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Chinese History & Culture

China Rising in Historical Perspective, Part I

W
e are standing at a pivotal moment in human history. Over the course of the past few thousand years, countless kings and countries have gained ascendancy over their neighbors for a while, only to be replaced at the pinnacle of influence by an upstart rival. Only rarely, however, do entire civilizations either gain or lose a position of dominance. That sort of transition – which really deserves to be called a revolution – is taking place before our very eyes. Such colossal shifts in power and prestige are fraught with danger, but also filled with exciting possibilities.

In this article we shall ponder the rise of China in the context of history, in order to reflect upon our possible responses and roles in this tectonic geo-political shift. Moving quickly over continents and centuries, I shall make five observations about rising China, and conclude with some suggestions for both Western and Chinese Christians.

1. China’s rise to superpower status has been sudden and dramatic

Rising

China’s rise can be gauged in comparison with its recent past. Look back over the poverty, disorder, and disunion of the first half of the 20th century, then recall the devastation of World War II; the isolation of the Mao years; and the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, and contrast that with the peace, unity, engagement with the wider world, and material prosperity we observe today.

China’s rise can also be measured in relation to the rest of the world, especially the decline of the West, and particularly the rapid decrease of American power and prestige. Japan, which once occupied much of China, now seeks peace with its powerful neighbor. The colonial presence of Britain is only a distant and despised memory.

In what follows we shall place this dramatic development against the background of China’s own long history as well as that of the world and of Christianity, but first let us examine some aspects of the rise of China

Aspects

Most obvious, of course, is the almost incredible advance into economic and financial dominance over the past three decades. China has become factory to the world; it increasingly commands vital resources, shouldering its rivals, including the United States, out of the way. The Chinese have penetrated and even captured markets once considered the domain of others, starting with toys, textiles, and furniture; then including computers. Publishing and automobile manufacturing are not far behind. And of course China’s vast currency reserves have dramatically changed the balance of economic power, as Europe and the Unites States sink beneath a flood of debt.
After years of self-imposed isolation, strong and deepening diplomatic ties have been formed with dozens of countries in Latin America, Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East.

Imposing scientific progress has been made in space and even biotechnology.
Huge and ongoing investments in infrastructure have produced a vast network of roads, railroads, and telecommunications that exceed those of Europe and even the United States.

China’s military continues to grow at a rate which evokes voices of worry from other countries, as its naval power and projection move beyond the coastline into blue waters. China claims the entire South China Sea as its own, builds a presence on the Spratly Islands, sends a flotilla to join the campaign against pirates in the Indian Ocean, and announces its intention to build a modern navy.

“Soft power” complements military hardware, as Chinese movies gain awards and large audiences around the world; Chinese food becomes a major cuisine; Chinese fashions become popular; tourists flock in droves to visit China’s historic sites, and Confucius Institutes spring up in major cities around the globe.

Both admiration for its ancient culture and dominance in sports were achieved last summer at the Beijing Olympics, as more than a billion people watched the opening ceremonies in stunned wonder and saw dozens of Chinese athletes take the winner’s stand as their national anthem became almost an Olympic theme song.

Han Chinese have resumed their centuries-old geographical expansion by immigration, tourism, business forays, and the presence of hundreds of thousands of students at the world’s premier universities. Internally, they have begun to outnumber the previous inhabitants in sparsely-populated areas such as Tibet and Xinjiang
At the same time, China’s own horrific pollution has spread not only to its near neighbors but even to other continents.

China’s rise includes an unexpected flourishing of religion, including Buddhism, popular religions, revived Confucianism, and as we all know, Christianity, such that some people claim that there are more active Christians in China than in the United States.

Factors

What are some of the factors in this rapid rise?

Internal conditions fostering China’s ascent to superpower status include thirty years of peace after a century of warfare, and the openness and reform policy initiated by Deng Xiaoping. Foreign capital, foreign technology, foreign experts teaching in China, and foreigners doing business in China have all played an indispensable role.

Chinese studying abroad have not only excelled in their academics, but enriched their homeland with their newly-gained knowledge and skills, as well as an awareness of fresh ways of doing things.

Less state intervention in the economy, low taxes, low wages, and plentiful labor have combined with the inborn entrepreneurial spirit of the Chinese people to create unprecedented prosperity.

Overseas Chinese links have brought vast resources into the country and formed networks for expansion into new markets. A favorable balance of trade and dramatic improvements in living standards for millions of Chinese have resulted from these and other factors.

