Tuesday, 4 March 2014

The Chinese are not coming - why fears over China’s rise are ultimately misplaced

In 1402 a great treasure fleet departed the coast of China bound for Calicut, a trading port on the west coast of what is now India. The expedition was captained by a giant eunuch named Zheng He (pronounced 'jung-her'), who according to some reports stood seven feet tall. The fleet of 62 ships, including some of the largest vessels ever constructed, carried gold, silver, porcelain, and silk; these riches were traded for wonders such as ostriches, zebras, camels, ivory and a giraffe. Over 30 years and seven great voyages, Zheng traversed the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf and Red Sea and even reached as far west as the east coast of Africa, with the final voyage setting sail in 1431. Most of Zheng's destinations were remote by contemporary Chinese standards, but they were not unknown, and he returned with ambassadors for the Chinese court, since every Asian state he encountered wanted to maintain contact with the mighty China. The end of this Chinese charm offensive came abruptly with a change of emperor, and Zheng He found himself appointed Defender of Nanjing, his seafaring days officially over.                     

The significance of these thirty years comes from the fact that it is one of only two periods in the sprawl of Chinese history when the Middle Kingdom can be said to have faced outward. The second of these periods began in 1978 with Deng Xiaoping's assumption of power, and it is still underway. China is by far the oldest culturally distinct civilisation in the world, with its modern inhabitants able to trace an unbroken cultural thread back to the third millennium BC. For four thousand years, it has followed a predictable repeating pattern: a strong emperor seizes power and establishes a dynasty, subsequent emperors become gradually less competent until a great uprising overthrows the regime; a period of disunity follows, a new figure emerges to unite the regions again and a new dynasty is founded. Although the periods of disunity have produced some of China's great poetry and verse (Confucius lived in one such period) it is the cohesive periods under strong emperors which have always been feted as the great eras of Chinese history. From the mythical Xia, through the mystical Shang, to the feudalistic Zhou and the brief but nation-establishing Xin, to the great identity-forming Han dynasty; the constructive but swiftly corrupted Sui, the cultured Tang with its poets and painters, the inventive Song, the invading Mongol Yuan dynasty; the stable Ming, the occupying Manchu Qing, and most recently with the authoritarian Communist Party, control of China has changed hands roughly every two to four hundred years. Throughout its long history, China has always been distinctive due to its lack of interest in the outside; this is in sharp contrast to almost all the other great powers in history, who have sought to prove their greatness by subjugating others. The borders of China have gradually grown to their current limits, but not once did a Chinese emperor cast a covetous eye over Japan or Thailand (previously Siam), let alone attempting a disastrous conquest of Russia in the manner of Napoleon or Hitler. External markets were accessed, most famously via the Silk Road which stretched across the Central Asian steppe to Europe; foreign threats were confronted, sometimes successfully, sometimes not – there were constant problems with the northern Xiongnu tribes which later became the Jurchens and ultimately the Manchus, the Mongol horde swept through the Chinese heartland and most recently the Europeans arrived with their gunboat diplomacy. Since the first days of the Xia, the world outside has presented problems much more often than opportunities.               

A respect for authority                 
In order to maintain a unified and subdued kingdom, the primary concern of any Chinese ruler, China has generally alternated between two formative philosophies - legalism and confucianism. Qin Shi Huang Ti (chin-shurr-hwung-dee), the man who gave China its name and who lies guarded by his terracotta army, ruled by extreme legalism - a regime so punitive that the slightest legal infraction would be punishable by death. This ultimately led to his own overthrow when an army patrol delayed by bad weather reasoned that since they faced certain death due to their lateness, they had nothing to lose from attempting a rebellion. Confucianism by contrast is less about rule by fear and more about rule by respect. It promotes a great deference to one's parents, to figures of authority in general and to the ways of generations that have gone before. Between them, these two alternating foci have created a deep national respect for centralised authority. Another common and binding philosophy amongst generations of Chinese rulers was that foreigners were not a positive influence and where possible should be kept at arm's length.

A Chinese island               
The reason for China's isolationism lies within its geography. The area now defined as China is round and topographically homogenous, isolated by its surroundings. To the north and west lies the central Asian steppe, a giant area of flat grasslands where resident horse-riding tribes constantly hindered any attempt at its crossing. The Himalayan mountain range separates China from its Indian neighbours to the south and west, while dense jungle fills the southern territories of Burma, Vietnam and Cambodia. The South China Sea to the east completes the picture to leave the great nation surrounded and cut off by impassable barriers, very much like an island. Within this landmass lie the Yellow and Yangtse rivers, ideally placed for use in communication and whose flood plains create some of the most fertile soil in the world, capable of feeding a gigantic population. This alignment of geographical factors led to the emergence of an early common dialect, from which has sprung China's unusually unified history, and explains much about the Chinese psyche. For, if your closest neighbour is hard to reach and you have everything you need, why waste time thinking about him? This regional goliath dominated its surroundings throughout its history, with nascent cultures in Japan, Korea and Tibet living under its shadow and often unashamedly copying its culture. For the first 3,800 of its 4,000 years, China lived as "The Middle Kingdom", secure in the knowledge that it was the greatest civilisation in the world.

