China has unusually strong textual tradition. Xi Jinping calls to foster and practice ‘socialist core values’ borrowed from the several millennia old value system.
China takes pride in its 5,000-year-old history and civilisation, and its contribution to the mankind. One of the most prominent features of the Chinese civilisation has been the unusually strong textual tradition. One is amazed to see the compilation of Four Books (Analects of Confucius, Great Learning, Means and Mencius) and Five Classics (Book of History, Book of Odes, Book of Rites, Book of Change, Spring and Autumn Annals) much before the invention of paper in China around 105 AD. This forms the core of China’s cultural capital that nurtured Chinese intelligentsia dynasty after dynasty until the monarchy was overthrown in 1911.
The roots of Confucian tradition are so strong that rulers like Qin Shihuang (221 BC-210 BC) and Mao Zedong (1893-1976) failed to uproot it from society. Not only did they fail, Confucianism bounced back as a state philosophy during the Han dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), and had been instrumental in projecting China’s soft power post the Mao era. The Three Character Classic (San zijing) that had been subjected to ban, had made a comeback to every household as Xi Jinping calls to foster and practice “socialist core values” heavily borrowed from the several millennia old value system, which according to Xi has deep roots in the Chinese people’s mentality, influencing their way of thinking and behaviour unconsciously. Obviously, there are many others, but Confucianism and Legalism being highly utilitarian in nature, these found much currency in Chinese society throughout history. It is for this textual and legalist tradition that China has made use of historical and legal claims as far as its territorial interests on land and sea are concerned, albeit the first Map of Imperial China came into being in 1708 through the help of foreign missionaries.
If its ancient history has been glorified by China, a century of its modern history (1840-1949) has been portrayed as that of humiliation and lost opportunities. This was the time when China was humiliated, its sovereignty infringed upon and its people bullied by foreigners, a clear reference to China’s defeat in the Opium Wars (1840, 1856), Sino-French War (1875), and the Sino-Japanese War (1895), and the drubbing China got from Japan between 1931 and 1945. Largely, this is the period when China talks about signing humiliating unequal treaties with foreign powers and losing three precious opportunities to rise as a power. For example, it argues that between 1842 and 1895, Japan and Russia could modernise, but not China; between 1912 and 1945, though China established a republic but could not modernise, this was the period when late entrants like Turkey turned over their economy. Another lost opportunity now being discussed is between 1957 and 1978, when the labour intensive industries moved from developed countries to developing countries, China lost but Korea, Singapore and Taiwan developed rapidly. The Chinese, however, do believe in their own saying that “the crop that is sown late ripens early”, for it took the UK and US almost 150 years to realise the modernisation; Germany, France and other European countries did it in 70 years; Japan did it in 40 years, and China is confident that they will do it even faster.
Therefore, ever since China “stood up”, China’s overall foreign policy at first instance was the reversion of national humiliation inflicted on it by foreign powers. Transforming the image of China from a weak, bullied and humiliated one to a strong and self confident China was projected as China’s domestic as well as foreign policy goal. According to Wu Yuanli, “This goal consisted of three parts: military, to be second to none; territorially, to settle all border disputes with neighbour and to regain territorial integrity (including Tibet and Taiwan and now the South China Sea); and emotionally, to win back self-esteem, which is often identified with foreign respect.” With this reversion, the victim’s mentality was brought to a full play while dealing with neighbours and great powers. This is demonstrated by China fighting the US in the Korean War (1950-54), border conflict with India (1962) and the USSR (1969), and its invasion of Vietnam (1979), albeit there were many other factors which were at play and responsible for the Chinese behaviour. Conversely, the very turbulent history and isolation drove home the point that confrontation was not the way, if China wishes to realise a great national rejuvenation, she must seek common development by reserving its differences with neighbours.
Hence started the period of reforms and opening up. China indeed became the largest country to benefit from globalisation in the shortest possible time, alleviating 700 million people from poverty. As China’s state capitalism paid dividends, long-term planning was initiated. In 1987, a three-step strategy (a 62-year modernisation plan) was drawn for making China a moderately developed country by 1949, when China would celebrate 100 years of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. Another centenary was added to this by Xi Jinping since 2012, that by 2021, i.e. when the Communist Party of China celebrates the 100th anniversary of its foundation, China will double its 2010 GDP and make itself into a “moderately well off” society. This, in other words, has been pronounced as the Chinese dream of the great renewal of the Chinese nation. According to Xi Jinping, “Our struggles in the over 170 years since the Opium War have created bright prospects for achieving the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. We are now closer to this goal, and we are more confident and capable of achieving it than at any other time in history.” China certainly ushered in a new era of assertiveness.
The shift was visible as China successfully conducted the 2008 Olympic Games, and more so since Xi Jinping took over the reins in China in 2012. Though China pledged that its rise would be peaceful, that it will advocate greater economic integration of China with the global ecosystem, however, it also said that it would not be a mute spectator to global affairs and aspire for a democratic, peaceful and multi-polar world order. With more military and economic muscle, China imposed ADIZ over the Senkakus/Diaoyu in the East China Sea, reclaimed isles and reefs in South China Sea, and rolled out the largest global goods and services in the form of the Belt and Road Initiative. It has emerged as one of the strongest challengers to American hegemony, which has forced the US to indulge in unprecedented disruptions as far as the global order is concerned. Given the nature of Sino-US economic cold war, economic slowdown in China and poor global recovery, it is still too early to write off the existing global order and still far off from the emergence of a new economic model.
B.R. Deepak is Professor of Chinese Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.