers of energy, but they are spending billions of dollars on the creation of green technology and renewable sources of power—between 2008 and 2009 they doubled their wind-turbine capacity.

This year, according to the International Monetary Fund, China’s GDP will reach $5.36 trillion, slightly more than that of Japan. Of course, this is well below the U.S. figure of $14.79 trillion, but China’s economy is expected to overtake that of America, its largest overseas market, before 2030. Worse still for the United States, its trade deficit with the People’s Republic reached a record $268 billion in 2008. By mid-2009, China owned nearly 27 percent of America’s staggering $3.5 trillion foreign-held public debt. Thus the two nations, so alien politically and culturally, are locked together in an unprecedented, and what seems to be an inextricable, economic embrace.

How will it all end? Is it to be a spider-like clinch followed by a poisonous bite? Or is it to be a fruitful union in which each party learns to love the other? Will China attempt to translate its economic strength into military might and challenge the dominance of the world’s sole superpower? Since we can’t foresee the future, what answers does the past suggest? Not straight answers, unfortunately, for Clio, the muse of history and the only guide we’ve got, is about as lucid as the Delphic oracle.

Certainly there is evidence to show that rising commercial states often distill their wealth into power, arming themselves in order to contest for ascendancy. This was the theory formulated by Thucydides to explain the Peloponnesian War: commerce and navigation produced an accumulation of resources which was the foundation of the Athenian empire, whose aggressive stance provoked Spartan resistance. Similarly, Britain used its financial, commercial, naval and industrial muscle to acquire an empire which grew to be seven times larger than that of Rome at its zenith. Thanks to its culture, trade and technology, China itself dominated Asia for two millennia, claiming to be “the only civilization under heaven.”

For all China’s exalted pretensions those centuries ago, its amour propre was comprehensively assaulted during more than a hundred years of humiliation at outside hands. It is a period etched in acid on the pages of Chinese student textbooks today and one in which the sleeping giant undoubtedly enjoyed sweet dreams of vengeance against the fan qui, “foreign devils.” Will Beijing now try to realize those dreams? Or will its fate at the hands of outsiders direct it toward paths of peace? The prologue to China’s traumatic loss of national face can be found in the first modern encounter between East and West.

WHEN MACARTNEY arrived on his doomed eighteenth-century mission, the Celestial Emperor held sway over a realm stretching from the Caspian Sea to the Ryukyu Islands, from Lake Baikal to the Gulfs of Bengal and Siam. Aliens were deemed barbarians who, in the British case, looked like demons, stank like corpses and probably had webbed feet, and whose homeland could be brought to a constipated standstill by Canton’s refusal to sell it rhubarb. The British envoy was represented as bearing tribute to the Son of Heaven, and his refusal to kowtow was put down to outlandish ignorance. The Chinese were shocked that he could mention his sovereign, whom they regarded as one of Europe’s royal train of “puny hobgoblins or petty monsters,” in the same breath as their godhead. Ch’ien-lung himself addressed King George III as a subject and told him that his own sublimely self-sufficient empire had no use for English goods of any kind.

The Qing dynasty had been in power for nearly 150 years by this point. Yet over the course of the next century, Chinese rule would be slowly eviscerated at the hands of outsiders. The process started when it turned out that the Chinese actually did need something that foreigners could supply: they had an insatiable craving for opium. This was produced in British India and smuggled in increasing quantities into China—a trade in which Americans, or “flowery flag devils,” were also heavily involved. By the 1830s, forty years after Ch’ien-lung’s pronouncement, two emperors later and three centuries since opium first made its way into Chinese ports, it was estimated that over 2 million Chinese had become addicts. The then–Qing Emperor Daoguang feared that the narcotic was impoverishing his nation and demoralizing his people—sections of the army were too stupefied to fight. However, his efforts to suppress the drug traffic brought him into conflict with Lord Palmerston, British foreign secretary and champion of free trade and gunboat diplomacy.

The resulting First Opium War (1839–42) demonstrated the hopeless inferiority of Chinese military power, which relied on magic charms, gruesome masks, bows and arrows, ancient matchlocks and monkeys with firecrackers strapped to their backs which were supposed, when hurled aboard British ships, to explode their powder magazines. Harsh peace terms were imposed by the earliest of what China later called the “unequal treaties.” The British acquired Hong Kong as well as sharing, with Europeans and Americans, commercial and other privileges in five ports, including Canton and Shanghai. This meant, in essence, that the foreign devils could, with near impunity, peddle their narcotics wherever and whenever they wished. Liberal opinion in the West was outraged by this flagrant drug deal; Chinese hatred of outsiders burned evermore brightly.

