Monday, June 22, 2015

China’s rise and the lessons of history

Kung Chien Wen

 June 22, 2015

Arguments about China’s rise to global pre-eminence draw extensively on how we understand its past. Does China’s complex, 4,000-year history mean its ascendancy will be peaceful? Many pundits in Singapore seem to think so. Former Foreign Affairs Minister George Yeo, for example, believes that China’s vision for a New Silk Road is grounded in the same principles of “fair exchange and mutual benefit” that characterised the old Silk Road.

Historian Wang Gungwu, another astute China watcher, argued in a commentary early this month that China’s history and cultural heritage will incline the People’s Republic towards “economic wealth and technological brilliance”, rather than military expansion and aggression.

Arguments such as these are based on assumptions about how China’s history shapes its policymaking and on an understanding of that history as fundamentally benign.

To make better predictions about China’s future and to think more critically about the South China Sea and other China-related foreign policy issues, we need to question how closely a country’s past and present are linked. We also need diverse historical examples that do not necessarily fit with our hopes for a peaceful China.


The notion that China’s “peaceful development” is grounded in its history is problematic for two reasons. First, a country’s past only influences but does not determine its future. Few people in 1900 predicted that the United States — then a largely continental great power — would become an imperial superpower in half a century, capable of projecting its economic and military might across the globe. China’s leaders are no doubt as aware of their own past as they are of how other countries’ histories have unexpectedly diverged from established patterns of conduct — for better and worse.

Paradoxically, history suggests that part of being a great power is being able to defy history. China’s ruling Communist Party came to power in 1949 with precisely this revolutionary mission: To transform a backwards and agrarian society into a modern, socialist state that occupied a central position in the international order. China has never been a maritime power, to be sure, but it was not an industrial one either until fairly recently. It is not a landlocked country, has the economic and industrial capacity to build a strong navy, and, most of all, has reasons to do so.

Second, even if we accept that China’s past and future are tightly linked, the assertion that China’s rise is historically conditioned to be peaceful is based on a highly selective reading of China’s history. We need not even delve into the more distant past to show China’s aggression towards its neighbours (some of whom, consequently, are no longer its neighbours). True, from the middle of the 19th century onwards, China under the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) was the victim of Western and Japanese imperialism. But the Qing was itself a land-based empire that had earlier invaded and occupied Taiwan, Xinjiang and Tibet. Today, the avowedly anti-imperialist Chinese government is a not-so-secret admirer of the Qing Empire, for it claims all the above territories (and the South China Sea) as its own and propagandises that they have been part of the Middle Kingdom since time immemorial.
China’s more recent history under the People’s Republic offers up further examples of actions that are less than peaceful. In 1950, Mao Zedong’s China invaded Tibet and joined, very successfully, the Korean War on the side of North Korea. Twice, in 1954 and 1958, the People’s Liberation Army launched artillery attacks on the Kinmen and Mazu islands, which were and still are under Taiwanese rule. In 1962, China and India clashed over a disputed border in the Himalayas, while in 1979, Deng Xiaoping’s China briefly attacked Vietnam to punish its former socialist partner for invading and occupying Cambodia. In none of these cases can China’s actions be considered purely defensive.

Of course, much has changed in China since the Mao and — to a lesser extent — Deng eras, to say nothing of the Qing. The Cold War is over, neoliberal capitalism has triumphed, and China no longer pursues Mao’s “continuous revolution”. One could also cite instances of China’s peaceful and diplomatic behaviour, among them its engagement with the Third World in the 1950s and Sino-American rapprochement in the early 1970s. To this day, the latter remains a kind of touchstone for how diplomacy can help defuse international tensions between ideologically-opposed states. But peaceful examples are not the only ones available to China’s policymakers as they plan their country’s future.

To conclude: None of the above examples determine anything about China’s future because history and contemporary policymaking do not work that way. I certainly hope that Professor Wang and Mr Yeo are right and that China’s rise will be peaceful. But we cannot allow our hopes for China’s future to limit how we think about its history. A more complex grasp of China’s history will help enrich debates about China, as will greater attention to how exactly this history shapes its foreign policy. We might ask, for example, how Chinese officials are trained to think about their country’s history, and how China’s think tanks and universities render the past “useful” for policymakers.

Questions like these, together with a broader range of historical examples, will be useful to our own policymakers and diplomats as they map Singapore’s relations with the People’s Republic.


Kung Chien Wen taught Southeast Asian history at Raffles Institution and is currently a PhD candidate in International and Global History at Columbia University.

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