China’s Perspective

China remembers its former greatness.  Magnificent civil engineering projects:  the Dujiangyan Water Project still functioning after 2400 years;  the Great Wall. Confucius, paper, literacy and calligraphy, silk, gunpowder, compass, the elegant society that so impressed Marco Polo.   In the 1400s, under the Ming Dynasty, Admiral Zheng sailed fleets as large as 300 ships and 30,000 sailors as far as the coasts of Africa and South America, and even by speculative account, the eastern coast of North America.  They achieved total economic and military domination of the Asian Pacific region.

And it remembers its “century of humiliation”.  The dismemberment and eventual disintegration of the Chinese empire began when the British pried open the first five “treaty ports” at the end of the First Opium War (1842).  Within a decade, European colonialist powers had seized concessions in 15 ports, claiming damaging trade concessions and foreign areas within these cities. Muslim uprisings took place in southern and western China.  Russia seized the northern provinces. France took IndoChina and Britain took Burma. Dismemberment.

As the Meiji Restoration was taking shape, Japan began to emulate the European nations it was copying.  Japan wrested Manchuria and Taiwan from the rotting corpse of China. After defeating the Russian navy, Japan consolidated its gains in Manchuria and annexed Korea (1910).  In 1915, while Europe was distracted, Japan issued it’s 21 demands with the intention of making China into a Japanese protectorate – an attempt temporarily thwarted by the US.  Following defeat of Germany in WW1, Japan took the German holdings in China and the Pacific, and in 1931, they invaded Manchuria, moving south to “rape” Nanjing and west to the mountains –  achieving the protectorate plan.

The brutal occupation resulted in as many as 20 million civilian deaths and only ended with Japan’s defeat in 1945.

This then is the context in which China establishes its National Objectives:

  1. Achieve former greatness.  Economic domination, technological superiority, territorial integrity.
  2. Dominance in Asia.  Neighbour states must understand that if Chinese wishes are contravened, there will be a price to pay.  Look at the map. China’s eastern seaboard is ringfenced by South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines and Malaysia.  Access to the Pacific Ocean is controlled at narrow straits and by American defense agreements. A long term intolerable situation.
  3. Japan, because of historical atrocities, must be held in a permanently subordinate condition.
  4. Social stability.  Provide secure employment opportunities.  A prosperous and growing middle class will permit and probably welcome the authoritarian revival. Need to curb pollution and corruption.
  5. Security of Resource supplies.  Water and energy are worth going to war over.  The rivers Brahmaputra, Indus, Mekong which rise in the Tibetan Himalayas, will inevitably be continuing sources of conflict as waters are dammed and diverted.   The “String of Pearls” [military/commercial ports extending as far as North Sudan and Kenya] will provide military security to the flow of oil from Persian Gulf – roughly 80% of China’s crude oil imports.

Bibliography:

  1. Bernstein, Munro.  The Coming Conflict with China. 1998.  “It is Japan’s weakness that threatens peace and stability by creating a power vacuum that the United States alone can no longer fill.”
  2. Lucian W. Pye.  Asian Power and Politics:  The Cultural Dimensions of Authority.  1985.  An outdated view, but with currently relevant insights.  “The Chinese ideal that all power should emanate . . . from a single supreme leader.”  “The basic rhythm of Chinese politics is an alteration between the tightening of authority and the relaxing of controls.”
  3. Samuel P. Huntington.  The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order.  1996.  “The economic development of Asia and the growing self-confidence of Asian societies are disrupting international politics . . . expand their military capabilities . . . increases the intensity of conflicts with the United States . . . increases the likelihood of China reasserting its traditional hegemony.”  Other than the weak ASEAN, “no other major multilateral institutions bring together the principal Asian powers.”
  4. Robert D. Kaplan.  Asia’s Cauldron:  The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific.  2014.  The littoral states surrounding the South China Sea are “dependent on the United States for diplomatic and military backing.”
  5. Kristof, WuDunn.  China Wakes:  The Struggle for the Soul of a Rising Power.  1995.  “The most likely scenario . . . pressures for economic and political liberalization . . . a long and unstable road . . . eventually some form of greater democracy.”