CHINA ITSELF was destabilized by the episode, particularly as the British toyed with the idea of turning the entire country into a second India—the project was finally dismissed as too expensive, but this did not preclude powers such as France and Japan from gnawing at the Middle Kingdom’s extremities. Moreover, British and American entrepreneurs took advantage of the “open door” to develop the business of transporting coolies (manual laborers from Asia) to work overseas on plantations, mines and the like, an undertaking which bore a marked resemblance to the slave trade. The treaty ports became microcolonies, with Chinese and dogs excluded from their parks. Young Westerners sent to work in the Orient were instructed to keep the Sabbath . . . and anything else they could lay their hands on.

Many Chinese lost faith in the Qing dynasty, which was one reason for a series of devastating upheavals. The worst of these was the Taiping Rebellion (1850–64), which was led by a Chinese Christian convert and killed more people than did the First World War. The ossified imperial court—which was, incidentally, made up of ethnically Manchu Chinese, as good as foreigners to the largely Han population—seemed incapable of defeating the Taipings and equally incompetent when it came to dealing with other disasters that afflicted the realm: flood, famine, plague, vicious landlordism, incipient bankruptcy and a corrupt mandarinate.

Worse still, it was unable to prevent further alien incursions during the Second Opium War, which began in late 1856 after the search of a suspicious British ship, the crescendo of many Chinese attempts to resist the outsiders in Canton. The war culminated in the burning of the emperor’s Summer Palace in 1860, a punitive enterprise directed from the Hall of Probity by British High Commissioner to China Lord Elgin, whose father had despoiled the Parthenon of its marbles. Significantly, a film about this monstrous act of vandalism was shown in Beijing during the 1983–84 negotiations with Britain about the future of Hong Kong. At a time when Deng Xiaoping appeared to be taking pleasure in imposing a thoroughly unequal treaty on the impotent Margaret Thatcher, who seemed to think that winning back the Falkland Islands authorized her to retain Hong Kong (which Deng could have taken with a telephone call), the film focused less on the barbarity of the Europeans than on the humiliation of the Chinese.

And that humiliation persisted. Outside powers continued to devour China’s areas of sovereign control as the country ravaged itself from within. Enabled in large part by the 1860 Treaty of Tianjin, in which foreigners gained access to even more ports, further freedoms of travel and immunity from many Chinese laws, Britain, France and Russia dominated the Middle Kingdom. The opium trade was legalized and the right of Christians to evangelize was secured, which prompted the Chinese, once again, to turn on their oppressors. In 1898, a secret society known as the Righteous Harmonious Fists was founded to fight the outsiders. The Boxer Rebellion followed a year later. The rebels not only killed foreign devils but attacked every sign of their influence: railways, telegraph lines, steamships, merchandise, mines, schools, orphanages and churches. The last, with their heavy steeples, weighed especially hard upon the spirits of the earth, upsetting its geomantic harmony or feng shui. Among the many thousands killed were missionaries, some answering the call not only of Jesus but also of President William McKinley, who urged the Christianization of Asia as a fulfillment of America’s manifest destiny.

The Dowager Empress Cixi, who had effectively ruled China since 1861 and prevented any reform of its institutions, shared the Boxers’ loathing of aliens and secretly supported their insurrection. She eventually declared war against the West, only to reverse her position and support the foreign powers after the Boxers were defeated. Thus, Cixi was widely discredited both by the rebellion’s success and by its failure. The nationalist leader Sun Yat-sen, Christian, socialist and democrat, blamed her reactionary court for China’s backwardness. And in 1911, three years after her death, revolutionaries owing allegiance to him overthrew both the Qing dynasty and the age-old system of imperial rule.

BUT EVEN as a republic, China remained riven by internal strife and lacerated by external aggression. Sun’s eventual successor, Chiang Kai-shek, was a kind of national warlord, fighting off lesser warlords while keeping Communism at bay. Assailed by Mao Zedong’s Red Army, Chiang was also under attack from without, for by 1931 the “invading dwarfs” of Nippon arrived, hungry for Chinese raw materials and markets.

That the Japanese, in thrall to China from time immemorial, should try to subjugate their vast neighbor seemed an inversion of the cosmic order. Japan had long been viewed as the inferior nation looking to its Asian neighbor for monies as well as culture. That they should turn the tables with such cruelty compounded the shock. The Second Sino-Japanese War began in 1937, some forty years after the first (fought over Korea) had indicated a change in the balance of power. TheJapanese army, the Soldiers of the Sun, mounted a sustained campaign of terror against the civilian population, murdering, raping, looting and destroying on an inconceivable scale. As Japan’s “blood-spot flag” advanced, thousands of villages were razed to the ground. Shanghai was so pulverized that Japanese witnesses said it was “just like our earthquake.” And at the end of 1937, Nanjing became the scene of the worst atrocity of all, as Japanese troops raped at least twenty thousand women and massacred perhaps more than one hundred thousand people, providing evidence of their own brutality with trophy photographs.

