Issue 2, June 2008
|Introduction: Issue Summary|
Note: The People’s Republic of China (PRC) as we discuss it here reflects what most know as Mainland China, under the governance of the Chinese Communist Party. It excludes Hong Kong and Macao (recently returned Chinese territories that are technically semi-autonomous regions of the PRC), and Taiwan (seen as either a disputed Chinese province or separate sovereign nation – it is not for us to say which, but, for the purposes of this document, Taiwan is treated as an External Player).
Here, in broad strokes, gleaned from a variety of sources, is a narrative on China’s rise as a modern global power:
China is, essentially, an ancient civilization with an illustrious, centuries-long history as a pre-eminent world power that was weakened by Western imperialism, internal weakness and corruption, as well as conflicts within and outside its borders during the latter half of the 19th and early 20th century. For 100 years, as modern industrial powers matured in the West, China’s experience was marked by Western and Japanese conquest and exploitation, the demise of both a dynasty and a republic, and devastating civil and world war. Emerging from what became known as its “century of humiliation,” China came under the power of charismatic leader Mao Zedong and the allure of stability promised by the authoritarian Communist state. The excesses of the Maoist state and ill-conceived attempts to rapidly modernize the country led to decades more suffering for Chinese people at the hands of their own leaders. China was largely isolated from the rest of the world during this period (1949-1978) as it attempted to industrialize its densely populated peasant society.
In 1978, Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, embarked on a period of reform that opened China up to the rest of the world, unleashed the productivity of its large population through the introduction of capitalist free market incentives, and set the Chinese industrial economy on course to become a global powerhouse. However, as individuals were empowered to grow rich and prosper, and Western influences were welcomed, significant contradictions developed within the totalitarian Communist state. These contradictions increased pressures throughout the 1980s, as Chinese citizens and the Communist Party struggled to reconcile economic freedom, social stability, and state-directed modernization. Tiananmen Square in 1989 marked a turning point; growing citizen activism and divisions within the Communist Party led to the six week crisis and protests which ultimately spread throughout the country. The world watched to see if this would be the beginning of the end of the government in China. Instead, Party leaders moved against the tide of history and brought China back from the brink of democratization, even while totalitarianism and Communism were discredited in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square, crushed the protests and revealed in no uncertain terms that China would not, in the short term, follow the expected political trajectory of modernization.
Post-Tiananmen Square China was a time of reflection and retrenchment, as the Communist Party took stock of its near demise and the demise of its Communist counterparts worldwide. The technocratic State apparatus continued China’s free market economic development with uniquely Chinese characteristics. Social freedoms were expanded and careful political reforms were instituted to bolster the legitimacy of the Party. These also provided safety valve mechanisms to release popular discontent. Growing economic prosperity eased pressure for further social and political reforms, as the rising tide began to lift more boats. Dissidents and those that could not be co-opted were managed through repressive measures deemed necessary by the state to preserve Party rule, and by extension the existence of a strong, united China. China’s foreign policy came to reflect a basic pragmatism around securing the resources necessary for China’s growth and staying out of moral adventurism.
After 1989, Chinese citizens were offered an epic bargain: defer to the Party to manage Chinese society, from politics and law to media and civil society, and in return, the Party would assure continued economic growth. This bargain has largely been honored in the years since. Stability and order have tremendous appeal to a population that has seen crushing poverty, famine, and upheaval. A strong state also appeals to a Chinese psyche combining components of Confucian traditions emphasizing hierarchy and leadership with a sense of victimized pride and suspicion of Western intentions. China has no history of democracy or democratic institutions. Yet, the impulse toward liberalization is far from dormant, and the future of the authoritarian state, no matter how repressive or how resilient, is uncertain amidst the deep contradictions that exist in China today. All of this transpires in a world characterized by resource scarcity and unprecedented environmental destruction.
This is an unfinished narrative, and one without historical precedent. Nearly everything about China’s rise challenges accepted Western norms of development and classical theories of international relations. The Chinese narrative is unique, and Western powers in an age of globalization find themselves in unfamiliar territory. As global economies become increasingly integrated and pressing world problems require global solutions, the well-being of all countries is affected by China. Most experts see the international community today as being at a crossroads: China cannot be ignored, so it must necessarily be either balanced and contained, or engaged as a full-fledged, (and perhaps unconditional) member of the world’s power infrastructure.