7 thoughts on “China’s Perspective”

  1. Bob – very nifty article. Chinese history is so interesting! I’d like to learn more about the travels of Zheng’s fleets.

  2. Bob,
    in general I agree with your good and clear summary.
    I suggest for one of the more remarkable perspectives you look at the thinking of Howard French in “Everything under the Heavens, how the past helps shape China’s push for global power”. Knopf, 2017.
    He was a New York Times bureau chief in China. He re-introduced me to the historical concept of the vassal state.
    There are a few points in you thesis we could discuss over a beer..
    Chris

  3. With the present lack of thoughtful, reliable and stable thought in US politics these days it sets the rest of the world on shaky ground, given the U.S.’s former self proclaimed role as the world’s peacekeeper. So others will for sure step into the breach. We also tend to reap what we sow, so Western colonization and past aggression will undoubtly be reciprocated. We adults play on the world stage much like children in the school yard methinks. Thanks for all the background info makes me want to read more.

  4. Hi Bob
    A good “state of things” that might help those who only see China through North American eyes. It is also interesting to note how important Mao was even back before the WW2 period in keeping alive a sense of Chinese identity versus powerful external enemies. The reverence for Mao had its very valid historical roots and his vision is being further carried out today under a banner of a slightly different tone. The Chinese, with good reason, look down their cultural noses at us “Johnny come lately” Westerners.

  5. Hi Bob,

    I found this “piece” very insightful. I know very little about China and its history. As I was reading the second point you made I remembered that for a period of time in 2017 all that you saw on the front page of the Times, were articles about the South China Sea Conflict. It seemed to me the issue never got resolved and expect it be surface up again.
    Another thought that came to mind was the danger in trying to reclaim an old title. We see some of that in the States with Trump promising the return to the “Glory Days”. I think to a smaller scale (personal level) there have been many instances in South Africa where farmers are killing each other over reclaiming land that belonged to their ancestors hundreds of years ago.
    I want to ask you what do you think are some “outside forces” that will enable China to reach its national objectives? I would like to think of these as inevitable circumstances- not sure if I am being clear here. Essentially what do you see happening around the world that could facilitate China?

  6. Hi Bob,

    Thank you for this fascinating historical summary of China. It’s a powerful reminder of some of the forces that are shaping China’s current bellicose domestic and foreign policies. I first travelled to China in 1997. Then in the early 2000’s for about five years, I spent a month every year in China. In that time, I had the good fortune of spending time with Chinese academics, ex-pat business managers and Chinese entrepreneurs. I visited dozen of factories and businesses as well as hearing briefs by Chinese economists and business leaders. Here are some random anecdotes – albeit from 10 years ago. Many of my Chinese hosts and contacts would remind that there is no single China, it is a vast composite of various ethnicities, cultures and dialects, which partly explains the Communist Party’s obsession with control and political repression. One example of a factory visit to a Black and Decker manufacturing plant in Suzhou helps to illustrate the paradox of China. The plant was very neatly split in two equal half’s. One half was an extremely clean and orderly manufacturing facility that looked like any manufacturing plant in the west. All of the products manufactured there were for export. The other half was an unholy mess of piles of rubbish, old equipment and shoddy work processes. That side of the plant produced inferior quality products for the China market. The Chinese managers we spoke to had no problem explaining the practically of the plant’s design. Every year we went, we had a presentation by a German economist/entrepreneur who owned and managed a successful Chinese company. He would always remind us not to draw conclusions about China from the dynamic, prosperous eastern regions of China. Ten years ago there were still 500 million Chinese, mainly in western China with an annual income of less than $500/year. That may have changed a bit, but I suspect not much. Bob, I look forward to continuing the conversation.

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