Updated: Apr 6
One great phenomenon that the 21st century has seen is the rise of China on the world stage. China is a nation with abundant history. The Chinese civilization is one of the most historic civilizations in the world. To understand if China can be the next superpower, we need to understand what led to China's rise? This article tends to explore the factors that made China compete with the most vibrant, democratic, and powerful nation of the world and the reigning hegemon that is the United States of America. To understand the rise of China, the deconstruction of its Century of Humiliation, which forms part of the memory of Chinese people vividly and influences their decisions is indispensable.
The History of Humiliation
Until nineteenth-century China was one of the most successful civilizations and had survived many shocks. The Chinese civilization is very resilient as Kishore Mahbubani points out in his book, Has China Won? China had enjoyed 200 years of peace and prosperity under the Qing dynasty especially under Emperor Qianlong from 1735-1796. This produced complacency in China. Thus, then began the century of Humiliation. The Century of Humiliation in Chinese history comprises the period between 1840-1949. It began with the Chinese getting defeated in the First Opium War that persisted from 1839-1842. China after the end of the war was forced to cede Hongkong to Britain for 150 years and this was the Treaty of Nanjing, that also forced China to open up five ports for international trade Shanghai, Guangzhou, Ningbo, Fuzhou, and Xiamen. China under this treaty also paid $21 million worth of silver as indemnity to Britain.
Then China after this humiliating defeat also lost the Second Opium War and this defeat culminated in the Treaty of Tianjin in 1858 that China signed with Britain, France, and the western powers. This treaty thrust upon China to open ten additional ports for trade and pay additional money of 8$ million to Britain and France. China at the time was ruled by weak rulers and the Summer Palace in China, which was the potent symbol of Chinese civilization was sacked by British and French forces. This surprisingly woke up the Japanese people. Japan learned from the Humiliation of Chinese people and made an all-out effort to understand the successes of western civilization and made efforts to modernize and industrialize. Japan leapt ahead of China with the Meiji reformation in the 1860s. Japan also learned from western powers the negative lesson of the role stronger powers play in the humiliation of the weaker ones. The Treaty of Shimonoseki that Japan signed with China after the Sino-Japanese war forced China to recognize the independence of Korea, pay indemnity to Japan, and then cede Taiwan along with some other territories to Japan. Then at the end of, First World War China did not get anything voluminous. In 1931, Japan launched an exhaustive invasion of Manchuria. China was also an important part of the allied strategy in World War Two but its contributions were not recognized enough by western powers and Rana Mitter rightly describes China as the Forgotten Ally.
The Role of the United States in China’s Humiliating Century
Analysing the role of the United States in the Century of Humiliation that China faced is an inquisitive exercise. The American military did not invade China directly during the Century of Humiliation but it did crush the Boxer Rebellion. In the times before Teddy Roosevelt ascended to power in America, the United States focused on domestic challenges and its territorial expansion in North America. The Mexican-American war happened during the decade of the Opium war. American Civil War supervene in the year British forces ransacked the Summer Palace in 1860. American foreign policy became more imperialist in the Teddy Roosevelt phase. The American foreign policy also benefited from the most favoured nation clause. America and China became allies in World War II, after the end of World War Two the civil war in China started between the Communist Party of China (CCP) and the forces of Kuomintang (KMT).
The United States did try to mediate between the KMT and CCP through the Marshall plan but it ended in failure, and in 1949 CCP under Mao Zedong emerged victorious in the Chinese Civil War. The United States recognized KMT as China's legitimate government and protected its seat in the United Nations even though more than 90% of Chinese territory was controlled by CCP. Finally, in 1979, Jimmy Carter granted full diplomatic recognition to China and went forward with the “One China Policy”. The establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949 marks the end of the Century of Humiliation. It also marked the advent of US-China relations in three distinct phases 1949 -1971 period of hostility, a period of partnership from 1971-1989, and ambivalence after the end of the cold war. We can surmise that the United States was not the direct aggressor in the Chinese of Humiliation but did benefit from it.
It is captivating to discern that the Chinese century of Humiliation coincides with America’s century of triumph that is from 1890 to 1990s . The American century of Triumph began in 1895. The American economy had become the largest in the world by 1890. It had conquered Mexico in 1848, the North American continent was under the United States. America's success can be attributed to a lot of factors: massive resources in the North American continent, a wave of migrants from Europe, the social mobility provided to poor migrants in America, etc.
Construing the Rise of China
Kishore Mahbubani in his book sets down possible reasons for China's rise. First, it has been a lack of a proper American strategy towards China. American power in the world depended on the spiritual vitality that it showed to the world, according to George Kennan. America in the Trump era got extremely polarized and the Capital Riots in 2021 shattered the spiritual vitality that America once possessed, this helped China. The US also committed the mistake in the Trump era to try contesting China’s power unilaterally rather than having a multilateral approach and working with America’s allies. Secondly, China is hesitant to use the military option first and it is not interested in some universal mission to propagate Chinese values in the rest of the world. America aims to propagate democracy or has a universalizing mission of propagating liberal American values in the world and got involved militarily in Libya, Syria, Vietnam and it feels a moral obligation to do so, but the Chinese believe that only Chinese can be Chinese in values and culture. The Chinese are delighted that the US is spending millions of dollars on fighting in foreign lands and it also reduces the United States' ability to use its resources against China. Thus, China works on the pragmatic view of power, not a moral obligation. Kishore Mahbubani writes that :
"Two thousand years of Chinese history have created a strategic culture that advises against fighting unnecessary wars in distant places."
