Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Restless Empire: China and the World since 1750

At some point during this century, China will become the world's largest economy, while the US will still be the largest military power in a multipolar world. These transitions are historically dangerous.

The relations of China with the rest of the world will be a critical part of this swing in the balance of power. China, through the lens of its foreign relations, is the topic of “Restless Empire: China and the World since 1750” by O. Arne Westad, a Professor of International History at the London School of Economics specializing in the Cold War and contemporary East Asia.

The past couple centuries have traumatized China - humiliating concessions to the European powers, civil war, terrifying abuse at the hands of the Japanese, and the self-inflicted disaster of the cultural revolution. These events shape Chinese world-views today. The book is about China's search for a workable hybrid between modernity and Confucian tradition, between eastern and western political and social thought, among its diverse interior regions and between China and the outside world.

What I take to be the main messages of the book are these:

  • China has always been an empire and still is.
  • The traumatic events of the past couple centuries are the drivers of modern Chinese relations with the outside world.
  • Ongoing change in China is fast, sweeping and the outcomes are unpredictable but sure to have a huge impact on the world.

The cycle of empires

There is a sense of centrality deeply ingrained in Chinese thought. For centuries, the place of the middle kingdom was at the center of a tributary system encompassing most of east Asia.

A regular cycle seems to have repeated over millenia in which a dynasty holds the center of power for a as little as a few decades or as much as a few hundred years. Over time, regimes weaken through corruption or infighting and fall followed by messy and prolonged periods of chaos from which a new rulling class would eventually emerge.

At the height of the Qing Dynastry, China's economy was growing with trade links to Southeast Asia, Japan and Europe, and a merchant class was rising along with it.

The Treaty of Nerchinsk (1689) established the boundary with Russia and is the oldest treaty in which China dealt with a foreign power on a equal basis. But, the Qing adopted the tributary model when faced in the 1700's with the first emissaries from the expanding trade empires of the Portuguese, Dutch and British. This was a critical mistake.

The Qing were slow to realize the threat posed by the industrialized economies backing the foreigners. Preoccupied with the rules and rituals of court, convinced of their cultural superiority and the centrality of the middle kingdom, the Qing failed to see any need for change.

There followed a series of increasingly disastrous confrontations with European powers. While colonial powers enforced treaty ports and extraterritoriality by gun-boat diplomacy, China was further debilitated by internal uprisings, bloody successions, and loss of territory to Russia and Japan.

The opium wars of 1840 and 1860 ended with the destruction of the summer palace in Beijing by the British. Unable to repel the foreigners, the declining Qing could only appeal to tradition to prop up their sagging legitimacy.

The failure of the Boxer Rebellion (1898-1901) under the slogan “Support for the Qing and extermination of foreigners” left the dynasty in an untenable position. Partition of China into colonial possessions was only narrowly avoided.

Modernization delayed

Japan's emergence as a modern industrialized nation during the Meiji Restoration (1868-1912) served as a model for many Chinese reformers including Sun Yat-sen. This inspiration was not well received in the centers of power, perhaps due to the Japanese view of the Qing with their Manchurian ancestry as barbarian conquerers, a view that may have had sympathy within China itself. Further complicating matters, the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895 extended Japanese influence over Korea, formerly a Chinese tributary.

The Republic period began with great hope for modernization. In 1911 the Republic of China was declared with Sun Yat-sen as provisional president. If events had not taken several turns for the worse, China might have begun its modernization at this point, rather than the 1980's. But, the republic never stabilized, degenerating instead into the Chinese civil war between Kuomintang forces led by Chiang Kai-shek and those of the Communist Party.

The political climate of Japan became increasingly militaristic, nationalistic and aggressive. Japanese inspired reformers were betrayed by Japan's brutal pursuit of imperial ambitions.

The civil war continued right on through the Japanese occupation, seeding conditions for an ineffective response to the invasion and discrediting the republican government. As WWII dragged to a close, any semblance of a united front broke down and fighting soon resumed. In 1950, the communists finally defeated the KMT forcing a retreat to Taiwan.