If the history of the first part of the twentieth century, which has been so effectively portrayed in the book Salt & Light, edited by my colleagues Carol Hamrin and Stace Bieler, gives us any clue, might we also speculate that Christians, both from the mainland and from overseas, have been at the center of much of this progress?

A number of external factors also deserve attention, such as the collapse of the U.S.S.R, followed by vastly warmer relations between these two huge neighbors, the latter being signified just this past week by a multi-billion oil delivery deal.
Perhaps most unexpectedly to some, but not a surprise to those who have been watching carefully, the decline of the United States forms a stark contrast, and perhaps an essential foil, to China’s rise. After its decisive victory in World War II, the U.S. was fought to a stalemate on the Korean peninsula; defeated in Vietnam; expelled from influence in Iran; humiliated in Somalia; and devastated by the terrorist attacks in 2001.

The wings of America’s Pacific Fleet were clipped with the loss of Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam, then the harbors and airfields of Taiwan in 1979, the closure of the vast naval installation at Subic Bay in the Philippines and the return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty. Denial of these facilities to the U.S. Navy represents a serious lessening of America’s ability to project power in the Far East.

American support for Israel has led to the alienation of Muslims, aggravated by the War on Terror, the invasion of Iraq, the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia, and the deaths of civilians in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Off the coast of Africa, pirates seize American ships and take American hostages almost with impunity.
At home, a failing economy has caught almost everyone off guard. The debacle on Wall Street has stripped New York of what little glamour it still possessed after 9/11, while the bursting of the housing bubble has erased trillions of dollars from ledger sheets and portfolios all over the world.

In a desperate attempt to set things right, the government has sent the Federal deficit and national debt to new and dizzying heights, bringing warnings that the hyper-inflation of pre-war Germany and post-war China may ravage what was once the world’s strongest economy. The loss of the dollar’s credibility as the world’s reserve currency has prompted calls by China, Russia and several Muslim nations for an alternative to the current monetary system.

With dwindling financial resources, America has already started downsizing its military, further eroding its potential as a barrier to a rising China. In recent years, we have also seen the alienation of European allies and a dramatic rise in anti-American sentiment around the world, further weakening the nation that is increasingly seldom being called “the world’s only superpower.”

Historical perspective

2. China’s rise reverses recent history and restores past glory

As we were reminded during the Beijing Olympics, China’s rise has ended what the Beijing government likes to call the “century of humiliation,” which began with the Opium Wars and featured unequal treaties with European powers, the burning of Summer Palace; the sack of Beijing after the Boxer Rebellion; the loss of Hong Kong; and foreign occupation of parts of China. The stunning defeat by Japan led to removal of Korea from China’s sphere of influence, not to mention separation of Taiwan from control by Beijing, a condition that persists to this day. Meanwhile, Vietnam, traditionally at leats nominally within China’s sphere of influence, was pried away from China by the French, and remains outside of China’s control.

China’s sufferings and humiliation continued in the twentieth century, with the Japanese invasion and then occupation of much of China, a long and bloody civil war, dependence upon the U.S.S.R. for advice and aid; and U.S. military dominance in East Asia.

All that is now dead and buried in the annals of foreign imperialism and domestic disunity.

China’s rise recalls times in previous Chinese history when the Middle Kingdom was really the center of its world, enjoying pre-eminence and even dominance in large regions of East Asia. With the recovery of Hong Kong and Macao, territorial integrity has been restored. Control over Tibet, Xinjiang, and much of the old “Silk route” regions, recalls the vast domains of the Han, Yuan, and Qing dynasties.

Growing regional influence also harks back to the days when China expected its neighbors to act like vassals. Its presence in ASEAN, growing influence over the Korean Peninsula, close ties with Singapore, vital support for the military junta in Burma, and rapidly-tightening ties with Taiwan take us back to the heyday of the Ming period, when China’s navy ruled the waves, and to other periods when its army could launch expeditions far beyond its borders.

China’s economy was for centuries the largest in the world, and its current economic penetration and influence, based on a potent combination of the People’s Republic, overseas Chinese, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore, has almost recovered that distinction.

In short, we are witnessing the restoration of China’s past prominence, even dominance, in its “world,” with an economic, cultural, diplomatic, and military presence that cannot be ignored. Some analysts believe that China’s rulers are seeking a return to a status of virtual “hegemony,” rather than the multi-polar world order envisioned by Samuel Huntington a few years ago. At the very least, what we are seeing now is the fulfillment of a long-held dream. Those who worked for the Nationalist revolution one hundred years ago would be thrilled.

Expansionist?

