China’s rich history goes back for centuries. The last dynasty alone lasted for over 300 years and its Great Wall is one, if not the most impressive feat of building engineering which still stands today. The name China derives from one of its most prominent leaders, King Qin Shi Huang, who, in his attempts to receive eternal life, was given mercury by his physicians, ultimately leading to his slow and painful death. The nation itself, however, seems far from this same fate.
Qing Dynasty and Chinese History
Much of what the West understands of China derives from its history with China’s last dynasty, the Qing dynasty, which reigned from 1644 to 1912, and though much of China’s history predates this timeline, it was with this absolute monarchy that European powers pushed their imperialist agendas, including the Opium wars, and which saw the ‘melon carving’ of the Chinese state.
By the middle of the 15th century, China’s population was already double that of Europe – around 130 million to Europe’s 55 million. Moreover, the remarkable culture, exceedingly fertile and irrigated plains linked by a canal system from the 11th century and a unified hierarchical administration on top of a well-educated Confucian bureaucracy made it one of the most impressive nation’s of the era; a feat especially impressive considering the vastness of the nation. Indeed, China had, since the 11th century, had the capacity to print through movable type, giving the nation a collection of books which vastly outnumbered the West’s. The interconnected nature of Chinese cities through the canal systems allowed them to be considerably larger than those in Europe. Furthermore, Chinese industry was some of the most advanced in the world. By the 11th century 125,000 tons of iron could be produced annually in the country; this is a figure that Britain would not surpass until 700 years later. It should therefore be clear that China has a proud, long history filled with technological developments which allowed it to surpass Europe in a number of ways. However, these factors would do little to slow the rampant imperialism of the European nations of the 18th and 19th century. Moreover, the ill-treatment of China by the West was to be given close attention by the governments of Japan, who would in time respond by establishing their own imperial aims and enlarged military forces to defend themselves from a similar fate. Such militarism would ultimately contribute to Japanese expansionism in the 1930’s and the deaths of millions in the Second World War in Asia.
In 1711 the British East India Company established a trading post in Macau. Over the next few decades the Qing leadership would try and restrict foreign trade to Macau and the surrounding region, though their efforts were largely in vain. The Qing introduced a canton system in 1757 which aimed at preventing foreign companies trading directly with the Chinese people – instead going through merchant collectors. These attempts to limit and control foreign trade activity failed and it began to spread beyond the south-east. Britain soon became China’s biggest trading partner, purchasing their silks, teas and porcelain. In return, Britain began importing the narcotic opium and, despite attempts to ban the substance, British ships continued to deliver tonnes of the drug into the nation. Such a situation was not to last peacefully for long and in 1839 what would become known as the First Opium War began. The war ended in 1842 but the victorious British decided that they had yet to humiliate the Chinese enough and increased the amount they were exporting. In 1856 the Second Opium War begun, and the consequences of the 1860 defeat would be for the Chinese a humiliating drawing of spheres of influence for European powers – and perhaps more insultingly Japan – within the nation.
This hideous sign was erected inside of the Chinese mainland. It was put up by the imperial leaders insider their sphere of influence within Shanghai. What is the lasting legacy of such behaviour by Western powers? What future can we hope for with a nation that was so horribly humiliated?
Over time, the embarrassment of these military losses and the anger at the presence of Westerners and Japanese rulers within China would lead to the Xinhai Revolution of 1911 and ultimately the overthrowing of the Qing dynasty. It’s replacement was the Republic of China, which would reign for 37 years between 1912 and 1949. The government had no deceptions about Japanese desires for the land and materials that China had to offer given Japan’s growing population. The economy and growth during this period was relatively stable, however, as it did with all nations, the Great Depression of the 1930’s saw the Chinese economy shattered. Despite the modernisation and industrialisation, growing conflicts between the nationalist forces in the nation, the communist elements and the conflicts with the Empire of Japan left the nation divided and unsettled, resulting first in the Civil War of 1927 to 1936 and later the 1949 to 1950 which would result in overthrowing of the democratic government of China in place of the People’s Republic of China; the nation with which the modern world must trade and compete with. It is as a result of these conflicts that today there remains two ‘China’s’. The Nationalist forces were pushed off the mainland, eventually forming a democratic government on the island of Taiwan. It was this nation that countries like the US recognised until the 1970’s, when the One China Policy was enacted leading to the subsequent recognising of the Communist People’s Republic of China on the mainland. Despite this, many nations, including the US and UK, still maintain some (largely unofficial) relations with the government of Taiwan.