This event provided a ghastly climax to China’s years of humiliation and confirmed its people’s abhorrence of outsiders. Chiang’s book China’s Destiny, which he wrote during the war, was a bitter denunciation of alien interference in his country. Soon after, Japan was defeated by the Allies, and Mao Zedong finally overthrew Chiang and established himself as the Red Emperor. His regime ended up being every bit as inward looking as that of the Qing dynasty, and he himself unsurprisingly took the traditional view of “foreign devils.”

None are more unpopular in China today than the Japanese, who persistently refuse to acknowledge the full extent of their guilt. Such apologies as they make are deemed halfhearted and insincere. Japanese schoolchildren are taught a sanitized version of history. And Japanese prime ministers have paid visits to the Yasukuni Shrine which honors not only the country’s war dead but also war criminals.

AMERICA IS disliked almost as much as Japan, not only because of the part it played in China’s shameful exploitation but also because it backed Chiang Kai-shek, who retreated to the fortress of Taiwan after Mao’s Communists took control of the mainland. The “loss of China” as ally, market and mission field appalled Americans such as Henry Luce, proprietor of Time magazine and the most influential voice of the China lobby. Convinced that Beijing was a puppet of Moscow and that the United States should roll back the yellow Reds, he and his ilk were guilty of much “Luce thinking”—Time, said its owner, was nonpartisan but supported Chiang.

The China lobby contributed to the paranoia that fostered the Cold War abroad and McCarthyism at home. America clashed with China in Korea. Eisenhower, who refused to recognize the People’s Republic of China, famously “unleashed” Chiang against Mao, lifting Truman-era restrictions on Taiwan-launched military attacks against the mainland. It was rather like unleashing a mouse against a cat, and Ike had to sustain Chiang by intimating that he might use tactical nuclear weapons to protect islands such as Quemoy, claimed by Taiwan. Despite Richard Nixon’s détente with China, Taiwan itself remains a potential flash point to this day. Its president’s visit to the United States in 1995 provoked serious saber rattling from Beijing, where then-President Jiang Zemin reportedly warned his compatriots that America would never give up its policy of westernizing and disintegrating China. Nixon himself had concluded that unless the United States learned to “cultivate” developing China, it might become the “most formidable enemy that has ever existed in the history of the world.”

HERE, THEN, is an account calculated to show that the reinvigorated Chinese dragon will endeavor to retaliate against the American eagle, itself seeking a new foe in lieu of the Soviet bear. China is bound to regain face, so the argument goes, by using its newfound resources to arm itself and to confront the United States in military terms. The idea that progress heads westward and that power follows the sun was heard, it has rightly been said, “from Horace to Horace Greeley.” Now Chinese authorities such as Wang Jisi (dean of the School of International Studies at Peking University) quote the adage that “the torch of history seems to be relayed from the West to the East.” A clash between the two titans, divided for so long by so much bad blood, is widely supposed to be inevitable.

This is not the case. Not only does history not repeat itself, it contains no rhythms or patterns which enable its students to make sure predictions. It is a “flickering lamp,” wrote Winston Churchill, in a world governed by time and chance. Human beings and all their works are subject, as Edward Gibbon said, to “the vicissitudes of fortune.” Or, in the somewhat less coherent words of Margaret Thatcher, “the unexpected happens” and “fail-safe plans are designed to go wrong.” But while certainty is unattainable, history does offer more optimistic possibilities than the saga of Chinese humiliation at foreign hands may suggest. One conceivable outcome that deserves serious consideration is that we are at the dawn of an era of fruitful cooperation between China and America.

It must be said that commercially successful states do not automatically or immediately beat their pruning hooks into swords. For all its overwhelming industrial and mercantile dominance, the United States remained a tenth-rate military power (except for its navy) until galvanized by Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. Deng’s China itself put the modernization of its armed forces behind that of agriculture, manufacturing and science, and in the two decades after 1981 its troop numbers fell by half, to 2.3 million. Admittedly, its defense spending rose thereafter, but it remains a much-lower percentage of GDP than does America’s. And this year the rise has been checked, apparently in order to assuage foreign worries about its military modernization.