In China and other colonial enterprises, the banner of Capitalism was used as a cloak to wrap around exploitation. Instead of free and open markets, exclusive rights were granted to colonizers with gunboats. The local elite was allowed to retain a measure of privilege conditional on cooperation, while the lot of the common native was to be cheap expendable labor.

An ideology that presented itself as an alternative to this one-sided arrangement, unsurprisingly, looked pretty good. In contrast to Mao's unhinged obsession with finer points of doctrine, the appeal of communism to the average Chinese has to be simply as a means of opposition to exploitation and occupation by foreigners.

The post-colonial era played out in similar ways in Burma, Korea, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia - the rise of communism accompanied by civil war and pathological spasms of violence like the cultural revolution and the purges in Cambodia.

The transition from Marxism to whatever China is today - market socialism, state capitalism, socialism with Chinese characteristics, obfuscated by the need to fundamentally change policy with minimal admission of error, forces party theoreticians into awkward and convoluted rationalizations. Even so, Chinese adoption of market methods has been an amazing success. For most Chinese, central planning and collective ownership were never as important as an end to independence and prosperity.

USSR / Russia

Relations between China and Russia have been at least as bipolar as those with America.

Soviet troops fought the Chinese to maintain control of the Manchurian Chinese Eastern Railway in 1929. The Russians had designs on Xinjiang as far back as Czarist times with troops stationed in the region between 1934 and 1942.

In the 1950's, Russia was the center of world communism. Mao, unhappy in a secondary role, incited nonsensical ideological battles with the Soviets and grew to mistrust the intentions of Russian involvement in Vietnam, though still fighting together against the common enemy as they had in Korea.

That the Chinese leadership of that time let such an obvious alliance go so far wrong raises questions about their grasp of the situation and level of paranoia. The countries nearly came to war in 1969 over control of a handful of islands in the Amur and Ussuri rivers.

In recent times, China has pivoted politically back towards improved relations with Moscow, even while trade with the U.S. has boomed. The transition to markets was handled very differently in the two countries. The controlled pace of change in China is in deliberate contrast to shock therapy. After following very different trajectories in the post-cold war era, the two countries have converged on models that are in some ways similar, with a strong central state, and in some ways complimentary, becoming an exporter of commodities on the one hand and of manufactured goods on the other.

The Russian far east is vast, empty, and rich in resources but economically stagnant, while China is crowded, resource hungry, and booming. It's logical then that the region is seeing a rapid influx of Chinese. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization forms the basis for China to become a huge market for Russian energy and military exports.


Complicated can be the only word for the relationship between America and China. For China, America is equally a model and a rival. Both countries share a belief in their own exceptionalism. The countries have been alternately partners and enemies over the 20th century.

The US holds a noticeable chunk of the Chinese diaspora. The 2010 census counted 3.8 million Chinese Americans. This is in spite of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 which banned immigration from China, due to a perceived threat of cheap Chinese workers. The act remained in effect until 1943.

As a former colony, America could plausibly claim to sympathize with China's mistreatment at the hands of colonial powers. Rather than see China carved up, President William McKinley supported an independent China. Post-colonial brotherhood aside, maintaining American trade access was an important consideration. In 1900, McKinley sent 5,000 American troops to help quell the boxer rebellion, an expansion of presidential powers that would later be echoed in the Korean and Vietnam wars.

During the republic period, the United States strongly supported the Kuomintang forces, in continuity with its present day support of Taiwan.

U.S. and Chinese troops fought in Korea and China supplied equipment and transportation engineering during the Vietnam war.

As the U.S. presence in Vietnam ramped up, China was still recovering from the disastrous great leap forward and wanted to avoid another direct confrontation with the U.S. but also wanted to be seen as the vanguard of worldwide communist revolution. The extent of Chinese involvement in Vietnam has been a source of debate. But, it's clear that China committed significant resources at a time when their own economy was in tatters, their relationship with the U.S.S.R was falling apart, and even the Vietnamese were coming to mistrust them.

