Issue 2, June 2008
Modern China is a phenomenon the world has never seen before; its strengths, liabilities, and contradictions present a unique challenge to the global community. Many oversimplifications influence the world’s perception of this extraordinary nation, and it is critical that China’s future be seen and understood within the context of its past and present.
Ancient History: China is one of the oldest civilizations on Earth, with a long and distinguished cultural, social, political, and scientific heritage, augmented by the economic domination of the Silk Road. The Chinese Empires before the 19th Century were world leaders for thousands of years. In fact, the centuries marked by European or American dominance of the globe are an anomaly in the long-view of history. Seen in this context, modern China’s rise is not a disruption of the natural geopolitical order, but a return to it.
Collective Memory – A Century of Humiliation: Beginning with the Opium Wars of the mid-1800s, China was weakened and systematically dismantled by imperialist powers in Japan and the West. The fall of the last Empire in 1912 ushered in a corrupt and incompetent republic that was no match for Western post WWI geopolitical designs. In the 1920s, civil war came to China as the Nationalist government battled nascent Communist factions for control of the disintegrating country. This, combined with heightened Japanese aggression before and during WWII, brought China to its knees. The Communist China that prevailed at the end of this era presided over a weak, impoverished, largely rural population that had essentially been set back a century as the rest of the world modernized and experienced rapid industrialization. When Mao Zedong closed China off from the rest of the world in 1949, China focused on plans to restore its place in the world. A sentiment of victimization prevailed then and now, and extreme nationalism with xenophobic features is evident.
Confucianism: The Chinese psyche has been influenced for generations by an ideology little known in the West. Once the official guiding philosophy of the Chinese Empire, the influence of Confucius continues today and marks a radical departure from many Western ideals. Emphasizing harmony, order, obedience, reciprocal responsibilities, and natural hierarchies between leaders and the governed, Confucianism makes its presence felt not only culturally and socially, but politically as well. Many consider Confucian traditions to be one of several reasons modern China did not democratize in step with countries elsewhere in the world.
Population: Many remark that China’s enormous population is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness, making everything in China an exercise in both multiplication and division. More workers means potential productivity far beyond the reach of the declining populations in Europe and Japan. As the impact of positive social, cultural and economic trends are multiplied, so do the challenges become magnified and increase exponentially; these challenges include wealth gaps, the effects of poverty, and the dislocation of people and cultures during rapid modernization. When a natural disaster such as the recent Sichuan Province earthquake hits China, more people die and are injured and displaced; thousands become millions. China’s enormous population also means that spoils of economic growth must be shared with millions more people for equitable distribution. The result is tremendous pressure on the Chinese economy and government to continue rapid growth so that more of its citizens can get their share.
It must also be noted that, beyond its sheer size, China’s population contains several important demographic anomalies. Through the One-Child Policy, China has brought its birth rate down to levels seen primarily in advanced Western democracies. Yet, this policy has created a disproportionately male society with important cultural and social implications. It has also created a demographic imbalance between young and old. In 2000, 70% of China’s population was of working age. In 2065, only 22% of China’s population will be of working age, a group that will struggle to care for aging parents as only children and keep the economy thriving at the same time. Many have remarked that the greatest danger China faces is that it “will grow old before it has time to grow rich.”
The Rapid Nature of Chinese Development in the 20th and 21st Centuries: China’s rise from near and complete devastation in 1949 to the present is an epic narrative. Immediate post-World War II China was in shambles. Mao’s inaptly named Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution saw the death of 40 million more Chinese, and the nation stalled on its promise. It wasn’t until 1978 that China’s true modernization took off, following the economic reforms that moved the country away from Communism and Socialism and toward capitalistic free markets. In the last 30 years, China has undergone industrialization while also entering the information and technology age - a process which the United States and Europe each took over a century to accomplish.
