We are on the cusp of serious debates about the implications for Australia and the whole Asia Pacific world of the vast increase in Chinese wealth and power this century, not least with the repudiation of political reforms by Xi Jinping and his assumption of indefinite and all but absolute power. In order for those debates to be conducted intelligently and productively, it is vital that we think about China in a clear-headed manner.
Unfortunately, the field at present is cluttered with myths about China, sedulously propagated by the Chinese Communist Party, which hamper debate. Here are seven that need dismantling, in order to clear the field:
First: it is often claimed that China is simply resuming its ‘natural’ position as the world’s greatest power, after an anomalous 200 year ‘blip’ of Western industrial and technological primacy. The kernel of truth to this is that, when all countries were agrarian and China had the world’s largest population (by far) it naturally had the world’s largest economy in gross size. This is uncontroversial and trivially true.
However, at no point in the past did this make the Chinese empire the world’s ‘greatest power’. It was simply, in its better eras, one among a number of states around the world, such as the Roman, Persian and Islamic empires, that disposed of considerable power. Like them, however, it was a regional power, not a global one in any meaningful sense.
Even the cosmopolitan, but powerfully expansionist T’ang dynasty (649-907), was militarily defeated by the Korean state of Silla in 676 and by the Abbasid Arabs, allied with the independent Tibetans, in 751, giving the Muslims dominance in Central Asia for 400 years – until the Mongols came.
More importantly, during the past two or three thousand years, ‘China’ has frequently been either fragmented into many independent states or ruled in whole or part by foreign barbarians, such as the Khitan (907-1125), the Mongols (1271-1368) or the Manchus (1644-1912). The Mongols were a huge Eurasian power, but their empire was not ‘China’, it simply included China. The Ming dynasty was vastly smaller and did not include Manchuria, Mongolia, Tibet or Central Asia. No dynasty before the Manchus ever ruled Taiwan and they only very briefly.
The Manchus were resented foreign overlords whom Chinese nationalists longed to overthrow and finally did, in 1912. But the Manchus added Mongolia, Inner and Outer, as well as Manchuria itself, Xinjiang, Qinghai and Tibet to the ‘Chinese’ empire. Chinese nationalists then aspired to make the whole Manchu Empire into the nation state of China, only to see it fragment again into warlord states and independent states such as Tibet (under foreign influence) in the 1910s and 1920s.
So, when someone claims that China’s current aspirations are simply the resumption of its ‘natural’ and perennial status, cough politely and point out that this is a serious misreading of the history of the past two thousand years and more. What is happening right now might loosely be compared with the rise of the T’ang dynasty in the 7th century. It is to be hoped that it does not come to resemble the rise of the aggressive Qin dynasty in the 3rd century BCE, or that of the Mongol Empire in Eurasia in the 13th century CE.
Second: It is often claimed that China’s strategic culture is non-expansionist and pacifist and that this makes it different from the colonialist and imperialist West. This, too, is an illusion based on a slender and beguiling truth. The truth is that, never, except for a brief flurry of exploratory voyaging in the early 15th century, has China – until now – been a significant naval power. The Mongols twice (1267 and 1274) built armadas and attempted to invade Japan, only to see their fleets annihilated by typhoons, which the Japanese dubbed kamikaze – the divine wind.
The very idea of ‘China’ and its name derive from the warring state of Qin which, in the 3rd century BCE conquered all other states in the Han world (the north eastern provinces of what is China now) in a series of ruthless wars to ‘unite all under Heaven’. The endgame in this vast imperial project is beautifully dramatized in Chen Kaige’s film The Emperor and the Assassin (Silkscreen Films, 2000).
Prior to that, for centuries, ‘China’ had consisted of numerous states that fought fiercely and often. Subsequent to that, the Han were expansionist until overrun by the Hsiungnu – the eastern equivalent of the Huns – the T’ang were expansionist and even the Ming – famous for their delicate porcelain works – were aggressive whenever their resources made them feel energetic.
As Alastair Iain Johnston showed in his classic study Cultural Realism: Strategic Culture and Grand Strategy in Chinese History (1995), the Ming chastised their northern neighbours when they could and otherwise appeased them. This shouldn’t surprise us, but Johnston undertook the study in order to test – in the case of one of the more introverted Chinese dynasties – whether the evidence supported or undermined the notion that Chinese strategic culture was especially pacifist or wise. It hasn’t been and it isn’t.