This peaceful domination was shattered in 1792 by the arrival of the HMS Lion, a 64 gun man-of-war of the Royal Navy. It carried the Macartney Embassy – a large British delegation seeking trade concessions. The Qianlong emperor of the Qing dynasty was at this stage entirely confident that China was the centre around which the world metaphorically revolved, and visitors from obscure regions were expected to kowtow. Britain was a proud young nation in a hurry, and a complete failure of communication resulted. Lord Macartney was swiftly returned to London empty-handed, but unfortunately for China his was not the last white face seen on Chinese shores, for soon began one of the most humiliating periods in Chinese history. First Great Britain, and then the other European powers returned in numbers, and forced a series of deeply unbalanced treaties upon the Chinese. The neighbouring Japanese, until then viewed as the insignificant island across the sea, added insult to injury by learning Western ways and extracting concessions from China under threat of invasion. With the outbreak of the First World War, China sensed an opportunity to earn some goodwill from its European tormentors, and 140,000 Chinese men and women were sent to serve in the Chinese Labour Corps on the side of the Allies. The Treaty of Versailles, however, proved a great betrayal of China, and rather than being returned to its rightful owner, the German territory on the Chinese mainland was instead given to Japan. A concerted Japanese invasion of China in 1931, followed by 14 years of intense Chinese suffering at Japanese hands, topped off a century of humiliation. In a country where saving face is everything and humiliation is the ultimate punishment, the impact on the Chinese social consciousness is hard to overstate.

A modern power           
Fast forward to the present day, and as China has grown impressively since 1979, overtaking developed economies to become the second largest economy in the world, the reaction of Western commentators has been predictably wary. The prism of paranoia through which many in the west surveyed the rise of Japan in the 1970s and 80s has been brought to bear on China. Where hands were once wrung over Japanese takeovers of American companies, the new pressure point is currency - namely the Chinese accumulation of US dollars and the subsequent choke-hold that this is perceived to give them over the United States. Some observers have looked back even further, at the rise of Germany and the subsequent pain that this brought to the world, suggesting that the circumstances which brought about World War One are repeating themselves on a grander scale one hundred years on. More optimistic commentators are hoping for a peaceful handover of primary power status, similar to the passing of the baton from the UK to the US in the darkest moments of World War Two, and seek ways that this can be brought about. In truth, none of these previous models of growth can be laid upon China's rise, for the simple reason that none of those other countries contains 1.4 billion people with a shared unbroken history of 4,000 years. Every country is defined by its own past and geography, and just as each of these examples differ from each other, so China's course will ultimately be one that has been hitherto unplotted.
Up to this point in its recent period of development, China has been pursuing its standard growth model. This involves i) create a powerful centralised authority which unifies the country, ii) occupy the buffer states of Tibet and Xinjiang to secure China's heartland, iii) initiate a period of industrious growth. European encroachment in the 19th century has now added a iv) obtain control of the seas immediately surrounding China's mainland. The modern model differs from its predecessors in the globalised nature of the world that surrounds it. Historical China was largely limited to the natural resources that were contained within its land borders, but a modernised world with global trade allows China to access minerals from locations as far-flung as Brazil, Africa and Australia. This growth in scale should not be seen as a rapacious Chinese takeover of these countries, but as a logical extending of the scale of its economy. At the other end of the value chain, China has always been a major exporter of products to the Western world – Roman ladies in the second century CE were swathed in Chinese silk, and porcelain which came to be known as china was in hot demand in Victorian dining rooms throughout the nineteenth century. The difference between the ancient Silk Road trade goods and today's ipod components is only that the latter functions on a scale which has been made possible by the modern container ship. There is also nothing new about the multitude of Chinese nationals constantly arriving on foreign shores. Approximately fifty million Chinese live outside the mother country, but these individuals follow a long and thick line of Chinese emigrants through history. From the great wave of Ethnic Han Chinese that spread over the sea into South East Asia between the tenth and fifteenth centuries AD, to the vast numbers that arrived in the United States throughout the nineteenth. This constant phenomenon comes as a direct result of the fact that the Chinese heartland only has about one third the arable land per person as the rest of the world, but even with this overcrowding the percentage of Chinese living abroad is not far above the global average of 3.2 percent (3.8% approx).