In other words, there is no necessary correlation between economic growth and military strength. Witness Stalin’s Russia, which made guns at the expense of butter during the 1930s, starving itself great. As Hitler and Mussolini also showed, this is a policy to which totalitarian states are particularly prone. Yet China’s leaders seem dedicated to augmenting prosperity in order to secure stability. Having been racked by internal convulsions for generations, the country evidently prefers tyranny to anarchy, even to democracy. Anything is better than a return to the bloody turmoil of the Taiping or the warlord era or to the horrors of the Cultural Revolution. As Deng Xiaoping insisted, “Stability supersedes all.”

The ideal of harmony is quintessentially Confucian. The philosopher stressed that good order is the basis of prosperity and security. Violence is a last resort and will probably be ineffective. Historically, China has assimilated aggression, rolling with punches, overcoming hardness with softness. Where possible it has avoided taking the offensive. This is not to say, of course, that the Beijing government avoids coercion close to home, as became tragically clear in the suppressing of the 1989 demonstrations in Tiananmen Square and the crushing of resistance in Tibet. But it is to suggest that China prefers, particularly in a nuclear age, to use “soft power” and “smile diplomacy” abroad.

THERE IS little evidence that China wishes to jeopardize its burgeoning affluence by adventurist attempts to contest American hegemony. On the contrary, the Chinese leadership is all too conscious that the Soviet Union’s endeavor to compete militarily with the United States was a major factor in its collapse. Prosperity breeds contentment. As Jonathan Swift noted in The Battle of the Books, quarrels usually stem from want rather than plenty, and “we may observe in the republic of dogs . . . that the whole state is ever in the profoundest peace after a full meal.”

Needless to say, accidents do happen, and when American bombers destroyed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, a wave of spontaneous fury engulfed the People’s Republic. The bombing was said to be a “barbarian” act of aggression comparable to the imperialist invasion of China after the Boxer Rebellion. It was even compared to a Nazi war crime. Fearing domestic and international damage, however, the authorities did their best to calm the storm. The kept press assuaged popular passions. Television reports were emollient. Censorship of the Internet was tightened via a list of some thousand taboo words, the building blocks of the Great Firewall of China.

There was a similar response to George W. Bush’s disastrous invasion of Iraq, which replaced Chinese sympathy for the United States in the wake of 9/11 with feelings of anxiety and mistrust—feelings exacerbated by President Obama’s failure to pull America out of the Afghan quagmire. Just as England’s difficulty was once Ireland’s opportunity, so America’s difficulty might have been China’s. But, no. The Chinese media tamped down outbursts of chauvinism which might have led to public protests. One result, according to Susan Shirk’s excellent book China: Fragile Superpower, was that the American abuse of prisoners in Abu Ghraib was condemned much more vehemently in the Great Republic than in the People’s Republic.

Perhaps nationalism has succeeded Communism as the creed of Red China, but its rulers show signs of wanting to make their country a good citizen of the world. They have signally reduced the number of land-border disputes with their fourteen neighbors. They have participated eagerly in international forums such as the World Trade Organization. They have eased relations with Japan and, horrified by the nuclear brinkmanship of Kim Jong Il, mediated with Korea. They have muted criticisms of the United States, even when Jiang Zemin’s Boeing 767 was found to contain twenty-seven sophisticated bugging devices after being refitted in Texas in 2001—a covert operation which might have been designed to demonstrate that the term “intelligence agency” is an oxymoron.

Wang Jisi articulates the official Chinese position: since Mao’s victory in 1949 the Communist elite has generally believed that America and other hostile outside forces have been intent on conquering and destabilizing China. But globalization has increased the cost of conflict and reduced the danger of war. It has also magnified many of the problems from which China suffers, such as pollution, urban overcrowding and huge disparities of wealth—100 million people live on less than a dollar a day and a quarter of the population lacks access to clean drinking water. So China’s priority is to tackle these problems. It aims to build a rich and great society, dedicated to peace, progress, harmony, sustainable development and international cooperation.

No doubt the Chinese leaders also favor motherhood and apple pie. But it is easy to be cynical about Wang Jisi’s uplifting protestations, to suspect that China is still nurturing bitter resentment toward the West for the century of humiliation, and to fear that it is only biding its time and accumulating the necessary strength before retaliating in kind. Yet the Chinese are not necessarily prisoners of their past and they have overwhelming economic reasons to seek a political modus vivendi with America. Indeed, they now talk of using history as “a mirror to look forward to the future.” Certainly it makes sense for them to look forward, rather than back, since their future is much better than it used to be. And this is what China’s 1.3 billion people may well do as they advance toward the center of the world’s stage.

Piers Brendon is a fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge University. His most recent book is The Decline and Fall of the British Empire 1781–1997, (Knopf Publishing Group, 2008).