Xiaoming Zhang’s recent book Deng Xiaoping’s Long War: The Military Conflict Between China and Vietnam 1979-1991 (2015) is a most illuminating study of Chinese strategic culture under one of its most astute and ruthless leaders at a time when decades of Maoism had seriously hampered the country’s modernization and left its military in a dilapidated condition.
In February 1979, despite China’s condition and despite his own explicit emphasis on economic modernization ahead of military spending, Deng Xiaoping went to war against a communist neighbour and did so ‘to teach it a lesson it would not soon forget’. Xi Jinping has far greater military power at his disposal than Deng ever had and has clearly set some strategic priorities.
Third: It is commonly claimed that the Chinese elites have a wise, long-term view of the world – a mandarin view, as it were. The beguiled like to allude to Zhou Enlai, the pre-eminent Maoist mandarin, as characteristic in this respect. But regardless of the merits of Zhou Enlai, it is always dangerous to take an exception as demonstrating a rule. If Chinese elites are culturally given to far-sightedness and wisdom, how is that Chinese empires have again and again lapsed into decay, fallen apart or been conquered by foreign barbarians?
If modern Chinese elites had inherited such powers, how was it that they failed in the 1910s to build a viable republic, failed to find a way to prevent a communist victory, fell before or fell in line with Mao Zedong and ended up, as the late Pierre Ryckmans wrote in 1984, killing ‘more innocent Chinese citizens in twenty five years of peace than had the combined forces of all foreign imperialists in one hundred years of endemic aggression’?
Right now, the performance of the Chinese Communist Party looks formidable. But we should not succumb to the notion that they are somehow culturally superior and more given to farsightedness than the rest of us. They are human, all-too-human, and as prone to errors, miscalculations, cognitive biases and hubris as the rest of us. We should think of them and dialogue with them with this firmly in mind.
Fourth: It seems often as though many people in the contemporary West, lacking any knowledge of Chinese history, are prepared to accept claims by the Chinese Communist Party that its current borders – and even its extraterritorial claims, such as those in the South China Sea – date back to ‘ancient times’. The authorities in Beijing like to claim, for instance, that Tibet, Taiwan or the South China Sea have ‘always’ been part of ‘Chinese territory’. This is complete nonsense.
It is nonsense for two reasons. To begin with, it is simply untrue to say that China’s borders have been fixed in place for any length of time since, say, the era of the warring states between the 6th and 3rd centuries BCE. Secondly, very large swathes of them, as pointed out above, were only annexed to a Beijing-based regime by the foreign Manchus (the Qing dynasty) in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Taiwan, for example, was only declared a part of the Manchu Empire in 1885, without the consent of its native inhabitants; only to be ceded in perpetuity to Japan, in 1895. The Japanese ruled the island with great effectiveness for fifty years, far longer than the Manchus had ever done, and developed it into a thriving colony, whose inhabitants rebelled against the imposition of Chinese Nationalist rule (from 1945) in 1947.
Fifth: Among the most far-fetched of the myths about China that have been circulating in recent years is Gavin Menzies’ book length fantasy about Chinese mariners sailing all around the world long before the Europeans, discovering the Americas and igniting the Italian Renaissance. No serious scholar gives any credence to this confabulation, but Hu Jintao tipped his hat to it when addressing the Australian parliament in 2003.
Back in the 1420s, the expeditionary fleets of China’s Ming Dynasty reached Australian shores. For centuries, the Chinese sailed across vast seas and settled down in what they called Southern Land, or today’s Australia. They brought Chinese culture to this land and lived harmoniously with the local people, contributing their proud share to Australia’s economy, society and its thriving pluralistic culture.
These statements are entirely without historical foundation. It is disturbing, at a time of extensive Chinese territorial claims, that such a senior Chinese leader would make them. They should not be indulged or given any credence.