'The Yellow Peril'                 
In foreign policy, the West often sees China as being difficult and unfriendly, endlessly creating obstacles and refusing to toe the line, frequently in league with Russia. This can be particularly hard to stomach in cases such as the ongoing attempt to manage North Korea, where frankly barbarous practices are allowed to persist partly thanks to tacit Chinese support. Such frustrations can be explained by the clash of cultures that remains similar to that experienced by Lord Macartney in 1792. European empires dating back to the Romans have had a "civilising" urge, with conquered tribes expected not only to submit to imperial rule, but to ultimately thank their conquerors for civilising them. This paternalistic ethos has been carried through the British Empire to the modern US domination, with George W Bush and Tony Blair cutting a swathe through the Middle East in an effort to "help" its residents. China, by contrast, has never sought to impose itself on weaker countries, excepting those buffer states that it must occupy to secure its heartland. The concept of preaching to another state about how to rule itself would be anathema to the Chinese psyche - as many African leaders have found to their delight. China subjugates Tibet and the saintly Dalai Lama because to abandon that province would be to negate the defensive properties of the Himalayan mountains; hypothetically a free Tibet allied with India could bring Indian troops to the edge of China's heartland, with India remaining secure behind its Himalayan barrier. North Korea, hive of torture and injustice that it is, remains an important buffer between western-minded South Korea and Chinese territory. A unified Korea would again bring western troops to a crossable Chinese border. Meanwhile the Chinese refusal to ratify measures against countries such as Iran and Syria in the UN Security Council stems from its instinctive dislike of preaching to others, along with an awareness of how quickly this type of moral crusade can be launched upon an authoritarian state such as itself. Chinese foreign policy is dictated by an overwhelming sense of some matters essentially being none of its business. Russia, by contrast, is much more European in its outlook and often plays a purposefully difficult and antagonistic role in order to extract concessions from western peers on an opportunistic basis. The two powers are often placed in the same bracket, but it is these core differences in world view which have made them awkward bedfellows throughout their histories.
Headlines were grabbed recently by China declaring an air defence zone over the disputed Senkaku (or Diaoyu) Islands. Much of China's recent 'assertive activity' in Asia can be explained by its desire to build a maritime buffer zone to match its land barriers. The increased military spend has largely gone towards developing its asymmetric capability - medium-range land-to-sea missiles, submarines and cyberwarfare capabilities are designed to make it difficult for the US Navy to impose itself in Chinese waters. It should be noted than none of these weapons would be of particular use in an invasion of another state, with the exception perhaps of Taiwan; they are conceived as tools for fending off a foreign power, and are ultimately defensive. Even the recent muscle-flexing around the Senkakus (and a submerged rock near South Korea), is more evidence of an attempt to own the East China Sea so that nobody else can. Memories of a British ironclad sailing up the Pearl River Delta and bombarding Canton (now Guangzhou) still keep China awake at night.

A benevolent giant
And so the possible future of a peaceful and confident China emerges. Safe behind its policed geographical barriers and hard at work, with the import of materials and the export of finished products being its only recourse to venture outside. Unfortunately there are two wild cards which are more than capable of shattering this utopian idyll - the United States and Japan. The US, currently undertaking a slow and creaking pivot to Asia, is the sitting incumbent of the East China Sea that China would like to occupy. The waters themselves are not of deep importance to the US, and could probably be abandoned without great upset, were it not for the longstanding US commitment to Taiwan. This island of 23 million inhabitants, only 112 miles off the coast, is another key strategic target which would need to be controlled if China is to secure its future. Throw in Japan, a giant that has been emerging from a quiet period in its history, and which owns various island chains that China covets for similar strategic reasons, and you have a recipe for conflict that could negate all of China's relative lack of expansionary ambition. It remains to be seen whether Japan's economic experiment will succeed in resuscitating its economy, early signs have been mixed;  if it returns to its slumber, and if an ever more isolationist America decides not to breach the peace for the sake of Taiwan, the process of China establishing its local ground-rules could proceed without a hitch.

Meanwhile, China is already wrestling with some weighty internal issues. From soaring debt levels to the social problems created by a slowing economy, Mr Jinping has been handed a difficult presidency. If he is successful in overcoming these issues and he establishes a secure platform upon which his country can thrive, history suggests that other nations will have little to fear and much to gain from a strong China. In the small town version of the world, where America is the swaggering policeman and Russia the small time gangster, China is a dignified, diligent and slightly paranoid old man, still recovering from a long convalescence after a nasty brush with a gang of teenagers, and hard at work installing around his property the most powerful security systems money can buy.

No comments:

Post a Comment