Will this rising China be expansionist? If by that we mean extending its power beyond its borders, Yes. For one thing, China is already pursuing an expansionist policy on a number of fronts, as we have seen. For another, we need only to look at China’s long history to see instances of expansion beyond the “core” state – the Qin, Han, Yuan, early Ming, and early Qing did not widen their territories as a result of popular votes by peoples eager to come under the rule of the emperor of China.

If “expansionist” means militarily aggressive, the answer is only, Maybe. Chinese prefer indirect means to gain their ends, and they delight in winning a war without actually engaging in combat. But if there is no other way to protect their interests, of if China’s leaders feel threatened at home or abroad, a potent array of weapons will be ready for action, backed by millennia of brilliant military strategy, which places an emphasis upon deception and surprise, as shown in the book, Unrestricted Warfare. Indeed, since 1950, surprise attacks have been launched in Korea, India, the offshore islands between Taiwan and the mainland, and Vietnam. We should not rule out this possibility, though it is only that.

3. China’s rise is both typical and unique

Let us now compare China’s rise to that of other nations in the past. To pick only a few instances, we can cite the victories of the Greek city states, which stopped the Persian advance; ascendancy of Athens over other Greek states, only to be replaced by Sparta. The lightning-fast creation of a Hellenistic empire by Alexander the Great furnishes a kind of parallel to China’s rapid emergence, for Greek power and civilization replaced that of Persia in the Middle East within two decades. The fractured Hellenistic kingdoms were then gradually overcome by the might of Rome, as were the Celtic tribes of Europe.

After several hundred years, Germanic hordes overwhelmed the effete, corrupt, and over-extended Roman Empire in the West; a few centuries later, the Eastern Roman Empire fell to the Arab onslaught, fueled as it was by a militant Islam.

In the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries, Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch navies created colonies and empires in Africa, South America, and Asia. While retaining some influence in the Western Hemisphere, they were expelled by the British in North America, Africa, and Asia. After defeating the French, Britannia ruled the waves for almost a century, while the United States was slowly gathering strength, Russia was building its empire in Central Asia and the Far East, and a modernized Japan cast its ambitious eyes on China’s traditional sphere of influence.

Indeed, the Japanese, though finally defeated by the Allies, effectively put a halt to European colonial advance in Asia. Meanwhile, in Europe, the united German states permanently humbled France and eventually fought England to exhaustion in two bloody wars. The Germans were then brought to their knees by the Russians and the Americans, the two winners of that awful conflict. During the Cold War, the development of nuclear ICBMs radically altered the balance of power, so that now several different countries can unleash terrible destructive power on an enemy.

Common features

Are there any common features to this story? Yes. For a nation to rise, it generally has required economic strength, based upon agricultural sufficiency, or a sure supply of food; a strong central government or organization; either rapid ground forces or naval power, or both, with naval power being more important. There must be mastery of new military technology, and a sense of “National Destiny.” Hardiness, both physical and mental, must characterize the citizens.

At the same time, weakness, disunity, ever-extension of rivals seems to be almost a pre-requisite for a successful change in hegemony.

Uniqueness

China’s current rise meets many of these conditions, but goes beyond in enough categories to make it almost unique: Its population size puts China into a league shared only by India, but China possesses far more cultural and racial coherence. China’s economic strength, including its vast currency reserves and manufacturing power, is almost unprecedented. Worldwide “colonization” by millions of energetic and prosperous Chinese exceeds that of England at its height, while the rapidity of its rise is almost without parallel.

China commands an impressive combination of military resources, including cyber-warfare capability, ICBMs, growing capacity to neutralize the space-based technology so vital to America, a modernizing army, navy, and air force, and an unknown but certainly huge number of overseas agents with powerful “5th column” potential.

Well-placed allies form a key component for international influence, and China enjoys more or less good connections with Russia, North Korea, Burma, Cuba, Venezuela, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Iran, Syria, Sudan, and other states unfriendly to America.

Strategic location plays a key part, too. China possesses a continental base unlike England; with a long coastal exposure, unlike Russia. It controls both ends of the Panama Canal, and is tightening its grip upon the vital sea lanes of the South China Sea.

When you add the growing cultural confidence of many Chinese, with great pride in their long and magnificent record of achievements in art, literature, philosophy, technology, government, ethics, and – yes – military prowess, you have a potent cocktail.

In short, China possesses the potential for effective direct or indirect dominance of almost the entire globe. That is why some well-informed observers make bold to say that the rise of China may be the most significant development in the history of world.

On the other hand, ...

(to be continued in Part II)