Image Credits: suindependent.com
Third, China also understands that the future of geopolitical contests will not be military or physical as it is highly unlikely that two big superpowers with nuclear capability will go to war in the present times. China understands that it would require technological intellectual resources thus it spends a lot on research and development. The Chinese state is also working on block-chain technology, which can be used to create a cryptocurrency. China to get over the influence of the US dollar in the international arena is working towards an alternative unit of measuring value, which if successful can have an impact on the reserve currency status that the dollar at present enjoys.
Fourth, China also has been able to gather a lot of friends and allies around it, it has realized the power of multilateral engagement. As of April 2019, China has the support of 125 countries in its Belt and Road Initiative. China wants to be seen as an inheritor of the legacy of the post-world war two world. It contributes significantly to the United Nations. Chinese engagement stretches to several countries from Ethiopia to Myanmar. China is also rational when it comes to weapons, it has decided not to increase its stockpiles of a nuclear weapon. America has 6,450 and China has 280. China knows very well that the geopolitical contest will not be resolved in the military arena, it cannot happen in the present world of nuclear weapons so it spends its resources where they will be better utilized. The United States, on the other hand, has been increasing its defense budget for 13 years as Fareed Zakaria pointed out. Mr. Zakaria writes that the United States spends more on defense than all of the countries of the world put together.
Fifth, most of the people living in the western world and even people living in democracies have assumed that Chinese people do not revolt against the CCP because of repression solely. Though repression is a factor that stops the Chinese middle-class from revolting against their government, it is not the only one. The Chinese people give credence to an implicit social contract based on economic growth and stability that the Chinese people have with their governments. We need to understand that Chinese people having suffered the Century of Humiliation fear chaos and instability. We also need to look at the figure of 134 million Chinese people who travel abroad every year. If China would have been utterly repressive on its citizens they would have chosen to not return. China also sends the brightest of its kids to study in American universities. Pratap Bhanu Mehta rightly describes China as a closed society with an open mind. Most of the west has an order of looking at things in black and white, democratic or authoritarian, freedom or slavery, free speech or total repression, but Chinese society lies in the grey, it goes beyond the dichotomous division of western media and intellectuals.
Sixth, we have to apprehend that the Chinese Communist Party is not the old party that ruled Russia till 1991. The Chinese government is one of the most intelligent governments in the world because it recruits the best graduates in the country and even graduates returning after gaining an education in America. The bureaucracy that runs the Chinese state is responsive and accountable, unlike its Soviet predecessors. Yuen Yuen Ang, a political science professor at the University of Michigan says that this has enabled china to establish an autocracy with democratic characteristics. The problem with democratic observers of china is that we accentuate more on the word “Communist” in CCP and less on the word “Chinese”, the CCP has more to do more with Chinese nationalism and national glory than a kind of economic organizing principle of communism as Kishore Mahbubani writes. Old communist Russia and New China are a world apart, China gives economic freedom to people, and Shanghai or Shenzhen are among two of the best entrepreneurial cities in the world. The Chinese government does nurture entrepreneurship and private enterprise. Even after removing the term limits of his presidency XI Jinping remained admired because the Chinese people believe very strongly that when the country has enervated and ailing leaders it falls apart.
Finally, Rana Mitter writes in the foreign affairs article that Chinese power is a dynamic force today formed by the nexus of authoritarianism, technology, global ambition, and consumerism, which he calls the ACGT model. China wins and rises by presenting the authoritarian system as a meritocracy, by having a global reach economically, politically, and militarily, by boosting consumerism and increasing purchase of material goods in china, and by developing a big surveillance state using technology at home and propagating technology abroad as well. These factors make China in the present century a geopolitical contest to American hegemony.
If China wants to win in the geopolitical contest against America it needs to realize the power of openness and willingness to entertain criticism. The integration of China in the global economy has made its internal policy decisions vulnerable to international scrutiny thus, it must become more liberal in the way its domestic policies operate. The crackdown on Hong Kong activists against the controversial security law damaged China’s reputation globally. These instances of authoritarianism at home can harm the prospects of China becoming a reliable international ally. China will have to work towards building an inclusive polity at home, where minority communities are included in decision making be it Uighurs of Xinxiang as only then it will be able to project itself as an aspiring state with spiritual vitality.
By Preet Sharma (Guest Writer)
Preet Sharma is a third year student of Political Science Honours at Hindu College. She is a simple girl who loves engaging with complicated political theories. She is also deeply passionate about cooking other than reading and writing.
Has China Won? The Chinese Challenge to American Primacy by Kishore Mahbubani, 2020, Public Affairs.