Menzies took up the well authenticated fact that Ming fleets sailed via the South China Sea and the Arabian Sea to the coasts of East Africa in a series of expeditions that reached as far as Jeddah in Arabia and Mogadishu in Somalia. Between 1405 and 1433 there were seven such expeditions, under Admiral Zheng He. Under the boy Emperor Zhengtong, however, these exploratory voyages were abruptly ended, so that the threatened Ming could concentrate their resources on fighting off the Mongols in the north.
Zhengtong was taken prisoner by Esan Khan’s Mongols at the age of 22 and held for eight years. Released at the age of 30, he ruled until he was 40 and died young. During his reign, the Ming turned inwards, mentally and physically walling themselves off from the external world. They were far from being its dominant power.
It was under the Ming that the famous Great Wall of China was built – not under the Qin long before, as so often stated. As Arthur Waldron’s classic study The Great Wall of China: From History to Myth (Cambridge University Press, 1992) makes clear, there had been bits and pieces of ephemeral mud-brick wall in early eras, but the Ming alone built a continuous stone barrier – one which must be the envy of Donald Trump – out of weakness and defensiveness; only to have it breached by the Manchus shortly after it was completed. The Manchus then conquered the Ming.
Sixth: One of the most persistent and misconceived myths in the past decade or so has been the repeated statement that the Chinese Communist Party ‘has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in the past thirty years’. This needs to be put in clear perspective. It credits the Party with something that, by and large, the Chinese people, unshackled from communism, have done for themselves.
The Communist Party kept China poor and oppressed for thirty years under Mao Zedong and inflicted enormous human and cultural damage on it. Then they opened up progressively to market forces and foreign investment and hundreds of millions of their people lifted themselves out of poverty. This began in the 1980s with the peasants being told that, over and above their grain quota for the state, they could grow any other crops they chose and sell them on the open market. Food supplies trebled in short order. Who lifted whom out of poverty here?
When Deng Xiaoping decided to experiment with special economic zones to bring capital and technology into a China that Maoist autarchy and command economics had left destitute, he reached out to survivors of the old Chinese capitalist elite, many of whom had been on pig farms during the Cultural Revolution. He asked them, in exchange for seed capital, to reach out to their relatives in the diaspora and tell them that China was opening for business again. Within a few years, foreign direct investment began to pour into China. Who lifted whom out of poverty here?
When China began to get on its feet, the OECD countries worked hard to draw it into the global trading order, including giving it membership in the World Trade Organization while retaining its status as a ‘developing’ nation and before it had privatized its strategic industries or financial system, or created a working, open stock exchange. It still has not done these things. Who has been lifting whom out of poverty here?
Seventh: It is claimed again and again that liberal democracy is incompatible with Chinese culture. It is certainly incompatible with the Chinese tradition of centralized imperial rule and it is certainly incompatible with Marxist-Leninist or Maoist totalitarianism. But we need to remind ourselves that it would also have seemed incompatible with the Japanese imperial or shogunate system until the late 19th century or with Korean culture until the late 20th century. Yet Japan and South Korea are now thriving democratic polities in every meaningful sense of the term.
In important respects, Taiwan is the test case. Systematically developed by Japan between 1895 and 1945, it was taken over by the Chinese Nationalists in 1945 and ruled so badly, compared with Japanese colonial rule, that the Taiwanese rebelled. They were crushed by Chinese military forces, many thousands of people were executed and martial law was imposed for forty years. Peng Mingmin’s classic memoir of dissent, A Taste of Freedom (1972), written while he was in exile, tells the tale of resistance to dictatorship.
In the late 1980s, Chiang Chingkuo, son of Chiang Kaishek, opened up the political system in Taiwan and it now has a Democratic Progressive Party President (Tsai Ingwen) and legislature. Chiang Chingkuo chose to do precisely what Deng Xiaoping, his old Leninist classmate from the 1920s in Moscow, refused to do on the mainland in those same years. Chinese culture was not the issue, nor was Leninism an insuperable obstacle. What was required was political leadership and strategic choice.
Good history has always been about refuting myths and getting realities clearer. Regardless of the propaganda coming out of Beijing, we should apply that principle to our understanding of its history and political culture. This doesn’t mean being offensive or insensitive. It simply means being informed and putting aside sentimental and imperial nonsense about the ‘Heavenly Kingdom’. This will be important, if we want to thrive on our own terms in the era of Xi Jinping and his ‘Chinese Dream’.