This rapid compression of development has produced powerful side effects, as the Chinese are forced to tackle the social, environmental, and economic fallout of industrialization on an accelerated timetable. This development also happens at a time of diminishing environmental resources worldwide and sophisticated global connectivity. While other industrializing powers could confront the vagaries of free-market failures and mitigate the challenges of industrialization in relative isolation, China’s ascent during (and largely due to) globalization has meant that they have to navigate this growth while on the world stage. The millions we hear about – on the move, lifted out of poverty, moving to urban areas – suffer from tremendous social and cultural dislocation that impacts their individual lives and the well-being of the nation as a whole.
The Heavy Hand of the Authoritarian State: Although a snapshot of modern China may look a lot like a snapshot of life elsewhere in the modern, industrial world, China is different in another very important way. It is not a democracy. The Chinese Communist Party is ever-present. Its members are appointed and direct all Central government policy. Although some local, village, and provincial governments utilize some limited form of elections, Party members primarily control all layers of governance. The military, the education system, the judiciary, and the media are all Party-controlled. The state regulates all forms of civil society, from religion to Non-Governmental Organizations. It largely decides what is appropriate for Chinese citizens to know and discuss as well as how and why they gather. Although market liberalization reforms are increasing every day, the state remains a key player in the Chinese economy, wielding its influence with regulations, investments, and subsidies. The Party’s promises of economic growth assure peace and social stability in exchange. It is important to remember that China has had essentially no experience with democratic government in its thousands of years of history; many believe it lacks not only the institutions, but also the incentives and the civilian appetite for democracy.
An Identity Crisis of Sorts: China enters the modern era as a leader in a spiritual and ideological vacuum. Confucianism and deference to the Empire were once the guiding philosophies of the population, followed by Communism and a sense of sacrifice for the Maoist state. Since the reform era began in the late 1970s, the CCP and China as a whole have had a difficult time defining what China is internally and in relation to the rest of the world. Communism and Socialism no longer describe the economy, yet Leninism, with some important exceptions regarding personal freedoms, still describes the authoritarian nature of the government. On one hand, this absence of definition is a major strength of the CCP, demonstrating its ability to learn and adapt. On the other hand, it is a weakness that the CCP cannot give the population a guiding mantra or identity around which to rally. This void is often filled by increased nationalism, sometimes to the point of xenophobia. Without a clear idea of what China is about, people tend to define themselves by what they are not about, resulting in anti-Western rhetoric that can be counter-productive in China’s extensive dealings with the West over a variety of issues.
China’s Existence as an Anomaly in Classic International Power Relations Paradigms: The narrative of classic Rise and Fall theory is as follows: when a nation rises in power above others it sets off two well-proven dynamics. First, other nations will attempt to balance or contain its power. Second, the rising power will ultimately be motivated to project its power in threatening, even expansionist ways. However, most experts agree that neither of these dynamics seem to be in play with respect to China. It threatens to unseat the United States, the European Union, and Japan as hegemonic powers, yet China’s own conduct (known as the “peaceful rise”) has been largely cooperative, and the other power's responses to it have been largely accommodating. This leaves forecasters in unfamiliar territory and suspicious of China’s motives. With more neighbors than any country in the world, some of the longest international land borders and the most disputed international maritime borders, everyone is watching Chinese foreign policy closely. Most predict that the favorable global opinion of China is likely on the decline, making their actions increasingly subject to criticism and resentment that have naturally accompanied the rise of a national power.
Environmental Degradation: As the world becomes more aware of the advancing disruption of the natural ecosystem and climate patterns, China is on the front lines of these dramatic developments. The Chinese people pay with their health and lives, the Chinese economy pays in hidden costs, and the planet suffers in the long and short term. This is an issue ripe for global dialogue and problem-solving, and many believe it will be an area where the CCP will be most likely to engage with the international community.
Resources: China is home to 20% of the world’s population with only about 7% of the world’s arable land and quality fresh water. It cannot feed its population without importing food; it cannot keep its industries and modern society running without importing oil, coal, and natural gas. As a result, China is on a perpetual resource hunt with links to “rogue nations” which are often unpopular in the international community.