China: An Old Order Rises to Challenge the Modern World
Posted December 20, 2017
Experts have long foreseen the rise of China from a hobbled figure on the world stage into one that could well rival, or surpass, the United States for world supremacy.
With an expanding economy and enormous amounts of cash to spend, China’s ruling Communist Party has, indeed, been working to expand the country’s influence in its neighborhood and beyond. Examples of this include the country’s efforts to assert its influence over navigation in the South China Sea, as well as its “Belt and Road Initiative,” a massive infrastructure spending program in Eurasian countries meant to expand China’s economic and political influence.
Of key concern amid China’s rise is how it will fit into the world order, which for hundreds of years has been dominated by a system of national sovereignty that originated in Europe and undergirds the world’s major international agreements.
Georgia Institute of Technology China scholar Fei-Ling Wang argues the current international world order is fundamentally incompatible with a Chinese worldview that has survived for centuries and is now being revived.
Wang argues that failing to properly analyze 2,000 years of Chinese history could prove a costly mistake for the world trying to decide how to respond to the “new” power that could well belong to the past.
Q: You argue analysts have failed to understand the true nature of what’s driving China’s actions. Explain.
A: China has a very peculiar political system based in 2,000 years of history. I call it the Qin-Han polity. This political system also has given rise to a very peculiar worldview. I call that the China Order. In short, it calls for unification of “all under heaven,” tianxia, under a single authority. That authority is authoritarian in nature, often totalitarian in nature. Therefore, as China’s power becomes strong enough to reshape, reorganize, and reorder the world, then we are seeing the restoration of the China Order for the whole world, not just the whole world known to the Chinese in ancient times. If that happens, there’s going to be a structural and normative incompatibility between the China Order and the current world order.
Q: Surely the Chinese Communist Party’s rule is different than that of the ancient emperors?
A: The Chinese Communist Party has presented itself as very, very new, very, very revolutionary. In fact, the PRC has a nickname in Chinese, New China. But I contend that it’s actually not that new. The CCP’s PRC is essentially a reincarnation of the old Qin-Han polity wrapped in modern, imported phraseology and decorations.
Q: Does Xi’s recent consolidation of power reflect this shift to this autocratic past that you fear?
A: Xi’s recent moves and slogans seem to aim at an enhanced version of the CCP’s autocratic rule. He aspires to become another Mao Zedong who claimed to be the all-wise, all mighty savior of the people of China and the world, and pushed very hard with the sacrifice of countless lives and money to “change the world.” Some of the worst Mao fiascos would include the “Great Leap” famine, the chaos of the so-called “Cultural Revolution,” and the export of Chinese-style violent revolution.
Q: We worried a lot about world domination with the Soviet Union and that didn’t pan out for Moscow. What’s different about China?
A: Unlike many other world empires or attempted world empires, from the Egyptian pharaohs, the Inca, to the world Fascist and Communist movements, the China Order was practiced effectively for many centuries and united the whole known world in Eastern Eurasia from the third century B.C. to the mid-nineteenth century, albeit with frequent pretentions. The “tianxia unification” was often pretended, faked for the rulers to fool the people. There also were several, impermanent intervals or disunions. It has been highly attractive, and even addictive, to the ruling elites — Han Chinese and non-Han Chinese alike. This is true inside, and even outside, of the PRC as a deeply internalized part of the millennia-old Chinese culture and worldview. Unlike the former Soviet Union that used communism to fight capitalism, the China Order is not another European ideology and, in fact, benefits from a version of state-capitalism. The CCP’s communism is largely just a tool and a decoration.
Q: Still, despite the growth of China’s economy and military, it has experienced difficulties providing for its people at home and exerting its influence abroad. Why is this, and how might these shortcomings affect China’s ability to reshape the world order in the future?
A: Historically and comparatively, the Qin-Han polity and the China Order underperform for the Chinese people. The record of the Qin-Han polity has been the same in the PRC, which has been a suboptimal giant with inferior governance and barely average record of socioeconomic development. Yet, today, as I write in The China Order, “the PRC has an increasingly unobstructed and selectively unilateral access to foreign markets, resources, and especially technology, so it enriches and strengthens rapidly without being, itself, efficient and innovative. An inherently suboptimal giant plagued by an inferior governance, the PRC state, nonetheless, still rises to be very formidable and competitive in international relations.” Thanks to its extraordinarily strong ability to extract capital from China’s economy, the PRC state is already a rich and mighty player. Beijing claims officially that it is “moving in to the center of the world stage.” The rise of the PRC is thus ushering in a new round of power redistribution in the international system on a massive scale, together with its ideal of reordering the nations.
Q: What does a world order with an autocratic China at the wheel look like?
A: Just imagine one absolute autocratic ruler for all peoples, resulting in long stagnation, deep social decay, worldwide poverty, lack of innovation, and periodical massive losses of human life, often up to one-quarter to even 60 percent of the total population. The ruler and a very small ruling elite, however, may enjoy the gratifying power and ultra-luxury a worldwide control could provide. Yet, as the Chinese history has amply demonstrated, the life of those elite would actually be grossly suboptimal even miserable.
Q: How do you see this shaking out?
A: I can tell you which one I prefer. I would like to see China’s leaders change how they govern their own people, how they view the world order and finally internally, to open up the black box of history, therefore allowing a free discourse. There’s a risk for them to do that. If they open up the discourse, then the legitimacy of the communist party is going to be challenged. So the current leadership will face a governance crisis, a legitimacy crisis, and to compensate for that, they will have to do more to develop the economy, or give people the right to vote. They’re going to be the losers, indeed, in the short term.
Q: Given that, why would they bother?
A: Good question. Why would any dictators give up their power and monopoly? Sometimes when I’m feeling dark, that’s my fear. It can be done, but not easily, and it usually does not follow a fixed pattern. My fear is that it will take more than persuasion, pressure to change their minds. Many things can set in motion an avalanche of gradual but meaningful changes. These can include a major economic crisis, a major environmental disaster, a big loss in an external conflict, or even mutually beneficial interactions with other world powers, but I’m convinced that, in the long run, the Chinese leaders and the Chinese people will all benefit greatly from the grand transformation of the Qin-Han polity and the China Order.
Q: Some analysts say U.S. foreign policy under President Trump is ceding regional power to China allowing it to expand its influence in the region and beyond. What is your take on that?
A: China has already seen this as opportunity to expand further, which is certainly what seems to be happening right now. You see China getting ever more confident, ever more assertive, even aggressive in certain ways. This signals that they are veering back to an Imperial approach and that’s unlikely to go unchallenged.
The United States is going to come back, like we have in the past. We’ve opened up, then been isolationist, then opened again. But that process itself usually implies conflict, clashes, pain, and prices.
Q: Does this mean war with China is inevitable?
A: Not inevitable, but very possible. Only by being prepared for war can peace be preserved. You know, not all wars are alike, not all wars have to be hot, and not all wars are that dreadful. Peace is a great value; but for the future and fortunes of humankind, war or war-like conflicts such as the Cold War may become inevitable. The history of the U.S. and the world over the past centuries illustrate that point quite well. I firmly believe in the wisdom of both the American and Chinese people; there are many ways for the U.S. to make sure that the Chinese people get to explore their history freely and truthfully and thus make the right decisions: such as to choose between the glorious Song Dynasty or the terrible Qing Empire, to see through the propaganda smokescreen and understand that the U.S. and the current world order is great for China, and to be sure that a revival of the China Order would be an epic detriment to the world and to the Chinese people.
Wang is the author of The China Order: Centralia, World Empire, and the Nature of Chinese Power (SUNY Press, 2017).
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