The Debate

Will the West’s Imperialist Past Be China’s Future?

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The Debate

Will the West’s Imperialist Past Be China’s Future?

It’s unfair to evaluate China’s past — and it’s future — through a lens dominated by European thinking.

Will the West’s Imperialist Past Be China’s Future?
Credit: Pixabay

The world has seen too many and too frequent divergences, conflicts, wars, and power games throughout history. Why would China be any different? John Mearsheimer asked this question all the way back in 2005: “Why should we expect the Chinese to act any differently than the U.S. did?”

The rise of great powers does bring concern and uncertainty, which is natural — especially in the United States. In the midst of an ongoing Sino-U.S. trade war, high-level officials in the U.S. government have recently turned up their criticisms against China, although some (most recently, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis) occasionally try to reassure Beijing that the United States does not seek a containment policy.

If the U.S. policy is not intended as “containment,” then what is it? It seems to be a burst of highly mixed emotions and anxieties about China’s rise and the future of the United States, which results in the United States criticizing China in all aspects, including  politics, economy, diplomacy, culture, and historical ideology. For some, nailing down China as a “greedy merchant” that has “utilized” and then “betrayed” the Western liberal order is probably very convenient, especially when there are a growing number of internal and external problems and issues in respect to the management and the future of this dominant order that has prevailed for decades.

This short piece does not intend to thwart all accusations against China, which is not necessary. But certain recent arguments made by U.S. scholars are interesting and worth discussing. A recent article in The Diplomat claims that the world according to China by 2049 would a world of political authoritarian and economic hyper-capitalism and neomercantilism. In particular, the authors believe that:

China’s vision is defined by Xi Jinping’s phrase “One World, One Dream,” which is a modern form of tianxia, or “all under heaven.” This concept serves as the foundation of China’s imperial ideology — the Chinese conception of how the world should be ordered…What China will want in 2049 dovetails with what China wants today or wanted in its imperial past.

First, the authors seem to have misunderstood or at least misquoted “One World, One Dream.” This slogan officially first appeared in Beijing Olympic Games of 2008, which was meant to “fully reflect the essence and the universal values of the Olympic spirit – unity, friendship, progress, harmony, participation and dream.” Is the Olympic spirit Chinese propaganda? Moreover, never have Chinese leaders demanded that the whole world should be unified under “One (Chinese) Dream.” Instead, what Chinese President Xi Jinping has repeatedly emphasized is the commonalities between the Chinese Dream, and the Asian Dream, African Dream, American Dream, Global Dream, etc. For example, Xi has pointed out that “the Chinese Dream is about making our country prosperous and strong, revitalizing the nation and bringing a happy life to its people… It has many things in common with all the beautiful dreams, including the American Dream, of people all over the world.”

Xi has also said that “civilizations are inclusive, and such inclusiveness has given exchanges and mutual learning among civilizations the impetus to move forward.” Obviously, there is a distinct and profound difference between “inclusiveness” and “unilateralism.” The latter is linked to the intent and attempt to politically and ideologically homogenize the whole world, often in the dress of the dominant Western or U.S. value system.

Second, it does not seem to be appropriate to describe China (including its old dynasties) as “imperial,” especially in a Western historical context. Despite the academic controversies (academia does debate over whether China was an imperialist power in its history), concluding that China’s “imperial past” dovetails with its future is another example of Western centralism – simply looking at China through the wrong lens. It is also not appropriate to narrowly describe (ancient) China through terms, concepts, and paradigms that were mostly created in modern times by the Europeans, particularly after the mid-17th century when the idea of “nation-state” emerged in Europe. Were there typical “international relations and politics” under the modern definition in East Asia when the Confucian community and tributary system prevailed for hundreds or even thousands of years?

Imperialism, according to Oxford Dictionary, refers to “a policy of extending a country’s power and influence through colonization, use of military force, or other means.” As Western history has proved, imperial powers naturally colonize. However, it was China that had been “semi-colonized” by Western powers in the past hundred years, and it was not until 1997 and 1999 that China finally recovered Hong Kong and Macao, the last two colonies occupied by Britain and Portugal.

In its long history, rather than sending its enormous military troops on battleships to explore and colonize other countries in other continents in the name of trade and religion like all the Western imperialist powers did, China built and rebuilt the Great Wall in its northern territory, ceased its grand sea voyages, and finally closed its doors to the outside world. China could have been a colonial, imperialist power but it chose not to, probably because its political ideology did not allow it.

Interestingly, the authors of the above-mentioned article also write that “for most of its history, China was the epitome of power and held a dominant position in East Asia.” Yet this elides the most recent period of history. While European imperialist powers perceived and manipulated the world outside Europe simply as vast lands under their occupation, China struggled to sustain its symbolic but shaky suzerainty in East Asia and finally lost its supremacy to a risen Japan, which had successfully transformed into an imperialist power after the Meiji Restoration and several major wars against Qing China and Czarist Russia.

In sum, the Western imperialist past simply will not be China’s future. Although it is still not an easy job to precisely describe what the world will look like by 2049, it probably will not be a highly homogenized one under any country’s single exclusive dream.

China’s rise will continue. Hence, it is indeed very interesting, important, and constructive to discuss the world China desires to inhabit by 2049 when the People’s Republic turns 100, but only through a more rigorous, balanced, and “inclusive” approach.