China and the West clearly have a long – and far from proud – history together. However, the real question now is not of the past, but of the future. Data from the OECD suggests that by 2020 China will have a larger economy than the USA. For the first time in 300 years , the title of ‘world’s biggest economic power’ will not go to a Western country. Or an English speaking country. Or even a democracy. It will go to a confusing, secretive nation and to an economy with significant government intervention and one which, in many ways, is detached from the rest of the world. Anyone who doesn’t believe that this will be world altering fails to understand the implications of this change.
We can already see it. For example, Hollywood filmmakers are increasingly changing movie plots in order to portray China in a more favourable light and including product placements for items that are only available in China. Why? Well, the Economist estimates that by 2020 China’s middle class will number in excess of 470 million people – more than the entire population of America and the United Kingdom combined. However, the Chinese government currently only allows 34 foreign films onto it’s cinema screens (which it built 27 of a day in 2016), and all of these have to pass through the government censorship program, thus leading to more favourable portrayals of the country in blockbuster movies.
By 2060, the OECD goes on to suggest that China’s economy will be worth 54 trillion dollars to the United States’ 37 trillion dollars and India’s 39 trillion dollars. How will China use it’s economic hegemony after the centuries of abuse dealt onto them by the Western powers? Will organisations founded by the United States to maintain their influence over the global economy like the World Trade Organisation survive? And what will be the political and social implications of having a authoritarian, state-regulated economy leading the world? These questions are ones which much be considered if we, in the Western world, are to continue to thrive in a world so fundamentally shaped by the new economic super power.
“It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this inspired in Sparta that made war inevitable” – Thucydides
If we fail to answer these questions, then what will the outcome be? Well, we can use history to predict it. It would likely develop into a cold war style skirmish; with the key difference that the United States will not have the capacity to throw its economic weight around. Instead of using its vast economy to support a network a global allies to help defend the current system it has entrenched, China will likely use its economic weight to establish a sphere of influence in South East Asia in response to the grievances it has amassed with the West over the centuries. It is likely that the building of islands in the South China sea will be a part of that. Overtime, it would be likely that China would seek to replace and remove the US influence in the allied nations which surround China, for example in Japan and South Korea, in favour of more favourable governments before eventually expanding it’s influence to change the global order as it sees fit. Far-fetched? Perhaps. Traditionalistic? Unquestionably. Impossible? Far from it. Indeed, there is significant precedent for it. Graham Allison from the Kennedy School in Boston has studied the concept that war between rising powers and established ones is inevitable, in order to see whether it is applicable to China and the United States. He has identified 15 cases of rising powers and established powers meeting since the 16th century and found that in 11 of those 15, there has been a war.
We must therefore remember; China is awake, now we must see how she will shake the world.
Kennedy, P. (1990), The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000, Fontana Press, London – Goes into detail about Chinese history from the Ming dynasty to the People’s Republic of China. Very interesting and great depth.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8XQ1onjXJK0 – Ex-Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd discusses the future of China and it’s relationship with the Western world.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8R-FQTY4KJk – An interesting video from Vox about the implications of the developing Chinese economy and middle class on Hollywood
https://data.oecd.org/gdp/gdp-long-term-forecast.htm – Data from the OECD showing the current GDP of different nations and their predictions of the future