According to China's Involvement in the Vietnam War (Chen Jian 1995):

From early August 1965 to March 1969, a total of 16 divisions (63 regiments) of Chinese anti-aircraft artillery units, with a total strength of over 150,000, engaged in operations in Vietnam. ... The Chinese statistics claimed that these troops had fought a total of 2,154 battles, and were responsible for shooting down 1,707 American planes and damaging another 1,608.

After the Sino-Soviet split, Nixon and Kissenger initiated rapprochement with China in the early 1970's as a cold war tactic against the USSR. With the ascendance of Deng in 1979, China began adopting market economics and export-led growth.

From almost nothing, trade between China and America grew to the level where the U.S. exports 110 billion in goods to China while importing 425 billion (2012 numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau). The arrangement by which America provides a huge market for China's exports and China soaks up American debt was named Chimerica by Niall Ferguson and Moritz Schularick.

Henry Kissenger, wrote in 2011 in the WSJ,, "China and the U.S. could easily fall into an escalating tension," and told a reporter:

"Is it possible to achieve enough of a cooperative pattern to avoid sliding through a series of mutual misconceptions, of stepping on each other's toes, into a situation where an ultimate confrontation becomes inevitable? And looking at the fact that we have not known how to end our little wars, I have no great hope that either side would know how to end such a conflict. ...Am I optimistic that it's going to be done? No."


Thinking about China as a unit can be deceptive. Its structure is decentralized, with the center weilding powerful but supervisory authority. China is broken up into 23 provinces and 5 autonomous regions, which are further subdivided into prefectures, counties, districts and villages. The largest 4 cities are municipalities. Hong Kong and Macau are special administrative regions. In addition, there are several special economic zones and the truly special case of Taiwan.

The country is divided along several axes: regional, ethnic, religious, rural/urban, coastal/interior. China is rapidly urbanizing, but has a substantial population in the countryside. Corporate power centers have developed since privatization.

In some ways, China is divided from it's own history:

"To quite some extent, young Chinese today are cut off from much of their past. They are cut off linguistically, because they do not know the classical Chinese and, therefore, they are not able to read, in effect, anything that was written prior to the 1910s."

Riding herd over this sea of divisions, the central government has something in common with transnational bodies like the EU or neighboring ASEAN.


With this in mind, China is in many ways still is the empire it has always been, encompassing a vast and varied geography, many distinct races and cultures, and ruled by a comparitively tiny elite in Beijing. Westad argues that its political structure is unlikely to remain as it is.

China may slowly follow a path similar to Korea, Singapore, Japan and Taiwan, with government led economic growth followed by an increasingly participatory political system. Or China's hyperspeed industrial revolution may stall out with aging demography into a middle income trap.

Just as cold-war era Eastern Europeans could see the better material conditions in the west, mainland Chinese are increasingly aware of the prosperity in Taiwan, Korea, Hong Kong, creating intense pressure on the regime to deliver equally a high standards of living.

China does not want to destroy the US-led global economic system under which it has done so well and has no desire to end up like the Soviet Union. This makes cold war between US and China less likely. The Chinese doctrine of non-interference is a defensive posture focused on securing China's gains of the last 50 years and sustaining the flow resources necessary for economic growth.

Speaking on his book, Westad says, "What China wants at the moment is not to change the international system. It simply wants more for China within that system."

"China's focus is on its role as a regional power." China's foreign policy is immature, shaped by China's troubled recent history, alternating between a lingering sense of victimization and a temperamental nationalism. "The Chinese belief, held by every Chinese that I know, that China has been treated very unjustly over the past century, that China has been victimized."

Risk is concentrated in several potential flash points:

  • North Korea, Taiwan, the South China Sea
  • Xinjiang and Tibet
  • Border conflicts with India
  • problematic allies like North Korea and Pakistan

China is not in a "revolutionary situation", as long as the economy continues to work well. But, "Those who think that China will remain the way it is today for a very long period of time are certainly almost entirely wrong."


A political economy

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